While watching the local news, I saw a story about our town’s high school having a “virtual” graduation ceremony due to the Corona virus. My heart sank for those students, denied a rite of passage every teenager should be allowed to have. Graduation closes the chapter on a pivotal transition for our nation’s adolescents. In my son’s middle school, the 8th grade class was equally denied this opportunity, much to the consternation of my wife, who – as an active school volunteer – grew to know and love the students one year ahead of my son.
It got me thinking ahead to my own son’s high school graduation -- just 5 years away. Like many Dads, it’s impossible for me to even imagine that day. The mere thought of it sends my heart racing with anxiety and a little nostalgia for his younger years, when everything seemed so much simpler and straightforward.
Below is a letter I decided to write to my son 5 years in advance. I’m not quite sure what my intention is, other than to prepare myself for it.
My dear son – you are 18 years old and you will be graduating from high school in just a few months. After the summer, you will be moving on to a university, studying impressive subjects that embrace your strengths and passions, like applied mathematics or aeronautical engineering. You will no doubt become a useful member to society when you graduate, unlike your father - who has no discernible skills or any real meaningful talent. I already feel a wave of fatherly pride as I picture you walking through the hallways of some prestigious university (that’s my private Dad dream), as you make your way to your first math class, smiling and glancing side-to-side as you always do when you walk.
Despite my pride, I also feel knots in my stomach as you navigate a more adult world, one that is not kind to those who are not “neuro-normal”. You will most likely will be judged by others, having to overcome obstacles that most people simply cannot understand. I suppose these are the fears of any Dad as their children move on to higher learning, but you will have to work harder and persist longer than your peers. I think about all the great aspects of your personality that I want everyone to see, and how badly I want others to experience first-hand your amazing gifts. How long will it take for others to see your magic? Indeed, you’ve had a remarkable history at your current school.
“To know him is to love him” extolled your 2nd grade teacher in her progress report, this cliché so unflinchingly accurate in its description.
“Vaughn is a happy, confident child” was a comment I saw across multiple report cards. Originally, I found it odd that these comments were so consistent with so many of his teachers. I even thought perhaps they were plagiarizing one another, until I realized that this was truly their experience with you, a boy with a contagious grin who would raise his hand in class with the confidence of a soldier.
When you were a toddler, I would look at your angelic face as you slept in your bed, and lean over you as though I’d unearthed some treasure, thinking how absolutely perfect you were, your lower lip pursed up to your top lip in a supple pout, your arms stretched over your head like a victorious Olympian. Amidst the peace of these moments, I was so thankful for what I’d been given that I didn’t think that I deserved it. And rather than embracing it, I would imagine all the scenarios that could befall to take you away from me. I wanted to protect you through the sheer brute strength of my love. My overprotection of you has never waned. I couldn’t let you out of my eyesight in any public place. I would visually stalk you as you went to a rest room in a restaurant (by yourself!), worried that the loud blare of the hand dryers might set you off. In any public pool, I couldn’t allow you to be more than six feet away from me, despite your God-given talent at being a natural swimmer. Even when you think I wasn’t looking at you, I always was -- keeping my eye trained on any anything that could interrupt your joy.
I will never let go of you because you have been my best teacher. You taught me to cherish the ordinary, the seemingly mundane, the beauty in a routine, in its predictability, but always urging me to rise higher, even during a game. ‘Don’t go for a bunt”, you’d whisper in my ear, “I want you to swing for the bleachers”.
Your lessons were loudest when I would make mistakenly browse social media out of boredom, my friends doing amazing things around the world. No, I never made it to Burning Man - no I haven’t explored Machu Picchu, nor do I plan to. My wanderlust unnecessary, because every spiritual moment is right in front of me if I’m willing to look at it as such. I don’t need to ascend Mt. Kilimanjaro to know true transcendence; the Rosetta stone is right in front of me.
“God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” one friend said to me, putting this hand on my shoulder. I had just told him about my son’s diagnosis, the confession followed by a heavy deep breath as the revelation caused me to look away in the distance, as though it was something shameful, something I could only share in a whisper. He said this to make me feel better, but what did he know? How could he know the hidden gift I’d just received, how wrong he was, though I nodded and smiled to make him feel better.
Moving onto university, you will have to overcome the aforementioned obstacles, but just know that you will always be welcome back in your house -- anytime. I will always make your favorite lunch, even at 11 o’clock at night – BLT, bacon not too crispy, swapping the tomatoes out for dill pickles. We can talk about anything you want, even if you want to tell that same story over and over and over. I’ll marvel at how your eyes light up at exactly the same moment you hit the apex of your story, cocking your head to the side, and closing it out with your infectious grin.
I will always be a helicopter Dad, rappelling in to remove every obstacle in your path, angrily pushing aside anyone who diminishes you. But instead I need to teach you to remove them yourself, and practice patience with others, practice patience with yourself, practice patience with me, even though I have not always been patient with you. Yes -there were times I intentionally had to escape from you, making false excuses or pretenses, retreating to the bedroom or a bathroom when the sheer volume of a meltdown was so loud, so in my face, I fled like a coward. I guess we both need to be patient and practice self-compassion with ourselves.
I want you to know that you are enough, you will always be enough. By default, you’ve taught me that I am enough, despite an inner battle to be an indisputable and undeniably perfect Dad (which I’m not). You are loved and deserving of love. You are worthy of friendship and compassion and happiness. You – the true essence of you – is enough, and that’s all that matters.