I recently got into a debate with a friend of mine over a remark I'd made, mostly in passing. "My kids are my life," I said.
My friend, who is childless, argued that parents these days often sacrifice too much of their own lives in pursuit of the impossible: perfect child-rearing. She also pin-pointedly noted that kids are more durable than we give them credit for and could survive a little less attention -- and, perhaps, a few more bumps -- along the way.
It was a fair argument, and I might have agreed with her had our phone conversation not been cut short. That's because my daughters, 17 and 14, have unapologetically co-opted my grown-up time lately -- two graduations (one high school, one middle school), two school plays, two proms -- and I had to hang up mid-debate. Had we been in a courtroom, my friend could have easily rested her case.
Across America this month, parents are once again attending cap-and-gown ceremonies as they escort their children another click down the road that will one day lead them out of our lives. And once again, I have to ask myself: Has it all been worth it?
Granted, my case is complicated. My children have grown up on this page -- I've written about them since birth -- so, I'm frequently torn between being dad and documentarian, weighing their personal growth against the larger backdrop of our culture. In 2004, I wrote about Bridgette's heated face-off with her fourth grade classmate over her gay uncle's right to live his life without discrimination. Three years later, I wrote about Audrey's pre-school "boyfriend" and how she perceived their different skin colors -- or, more accurately, didn't register it. And I've chronicled how both girls have absorbed seismic events in our nation's ongoing story and, like all children, integrated them into their lives with a kind of coloring-book precision.
How they once tempered the tension of airport security by turning it into a backyard game, Bridgette wielding a toy flute and pretending to scan her kid sister's body for explosives.
How they participated in an anti-war march, paying closer attention to the colorful and clever slogans on the protestors' placards than to the angry invective being spit by the mob at the opposite end of the parade route.
And how both of them distilled the nightmarish notion that, yes, strange men in jets could slam into their city, their place of birth, and set fire to the gilded pages of their storybook childhoods.
Indeed, September 11 added one more blanket of darkness to the anxiety that settles on all children at night, when the lights go out and the fears creep in. And yet both of my girls surfaced from that awful day with grace. They lit candles at neighborhood memorials. They drew pictures and wrote letters. They lived through the event rather than around it.
And so it is nearly inconceivable to me that in just three months, I'll be sending Bridgette off to college. Wasn't it just last week that I held her in my arms in the nursery rocker, softly singing House at Pooh Corner to her? The breadth of this astounding passage broadsided me last month when I watched her perform the role of Emily in her school production of Our Town. I wept during her final monologue, when Emily, having died young, returns to her childhood home as a ghost and confronts her mother.
"Oh, Mama," she sobs, "just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Do human beings ever realize life while they live it, every minute?" And all I could picture was Bridgey in her crib. And Audrey taking her first step. And both of them blowing out candles on their birthday cakes. And I had to ask myself: Did I really see it all while it was happening? Did I get every minute?
I suppose my friend was right. If I calculated the fleeting opportunities, I've failed to seize these past 18 years -- from a second honeymoon with my wife, sans kids, to the countless career openings that have flashed before me and then vanished, like pop-up Internet ads -- the rewards I passed up would be staggering. But I'd like to think I got something more valuable in return.
Happy graduation, Bridgette. Happy graduation, Audrey. For all the teen drama and shouting over messy rooms and violated curfews -- and all that damn nail polish on my expensive sofa -- you are, and will remain, my life.
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