Believe yourself, as I believe in you
This morning we fought again about the lawn mowing, and I was late for work.
Last night we sat and played Tetris, back and forth like when you were younger, and we talked about the nature of evil and strategies for gaming the video game matching system.
I wrote you a song last fall about school, and anger, and expectations, and money. You heard it by accident, and ran out of the room, and later you asked for the lyrics. Last winter you applied to college without telling me, one school only. You got in, with a scholarship that makes your stepmother and I proud, and you did it without my help.
I wrote you another song this spring about growing and leaving and hope and pride, but I who admit no fear am not brave enough to play it for you. I played it at church, but you didn’t come that morning. I made another mother of a child she’s proud of cry big tears. Her son is four, and she doesn’t know anything yet.
You were born while I was in college, when I was not yet old enough to drink legally and your father had no permanent job; he and I split when I graduated and you were three and a half. I tell people I ran off with the babysitter, but that’s only the shoddy outline of reality.
The truth is that I thought we deserved something better. All of us deserved better: you, your father, your father’s other son, me.
Your father and I together could not give it to you.
Fifteen years later, I don’t know if what I’ve given you is better, but I’ve given all I could. Your stepmother and I and so many others have worked hard so you could have everything— a strong back and a wondering eye, a keen mind and an ear for music, rest and drive, enough to strive for and enough to hold. We will never know if we got it right; if we did, you may never know either. You may know some day that we got it wrong, but today is far too early to decide.
What we did and what we were has shaped you, but it can never define you. Who we are and what we do cannot contain you anymore.
I worry — how not? — that I’ve given you things that will serve you poorly, that all the tools for living I’ve passed on will be as useful as a fishing spear and mukluks in the desert, or a hang glider in a cave. From my own growing up, I know there will be some of that: everyone gives their children what they found useful, and everyone’s life is unique.
My hope for you is that you will carry forward the things that are helpful, and if something turns out to be useless you will lay it down. If I’ve given you advice you do not need, feel free to disregard it. It’s always been your life, not mine, and more so now.
And even more tomorrow.
I hope that you do not give up on yourself — I know this is a worry for you, that you’re not enough, not right, not fair, not smart, not good, not kind. I’ve had those kinds of worries too. I’ve starved myself of love and rejected friendship, and I’ve seen you doing some of the same these last few years.
And I can’t stop you. I can’t save you. All I can do is hope you can learn sooner than I have that you are better than you fear and that you deserve good of the world, as do we all.
When you were seven and we thought you would go to live with your father, I wrote/drew/created a tiny book of recipes and little stories and drawings. Living with your dad’s family didn’t work out, but you still have the little book — I’ll try to remind you to take it with you; it’s been living in the kitchen for quite a while, since we still use some of the recipes.
I thought about trying to write another little book for you before college, but this is different: in 2008 I thought I was leaving you to grow up, letting you spend that chapter of your life without me, and I wanted to give you what I could to help you through times when you’d be expected to have my wisdom. I wanted to give you something of me to carry with you.
Tomorrow, I’m letting you go to make your own wisdom, as parents have done since before we were human, and carrying a book of my collected thoughts and opinions will not help you find your own. You are already carrying the parts of me that will go on into your future: you’re far from a finished product, but the shaping of the rest of you will not be mine.
Not that you’re on your own: in this digital age, I’m really no farther than I was before. As long as you have wifi or phone service, I’m just a text away. In fact, I think that in this savagely connected time one of the best things a parent of a new-fledged adult can do is to pull back. If I communicate less, I give you more time and bandwidth for your own thoughts and experiences to fill your head and shape your future — especially since you’ll be at college, meeting people who will change you, people you might be close with for the rest of your life.
I hope you can take some time to look at your thoughts and sort them as we’ve done this week with some of your things in your childhood room. I can’t dictate this, though — my control over you, more tenuous with every passing year, is as of tomorrow a thing of the past.
So in the interest of giving you space to use your new freedom, I will limit myself to this one essay directed at you, one set of pictures, one last self-indulgent reminiscence that I hope you’ll read and know I love you until my heart breaks and past that. Forever.
With that understood, let me tell you one more story from your childhood.
Come with me, if you will, to the far far past: last week. I was walking up the street from the bus that brings me home from work every day, and I saw people next to a tree in the treelawn of a house about a block from ours.
They were looking at the trunk, very intently. As I got closer, I realized it was you and your stepmother, and I noticed three things:
- You’d obviously been there for quite some time.
- Although you and she have spent a good part of the last three years fighting, you were leaning together, intent on whatever was happening before you.
- You were almost as tall on your knees as she was standing up.
When I got to the tree, I found that you and your stepmother had been standing in that yard for over two hours, and that you had watched the entire metamorphosis of a cicada. It was still hanging, green and fresh and wrinkled, with crumpled wings, on its own hollow shell.
You and she were very excited, and whispered to me — hushed so as not to disturb our new insect neighbor — about how the dry brown nymph that crawls out of the ground and up the nearest tall thing, how it had hung on this tree and slowly shifted around the trunk trying to avoid your gaze, but that eventually the internal pressures became too much. You told me how the shell had burst open, revealing the soft green insect underneath, and how it gradually pushed out of its former self, how the legs had come loose and how they appeared to have been attached to the old nymph body by stringy connecting fibers, now broken. You are tall, now, and grown, and mostly quite serious, and your stepmother is often angry and usually tired, but both of you were reverent and jubilant in the face of this new animal emerging from the old.
We stood there in silence for a while longer, watching the new adult cicada rest, perpendicular to its former shell. We waited until it bent over and used its new legs to grasp the shell and the tree, and we watched it wiggle its crumpled wings until they were smooth and translucent, ready to fly and make noises.
One of the three of us — I can’t remember who — said “It’s never had wings before. It doesn’t know what they are.”
And it’s true — the cicada has never had wings before. It’s having a totally new experience, for which it is only barely adequately prepared. If it has stories, if it has memories, they are all of being underground. And it goes forward anyway, even uncertain, even confused, even afraid.
After seeing you see the cicada, after talking to you about it, I think you will also go forward.
When I was your age, more than your whole lifetime ago, I wrote a poem about hope, and new beginnings, and the feeling of being a kite with no string that ended on the line “I feel the way a butterfly must, leaving everything for the sky.”
I hope you do too.