Walking in the late afternoon, the sky splits itself open and late afternoon sun pours out between the layers of fog. The mountain, my solid companion on these daily walks, holds back one curtain of grey. Deep in thought, I hear singing coming from a school building a football field away, and wonder if it is kids, in the late afternoon, hanging around the parking lot and blasting music from their cars. Because that’s what teenagers did when I was in high school.
My feelings are skating over my skin, anxiety and excitement, fear, pride, and even a little grief. I can’t quite grab one and latch on.
Two of my children graduate this week, one from high school, one from college. They have been like this from early childhood, without trying. On the universal calendar, their lives always peak, fall and rise again in a complex duet, the rest of us scrambling to be present for both. On the day our son Devin started high school, our daughter Casey started middle school. On the weekend he was performing in San Francisco, she was performing in Marin. On the day he had his tonsils out, she developed strep throat and such swollen glands, the doctor said to take hers out too. And now they a major milestone, graduation from high school and college, one day and four hundred miles apart.
I am processing details as I walk my afternoon loop: decorations for her cap, reservations for wine tasting in San Luis Obispo, who is going to watch the dog?
The music stops and starts, and gets louder as I get closer. I realize as I approach that this is no radio I am hearing. Someone is singing this song, a pop song I recognize from the radio. She is belting it out, and her voice is deep, strong, and bold. Lovely.
I reach the fence around a courtyard, and find myself watching not a graduation crowd, but one girl, in front of a hundred empty chairs. She sits alone on the stage, a guitar on her knee, singing. She starts, stops, yells to a sound person somewhere, and starts again. And this girl can sing.
I don’t know all the words, but I know the song, and as she gets to the chorus, I know what’s coming. I stand alone, the wind whipping at my words so no-one can hear me, and sing with her. Because of course they are graduation words.
I just want to see you
I want to see you be brave.
I think of a moment earlier this week, when my daughter Casey faced a hard moment and put her head down in frustration.
“What makes you think I can do this?” She demanded of me, as if by giving birth to her I had caused this moment, this weakness in her otherwise invincibility.
“Because you learned to swim. That didn’t come easily either.”
She didn’t remember. But I do. I remember both she and my son, struggling to learn to swim. Lately, these memories keep coming back like old clothes in the back of the closet. You pull it out and realize you forgot you had it, but it’s cute.
I have a particular image of Devin, age two, sitting on the edge of my sister’s pool in Sacramento. It was 102 degrees, and we were all in the pool. Except Devin. He sat in his bathing suit at the edge of the pool all day, frustrated with the rest of us for not understanding the danger we were putting ourselves in.
“You can sink,” he told us.
It was almost a year before we got him to try to swim, and then for months I stood just three feet from the side, close enough for him to throw himself towards me, and reach me, over and over. If I tried to step a little farther back, he’d catch me by counting the tiles on the bottom of the pool.
He’d move his goggles off his eyes and count the tiles, peering down from the side of the pool, before getting in. “You’re standing at tile eight. Move back to six.”
“I’m right here.” I’d say, his sister on my hip, splashing me with her baby feet, “I’m not going to let you sink.”
“Move back to six.” And I would. He’d get in, take one stroke, and reach me. Then he’d turn and take one stroke back to the side. And then do it again.
Finally, one day, he swam right past me. He realized it halfway across the pool and turned and made it back to me. When I exclaimed in pride that he did it, he shrugged, begrudgingly.
“Yeah. I can swim.”
Casey, watching her brother’s progress, seemed to believe she too had mastered the skill. One afternoon I collapsed in a lounge chair near a friend’s pool, catching up. Casey played in the yard with the many dolls we travelled with. At some point she must have grown hot, because she marched past us, right to the deep end of the pool, and jumped in.
“I didn’t know she could swim,” my friend said, surprised.
“She can’t.” I answered, as I leapt into the pool after her, fully dressed myself, yanking Casey up from where she was sinking.
This time I hired a professional.
Three weeks in, hair dripping and a slight scratch on her cheek, the swim instructor recommended we wait until Casey was older for swim lessons.
“She’s really scared,” the girl said, as Casey clung to my leg, shivering.
“That’s because she doesn’t know how to swim,” I answered.
We persevered. Mornings at ten, the air still chilly, Casey bravely donned her polka dot two piece and flower adorned swimming cap. Half an hour later, having drank a gallon of chlorine water, eyes swollen from crying, she’d come back to me, rest her head on my chest and sigh. But like a fighter in the corner of the ring, she’d go back in. Hour after hour, day after day. From the doggie paddle to rough approximation of a crawl, she pushed hard.
These days, I watch her do laps on the weekends, beads of water splashing behind her into warm Sonoma afternoons. She faces a chronic illness, and swimming laps are a piece of the prescription for staying healthy, so she moves through the pool with the same daunting determination she has demonstrated with every challenge, from the back stroke to the slam poetry. And Devin, although still fighting his innate caution, takes enormous leaps of faith.
We’ll make it through the long speeches in the sun this week, cheer when the silly caps get thrown to the sky (Casey’s adorned with polka dots and flowers), and take lots of pictures.
But I wish I could get on stage and sing to them, like this young woman. Belt out these words that seem to be written for this day, either for my children, as they navigate new waters, or for their father and I, as we try to let them go with grace.