My Selfish Reasons for being Emotional when my Daughter Graduated
My Selfish Reasons for being Emotional when my Daughter Graduated
My daughter, Lillie, graduated from high school this year. My wife Linda and I were just two of many proud parents sitting in the gym during the ceremony. Commencement is a special moment for any parent. I’ve always been fascinated by the use of the word “Commencement” as the name of a graduation ceremony. “Commencement” means “a beginning”. Indeed, Commencement ceremoniously marks a new beginning in the life of a graduate. Lillie is entering a new stage in her life. She will have more freedom to direct her own daily life, and her own future. She will have to learn – on her own, for the most part – how to handle the responsibilities of this freedom; the responsibilities of adulthood. It won’t be easy. Like all young adults, she will have to figure out how to handle this transition. It will be a completely different world for Lillie – as it is for every new graduate. This new life – becoming an adult and going out into the “real” world – is the “beginning” emphasized by the use of the word “commencement”. If I wanted to nitpick, I would suggest that “transition” is a more descriptive term for a graduation. The only life Lillie has ever known will quickly become a memory. She will begin to define her life in terms of what she does with it in adulthood. All of the time she spent growing up – which is her entire life up to this point – will become one big section of memory. She might be able to break this big section of memory down into specific stages, but it will all be in one category: “back when I was at home growing up”. There is no going back in time, but the memories will always be there. Even though “transition” is a more descriptive term for graduation, “commencement” seems to be more appropriate. It emphasizes the future, which is what the transition is all about.
It is natural for parents to get emotional when they watch their children graduate. Emotions run from “we did the best we could, but the job we had for the past 18 years is now over” to “I hope we didn’t make too many mistakes and ruin her life”. Lillie is an only child, so Linda and I also face the prospect of “empty nest syndrome”. As do many other parents every year, I might add.
You can call me selfish if you like, but for me there was something more – something personal – which added to the emotions I was feeling as I watched Lillie cross the stage and receive her diploma. You see, I spent the past several years wondering if I would live long enough to see Lillie graduate. I have had health issues, and I have been near death on multiple occasions. There was a very real possibility that I would not live long enough to witness Lillie’s graduation.
And this bothered me for all these past several years. While I was fighting for my life, the one image that kept coming up more than anything else was the possibility that Lillie would spend part of her developing stage without me being around. I’m sure that Lillie and Linda could have survived if I wasn’t around, but I didn’t want Lillie’s memory of childhood to become more about what growing up was like without me than about the time I was around. I was afraid that the more childhood memories she had of living without a dad, the less she would remember what it was like to have me around. Whether her memories of me end up being good or bad, I just don’t want her to forget that I was around. I mean no disrespect to kids who have had to grow up with a missing parent. I know many people who handled this situation marvelously as kids. But I also know that spending time growing up without a parent diminishes the memory of that parent. The thought of missing out on some of Lillie’s formative years was my biggest concern as I considered the possibility that I might die. I will say that I took my responsibilities as a parent very seriously. I didn’t become a parent until I was 40 years old. By that time, most of the people my age were already well into the parenting stage of life. By the time Lillie was born, I had already spent most of my life watching others handle the responsibilities of parenthood. I paid attention, hoping that I could avoid the mistakes I had witnessed. It remains to be seen whether I succeeded or not – more precisely, whether the parenting team of Linda and I succeeded. All I can say is that we did our best. There have been times when we could have handled situations better. Perhaps I went too far the other way in my attempts to avoid the mistakes that I had seen other parents make. Success or failure as parents – it is too early to tell. We have the same questions that all parents have when their children grow up. I certainly have bragging points which I can bring up.
- Lillie has never been a “problem child”. She has never been the type of child who runs around at night getting into trouble. She has never left us wondering, “where is she tonight, and who is she with?” She doesn’t hang around with a “bad” crowd. We have always known where she was and what she was up to. She has kept us informed of what we need to know.
- Lillie has never been afraid to try her hand at various activities, and she has always put in an honest effort at everything she has tried. When something wasn’t for her, she moved on to something else. When something was right for her, she didn’t need us to tell her that she needed to put effort into it.
