It happened. In what seems like just a blink of an eye, my kindergartner is now an eighth grade graduate. Sure the road to here was long and winding. It was sometimes difficult to navigate and there were big potholes to avoid. Certain days the views were tranquil and beautiful and awe inspiring; other days they were chaotic and messy and disordered. There were tears of happiness, pure joy and pride along the way. Tears of sadness, frustration and disappointment clouded many days too. But now looking back, it was really quite swift and the middle part is mostly just a blur.
Some days it seemed like we would never arrive at the end of the road. Nine years of travel on the same path sometimes seemed like being on the Ohio Turnpike I used to drive on my way to and from college–same scenery, same rest stops, same old same. Other days, I didn’t want this path to end. It was so familiar and comforting, like the smell I encountered each time I walked through the door of the house in which I grew up. Its shoulders were lined with the faces of friends and those who became like family. In the rough moments they cheered on she and I; in the good times they celebrated with us. Yet among those faces were also some who didn’t understand us, who judged us, who were frustrated with us. There were some who gave her a label and would never let her outgrow it, no matter how much she changed or thrived or succeeded. They were the ones who especially made this place feel too small now.
Just as a baby in the womb is unable to move about freely at the end of its mother’s pregnancy, this place started to feel confining and unable to contain the very life it had nurtured and fed and kept safe for so long. Towards the very end, it became overwhelmingly apparent that she needed to transition to a bigger space where her growth will be allowed to continue. Yet, as obvious as this was, the unknown ahead remained terrifying.
During the last days in this place, its toll on her was costly. With every milestone nearer to the finish line, it reminded her that some of her hopes and dreams for the journey would never be realized. It reminded her that time with the people with whom she had shared her life the past nine years, for better or for worse, was running out. It reminded her that the place she knew, the second home she visited each day after leaving the first, would no longer be a part of her daily experience. Most of all, it made her face the reality that the transition to the bigger space gets closer with every minute of every day.
The bigger space will have exponentially more than ten times as many faces as this place. It will be bustling with potential; potential friends, potential experiences, potential successes, potential growth. Yet it is unknown and she, with her anxiety disorder unextractably intertwined with each one of life’s moments, instead sees it in her darker moments as offering potential loneliness, potential disappointment, potential failure, potential decline.
I too feel this anxiety encroaching on my sense of relief at crossing the finish line and my pride in her accomplishment of never quitting with the challenges of ADHD making academic life a most arduous feat. There is a pure joy that accompanies the experience of seeing a child rise up against the struggles of life and choose not to quit, even in the face of overwhelming odds of academic structures stacked against her success. On my difficult days, I draw strength from her resolve and determination. It is amazing. Yet the bigger space with its new doorways and new faces and new structures seems so alien. As her mom, I am feeling afraid that I won’t be able to guide her. It feels as if I am taking her to a foreign country where even I, the adult, am unaware of where to go, how to speak the language and even what currency to use.
The first day I dropped her off for kindergarten felt somewhat the same, but this place wasn’t so big and frightening. The faces were fewer and I worked across the parking lot, ever near to my beloved child. I could run over from work if she got hurt or was feeling sick or forgot her lunch. I could spy her in the hallways when I had business that brought me to her building. I could sit near her class and pray with her each week at school Mass. I could protect and love and advocate for her in a heartbeat. And each day, as we traveled to this place, we were together. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we laughed, sometimes we cried. Sometimes we sang along to the same song on the radio, sometimes we fought with ugly words. The bigger space where she will go each day will be far away from where I go each day and we will no longer travel there together.
There is a certain fearlessness that lies deep within my girl, despite her multiple diagnoses. As the night of graduation drew near and the finish line was within sight, she was asked to lead the music for the Mass which preceded the ceremony. Without hesitation she accepted the invitation. In front of all of her classmates, teachers, friends, family and strangers alike, on her own, in front of the microphone, she led the entire congregation in song, beautifully, with grace and poise. Though she did not receive any special academic awards or outstanding student awards or other accolades reserved for the chosen few whose talents and hard work earn them such rightful recognition, she was given the opportunity to offer what she could. She did so in a way that was unique and magnificent. It was her chance to shine and she did not shrink from it. She crossed the finish line of the long, yet swift road to here with her head held high.
As I have aged and have learned to cope pretty effectively with my own anxiety disorder, I often commiserate on the opportunities I missed earlier in life because of my fear. So many of my friends, in their twenties, traveled to foreign lands with a positive anticipation and desire to explore that goes hand in hand with a healthy sense of adventure found in youth. They were expanded and changed and made better by the journeys on which they embarked. I, on the other hand, stayed in place, dreading any change that would upset my sense of grounding and foundation. Yet more recently, after reading the novel, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, I felt the desire stronger than ever to go on a crazy adventure, unprepared, but open to what might be. I recognize within myself for the first time a dose of the fearlessness which my daughter has embraced at a young age.
Reflecting on the long, yet swift road to here I see that we are in the waiting room of summer before we will be ushered into the bigger space. It has dawned on me that perhaps, the journey of the next four years on which we are about to embark is just the crazy adventure for which I have been longing. Now I have a choice to make: A) I can choose to stay in place, dreading any change that will upset my sense of grounding and foundation. B) I can tap into the fearlessness within and choose to stay open with positive anticipation and a desire to explore. The road ahead may seem foreign and I may feel entirely unprepared to travel it myself, let alone be her guide along the way, but it may be exactly what is needed to be expanded and changed and made better.
I’m going with B. I guess we’re gonna have to figure it out along the way and write the next chapter of the guidebook, together.