Graduation, growing up bitter sweet
Last week, I put my youngest daughter, Sage, on a plane bound for Anaheim, California where she competed at the Future Business Leaders of America National Leadership Conference. The way I carried on about it, she might as well have been flying to Timbuktu unaccompanied. She graduated June 2. I shed only a few tears. She turned 18 on June 19. I made it through that relatively unscathed, as well. So the total meltdown that followed sending her off on her first plane trip caught me off guard.
Maybe it was because she suddenly wasn’t home – I’d left her somewhere. Maybe the recent meeting of all these major milestones had just worn me down. Whatever the cause, I sat in my van and bawled huge maternal tears of separation anxiety.
Wasn’t it only yesterday we were holding Sage in the delivery room where even the doctor marveled at what a beautiful baby she was? Surely, it was just weeks ago when she was pulling all of the clothes out of the bottom drawer of my dresser, her preferred napping spot, to make room for her afternoon siesta.
The third child of four, Sage stood out from her siblings from the time she was very young. Even as a toddler, she had a grace and peace about her that is uncommon in adults but even more rare in a child. Maybe she’s just been living up to her name, but she consistently governs her life with a wisdom that she certainly didn’t get from her mother. Her moral compass always points true north. Often, she corrects me. “Oh, Mom. You shouldn’t say that,” or “Mom, you’re being ridiculous.” Most of the time, she’s right, although it pains me to put that in print.
As a mom, I have a collection of mental snapshots I’ve held onto – pictures of defining moments in each of my children’s lives. Among them is a picture of a pathetic looking Sage with one arm in a sling and one in a cast after she broke them both in a two-week span. Both times, I “denied her immediate medical attention” (these kids are so dramatic), insisting she was fine. Both times, I was wrong. I’ve never lived it down and after that, a mere bee sting won the kids a trip to the emergency room.
There are other pictures that dance in my mind. Her first day of school, clad in a backpack bigger than she was. Her first Holy Communion. The day she drove away in my van after just receiving her driver’s license. Her homecoming queen coronation last fall.
But one picture that I’ve clung particularly tightly to is one of Sage when she about 3. We attended a wedding out of town and stayed on the upper floor of a hotel. One morning, I got all four kids on the elevator to take them down to breakfast. The elevator was already half full with other patrons and we crowded in. When we reached the first floor, the elevator dinged, and when I turned around to hustle the brigade into the lobby, Sage was holding hands with an elderly man at the back of the elevator. He was smiling sweetly, like someone who had just been given an unexpected gift. Sage was smiling, too.
I have given this child the stranger danger talk more times than my aging brain can now recall, to absolutely no avail. On more than one occasion, the older kids ran to me to tattle out of concern because Sage was talking to a “creepy man.” The fact is, Sage, continually looking for the good in everyone, has never known a stranger. When she joined the high school cross country team her freshman year, she came dangerously close to giving me apoplexy one evening when she casually mentioned that she had to go to the bathroom while they were running in practice, so she just stopped at “some house” and asked to use their restroom. Had she never heard of child abductions? How in the world would I ever find her if she went missing when she was making a frequent habit out of using random bathrooms all over Fairfield?
“Relax, Mom,” she said, nonchalantly. “The people were really nice.”
I can tell you this intuitive gift of discernment she seems to have, no matter how keen, did nothing to calm my anxieties. Reluctantly, she agreed to stop using the restrooms of would-be child molesters but she did so only after rolling her eyes and saying, “Mom, you’re so dumb.”
All of my children have gifts. Addi Rose is the creative, driven first-born. She’s funny and often drives the whole family into stitches with her impressions and voice emulations. She regularly bites off more than she can chew and then procrastinates to the eleventh hour, only to drive herself to near collapse. Clearly, she belongs to me.
Jasper is the comic cynic. We view the world so differently that sometimes, I marvel at the fact he actually came out of my body. He’s an excellent cook and like me, he loves a party. Of the four, it is Jasper who will volunteer to carefully create a bouquet of candy canes for our annual Christmas Eve Party. I won’t elaborate further. He hates it when I write about him, and I’ve already said too much.
Zane, according to every member of my family, is my baby. Sage regularly criticizes me for “carrying him around on your hip too long.” I won’t lie. He makes me laugh, and it’s hard to discipline him, even when he needs it. He’s an entertainer, and is always on the move. He’s ornery, but not in the criminal sense. He likes to tease and boy, can he dish it out! But sometimes, his sensitive soul can’t take it when someone reciprocates. For as loud and rambunctious as he usually is, he just as often surprises me with an unsolicited, compassionate gesture like offering his lunch to a homeless person.
And then there is Sage. In a brood that my husband regularly refers to as “the loud family,” she is the quiet, calming presence. In an otherwise manic environment, she is the cooler head that prevails. She serves as our voice of reason, our Jiminy Cricket, our constant reminder to do the right thing. She’s not perfect. She’s extraordinarily stubborn, and when she makes her mind about something, good luck changing it.
Until very recently, she’s been a compliant, laid-back child. It has only been in the last few months that she has started to flex the muscles of independence. Even so, her rebellion – if I can even call it that – has been mild in comparison to her older sister and brother. Because the older two did a bang-up job of breaking me in, I knew it was coming. Eventually, every child has to try out her wings. It is inevitable, and if I were to be completely honest, I’d tell you that was, in large part, why I sobbed when she left on that airplane.
She no longer needs me to tell her what to do. Looking back, maybe she never did.
Watching her load her suitcase into the back of the Suburban, coolly talking with her classmates as if nothing was wrong even though she’d admitted she was wildly apprehensive about the plane ride, I could not help but wonder, “Where did this child come from?”
Certainly, she was heaven sent. As she prepares to embark on the difficult world, now more than ever, I thank God she is mine – tethered forever, whether she likes it or not, no matter how far from home she flies.
Staci Ann Wilson Wright lives and teaches in Fairfield. She is a summer Ledger staff writer.