- Lillie graduated with honors. We never had to tell her to do her homework. She knew what needed to be done, and she made sure it got done. Even when she was forced to miss a lot of school because of migraines, she never had trouble catching up with her schoolwork. We never had to step in and tell her what she needed to work on. If it needed to be done, she did it.
- She has always had a love of music, and a love of books. Her favorite store is Barnes & Noble, and there is never enough money to buy all of the books that she wants.
So yes, I have reasons to brag. I had been told horror stories about what would happen when my child became a teenager, and none of those horror stories came true with Lillie. I also know that none of this is enough to predict success for Lillie as an adult. I know that many people who were “problem children” ended up being very successful as adults. I know many “good kids” struggle in adulthood. It’s up to Lillie to make her own life. But as a parent, I’m sure I will consider every success and every failure to be a referendum on my (and Linda’s) parenting skills. On the day Lillie was born, Linda spent the night in the hospital while I went home to get some sleep. As soon as I got home, I took out my word processor and typed this letter:
Mom and Dad’s Eternal Promise to Lillie
When you need to be disciplined, we will do so in the manner that we feel will be best for you When you need praise and encouragement, we will not be slow to give it, in the way that we feel will be best for you We will always think of your feelings and try not to embarrass you or put you down in public Whenever we can we will teach you so that you will learn what you need to know We will never underestimate your problems or try to tell you that your problems aren’t as important as others We will be here to listen whenever you need us We will always put your needs ahead of our wants We will always be honest with you We will never pry into areas that are none of our business What we Expect from Lillie in Return We want you to understand that good manners are the most important thing to learn from growing up, no matter what you see other people do We want you to understand why we think that a love of reading is the best gift you can give yourself as you grow We want you to understand that we will make mistakes along the way but will always try to do what is right We want you to know the difference between right and wrong and to always try to do what is right We want you to learn the value of honesty
This is me with Lillie on the day she was born
I wrote this letter late at night on July 25, 1997. Lillie had been born that evening, only hours before. The letter was my way of putting into writing what I wanted to use as a parenting style – sort of a template on parenthood. Looking back at the letter nearly 18 years later, I can’t really think of anything important that I would change. I can see areas where I think we did a pretty good job, and some areas where I think we could have done better. When Lillie was little, we never left her with a baby-sitter so that we could spend our time running around. We never wanted to inconvenience her for our own pleasure. On rare occasions, such as our wedding anniversary, we would ask somebody to watch Lillie for a couple of hours while we went to a restaurant. This happened very rarely, and only for an hour or two each time. When I developed health problems, I felt bad that I had to miss many of Lillie’s school programs. I remember how I felt when I was in school and my parents didn’t attend one of my activities. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there for all of Lillie’s activities. But I went to all of the ones I could. I always wanted to, and expected to, take Lillie to Disneyland and other fun places for kids while she was growing up. I regret to say that we weren’t able to do any of these things. As much as this was important to me – and I would have really enjoyed it myself – we never managed to be able to afford a vacation of any kind. Lillie is almost 18 years old, and she has never had a vacation. Linda and I last took a vacation in 1995, two full years before Lillie was born. I feel really bad about this. Now we are in the summer between high school and college, and perhaps this is our last chance to be with Lillie before she moves away from home. I wish we could afford to do something for her. I hope she gets lots of chances to see the world in her lifetime. Putting all of the bragging and regrets aside, I can say that we did the best we could. I got emotional at graduation, just like all parents do. But for me, the thought that I might not have lived long enough to see it gave me even more reasons to be emotional. Is this selfish on my part? Probably – but it is what I felt then and it is what I feel now. Whatever happens in the future, I was there at that important moment. I lived long enough to dispel my worst fear. I count this as a victory.
Here are a few cherished memories we have of Lillie growing up:
It’s hard to believe that our cat Daisy once looked bigger than Lillie
Lillie’s first haircut
Fun on the slide
Lillie liked to wear her dad’s shirt
Trying to look cool!
All dressed up
Mom helps her open presents
Lillie and Daisy
First day of kindergarten
Lillie and her swing set
The tooth fairy paid a visit
Lillie poses with Thomas Jefferson