After 18 years, some of which whizzed by in a smear worthy of an impressionist’s oil painting, there he is.
Fiddling with his tassel.
Looking all around for his immediate family among a crush of humanity in a cavernous college auditorium, he is there, his metal-framed glasses and his neat haircut beneath his green mortarboard.
And even in the vestiges of his boyhood in his overtures toward independence, he does what all our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews among him do.
He is looking for his family.
Even when he is letting go, he is holding on.
I love this boy’s face and I have been telling him more lately just how handsome he is. It makes him feel good and he beams and says, “thank you.” In the promised land of the manchild, appearances are so important, so pivotal to deeper self-esteem.
Of course, I cannot see his features distinctively from the rafters where I’m sitting with his parents, his kid sister, my partner and two of his uncles, but I know his face well.
This is the high school graduation of my middle brother’s oldest son and namesake who bears little resemblance to the frenetic, couch-jumping squirrel he was when he was a kid. Back then, he used to run in seemingly endless circles around the couch pausing only to stand mere inches away from the big-screen television; so close the overall picture was reduced to a square inch of meaningless pixels.
This kid, who loved to be tickled, wrestled roughly, thrown about and chased and who was accidentally vegetarian except for the bacon his mom packed in his diaper bag, was about to pack up all his eccentricities and what’s turned out to be a dynamic personality and sharp wit and carry it all off to college.
It will be for him — like it’s been for the rest of us — like repeating high school all over again.
Who are the privileged?
Who are the bullshitters, the cheaters?
Where do the dangerous hang out and which ones are the smart ones? The mean girls? The jocks?
Which teachers can be had and which ones won’t put up with it? Will they be kind-hearted and attentive or burned-out fossils?
My prayer for my nephew going forward not just in college but in life is that he spends as much time occupied by what kind of man he will be as he is by the rest of it that comes to test him.
I want, no, I need him to understand that all his choices come with responsibilities and that even when he makes a bad choice — and he will — I need him to see the larger life lesson.
He should understand that some of his best and brightest moments will be living and waiting for him in those mistakes.
One of the key pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from someone who wasn’t my parent came from Tammy Ramsdell, my long-ago editor at the Hamilton Journal-News.
Ramsdell hired me despite my lack of degree, experience and confidence.
She said she saw something, she said I had “perspective.” (This was a 1990s buzzword among newspaper editors looking to hire minorities. It meant you weren’t white.)
I’d been making stupid and embarrassing mistakes — misspelling names, getting addresses and times wrong, misquoting sources — like it was my job.
Fed up but empathetic, Ramsdell either called me into her office or sidled up to my metal orange desk and sat down.
In that way she had of speaking when she was angry but trying hard to control herself, she looked at me squarely and said: “Make new mistakes.”
It freaked my freak.
It meant mess up all you want but learn and remember and make a different mess next time. So at the end of a five-year stint at my hometown’s newspaper I’d made plenty more mistakes, but never the same ones twice; I also racked up awards, two fellowships and a syndicated column.
It was my proving ground.
I want one of those for my nephew.
He’s majoring in broadcast journalism, a perfect fit for his uncanny and savant-like abilities to retain numbers and sports statistics. He is also outspoken, organically smart and a fast thinker.
He’s got a booming, raspy, Peppermint Patty-sounding voice, and all broadcasters need a tone that distinguishes one from the other.
He can do this and I can’t wait for the first time I hear or see him broadcasting a story. I am nearly crying at the very thought of it.
This moment is a tentative victory for his parents; it’s taken a lot of prayer and tenacity to get this boy through. There’s also been teamwork, work plans and very difficult conversations and also reconciliation, which is that point when we realize and settle into the fact that our loved ones probably aren’t going to be exactly who we’d planned them to be.
Oh, but we love them, anyway.
My brother and sister-in-law are realists when it comes to their children.
They have survived some tragedies: Our mother, her father, their baby, our grandparents, her grandma, all dead and gone not in that order, but the sum total still lands like a wrecking ball against their lives.
They haven’t been perfect people in those moments but they came out the other side burnished.
Sunday afternoon long before the calling of the 837 names in my nephew’s graduating class, my sister-in-law was crying and dabbing at her eyes in the upper rafters, her firstborn a green-robed fleck recognizable at this distance only by his mannerisms.
My brother announced: “She’s crying. Big baby.”
She laughed through her mamma tears, unembarrassed, unconcerned and accustomed to my brother’s boisterousness.
Funny, none of them said a word as he preened at the railing, facing the crowd pretending to pose for pictures no one snapped.
The day belonged to his son.
So do all the rest.
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