As a parent, there are milestones that nearly everyone seems to mark: when your child grew the first tooth, took the first wobbly steps, spoke the first words. As they grow older, other milestones loom on the horizon for a time, and then fade into the recesses of scrapbooks and memories: first day of school, first sports team, first recognition for something outstanding, first night away from parents, first time at summer camp, first crush, first job, first broken heart.
Each year is full of many such memories and they speed by rapidly. How many parents haven’t shook their heads as high school graduation approached and wondered how those 18 years sped by so quickly? As my friends’ children have left the nest, their paths and timelines have differed from my son’s. Even most of his friends have taken different routes, each exiting from the parental highway at different points, ready to travel their own adult byways. Most of my son’s high school friends had graduated from college by last year and all have landed some sort of initial, post-school job. My son, however, was in a five-year program and has had to plow through the last 18 months knowing that his goal lay a little further down the road.
Now, with only a few more page flips of the calendar, graduation will be here — and, just as quickly, will be gone. This signals big changes, both for my son and for me. Two days after earning his degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Purdue University, he will be commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Air Force. About a month later, he will report for active duty and will begin his aircraft training programs. Although I’ve known for five years that this was his plan – his choice, his path, his chosen career — it all became very real, full with a few moments of palpable anxiety when he told me last week that he had received his official orders. I know that the next two months will be full of milestones, big and small.
Yesterday, he was in town for a dental appointment. After the teeth cleaning and the saying of goodbyes and wishes of much success from our dentist, I drove him back to Purdue. Standing on the front porch of his stereotypical ramshackle off-campus student house, I turned to him and said: “Well, I guess I’ve fulfilled my parental duties as far as dental care goes.”
“And you have pretty teeth too!” I added.
“I still don’t — and won’t — smile showing my teeth. Animals see it as an act of aggression, you know. Domination,” he replied. We both laughed.
“You did a good job” he said. His freshly polished teeth gleamed in the bright afternoon sun. “No cavities. Ever.”
It’s a small milestone, one that will fade with time. All those little milestones have filled closets with mementos and my brain with memories, catches of small moments throughout the last 23 years. It makes me feel good, makes me feel proud, but with just a little bit of longing for that small boy who is now a man.
When I arrived home, I placed my keys and phone on my desk. Two of my favorite pictures of him have a permanent place on my workspace: one when he was 19 in which he looks quite handsome; in the other, taken at about 9 years of age, he is wearing a bright green shirt that made his hazel-grey eyes look like sparkling emeralds. He is smiling — big tooth-bearing smiles — in both of them.
I removed the back of the older frame to look through all of the other school photos. I laughed loudly, happy that nobody was home to hear. In all but two photos, taken during those surly middle-school years, you can see his teeth. I won’t tell him this. He might see it as a sign of motherly aggression and domination. Instead, I’ll just smile, proudly.
“No cavities” is not what I would have expected t0 usher in this last transition towards independence, but I think it will remain with me for while, reminding me that I’ve done a good job indeed, and that we are now at the finish line of one phase and at the start of a new beginning.