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The Best Present to Give Your High School Senior

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2013-03-28-NewYorkCityForHP.jpg"That was a fast 17 years, huh?"

It was a question for the mother of one of my daughter's friends. Katie and I were on a grocery run last summer -- the summer between Kate's junior and senior years of high school -- and the woman surprised us next to the orange juice with a quick hello that turned into quite the reverie.

Her answer surprised me. "Nope. Not going there!" she said. "I'm not going to boo-hoo my way through the last year of my son's life at home. We speak of it in terms of only joy."

You're kidding.

Nope. She wasn't.

"That wouldn't have occurred to me," I said, suddenly inspired. "But what a great idea!"

I meant it, too. I was hungry for another way of looking at the upcoming year. Everything lately had been wrapped in melancholy: "This is the last time I'll ever do this..." Making sure Katie's wardrobe was updated for school. Filling out a mountain of forms as classes got underway. Even buying soap, for crying out loud. Katie has her own, and we splurge on a big bar of heaven that lasts for a year.

I felt like we were on a death march to high school graduation.

Yet now here was our friend, another mother of an only child, with an alternative. What a gift. I wanted that for Katie -- and for me.

I'd known better than to grieve much in front of Kate. My parents had set a good example, though I'll never forget having breakfast with them the morning I left for college. My dad was unusually quiet, and I wondered if he was mad about something. Then mom said, "Well, Ray, she'll be back..." He burst into tears.

I knew it was okay to let Katie know she'll be missed. But I didn't want her to feel guilty for growing up. I haven't really recovered from her first day of kindergarten, and I've been preparing for her first day of college ever since. My work is filling in the empty spaces she leaves as she grows up and into her own life.

But she knows. She knows it'll be quite the sucker punch when we get her settled into the dorm this fall.

So right there in front of our friend and next to the orange juice, I made her a promise -- that I'd speak of her last year with us in terms of only joy. No more references to rituals that were winding down. No more reminders of how much I'll miss her, as if she could ever forget. No more wistful.

"Do you believe me?" I asked as we headed to the car. "I do," she said. Why? "The Plan," she said, a reference to how I gave up junk food a few years ago. "You proved to me you can change."

A funny thing happened in the course of keeping this promise -- and it's been more than eight months. I've felt only joy. Is that what people mean when they suggest you act the way you want to feel? I've always had my doubts about that suggestion. I'm not a very good actress, for one thing. But in the process of doing right by my daughter I'm doing even better by myself. Her senior year is more fun than ever, with my delight at every milestone -- minus the tears.

We saw our friend at a homecoming ceremony early last fall, a couple of months after the exchange in the grocery store. The friend made a beeline for me, and I smiled big as I thanked her for what she'd inspired. "And what was that?" she couldn't wait to ask. "Because I've been crying so much!"

Interesting.

"One night soon after we talked," I reported, "I fell asleep realizing Katie was already grown up. There's nothing left to do but enjoy this time with her. This is a bonus year."

She promised to try that one on herself.

Katie's still at home and will be for the next five or six months, so you might think it's easy to be joyful. She's still here. And you're right. There's no way to brace myself for pulling away from the campus parking lot, the same way there was no way to brace myself for watching the school bus roll on down the street after she'd boarded it for her first day of kindergarten.

It's pretty standard, how desperately parents want their kids to be happy. When the kids, not that they're often asked, would tell you the same right back. What would make them feel great -- what would make their hearts sing as they get ready to burst into the world on their own -- is knowing their parents will be okay without them.

Kids just want their parents to be happy.

The pressure's off as far as Katie's graduation gift. I've already given her the best present money can't buy -- I'll be okay. I'll be great, actually. We hit it out of the park, the three of us. My husband, Katie, and me. What a fun 18 years!

And if you notice my eyes are wet after I hug you, kiddo, for that last time -- they'll be happy tears.

I promise.