Sunday, April 29, 2012

Back to the Future

Courtney on her 1st Day of 1st Grade

In less than one month, my youngest daughter, Courtney, will graduate.  There's the traditional family-event flurry around our house right now--we are getting the house ready for out-of-town guests, preparing for the graduation party, rounding up addresses of family & friends, and fumbling through mounds of old pictures to put together for a slide show.  In the midst of looking forward, I can't help but look back---

Back to 1988--the year I was graduating high school. My best friend, Jenn, and I had planned our senior year since we were lowly freshmen--we thought that by the time we were seniors, we would be so much wiser, so much cooler, and so much more mature. We planned on our last year of high school being the best year of our lives, something we would enjoy, relish, and savor forever.  Of course, nothing turns out as planned. By the time we got to our senior year, we weren't much wiser, we definitely weren't any cooler, and our maturity made us more cynical, not more joyful as we had planned.  

The Night of My Senior Prom--I was a dreamer (and a ham!)
That year wasn't a great year for me--I worked a lot of hours at Bob's Big Boy so I could save money for Beach Week & college, which left me with a kind of fatigue that resulted in my skipping a lot of school and ignoring many of the extracurricular activites of which I had been so involved. Without my parents' knowledge, I dated a man who was 25 years old and divorced with two kids.  My grades fell (from As to Ds), my work as the editor of the school newsmagazine was sporadic and unreliable, and, in turn, I lost a lot of the respect I had garnered from the adults around me. I barely got my college applications turned in on time (even neglecting to send one of them in, lying to my parents that I had.) By Spring of my senior year, I was so exhausted that I could think of  nothing but Graduation Night--that wonderful moment when I would walk across the stage, shake the prinicpal's hand, look fondly at the other 600+ people with whom I was graduating, and finally realize My Adulthood

Of course, as it was with our plans for Senior Year, Graduation, itself, was a bit of a let down.  Oh, sure, there were moments when I was full of happiness and excitement, but mostly it all felt surreal--a dream that seemed to be happening to someone else.  It didn't feel like I thought it would.  And things went wrong, too.  Since both sets of my grandparents had flown to DC from Indianapolis, our little house was busting at the seams with visitors, so there wasn't much privacy or time to sit back and enjoy the moment.  To top it off, the airline lost my mom's parents' luggage, which left both of them without anything to wear.  Even though they ended up borrowing hodge-podge clothes, the absence of a suit for my grandfather left him grouchy and irritable.  Which left my mom a little frazzled.  And I didn't make it better.  I was busy running around with friends, and I didn't spend much time with my grandparents.  Which made my mom mad.  Which made me get in trouble.  Which tempered my fun.
Graduation Night with My Sister & Grandparents

And then after the ceremony, Jenn and I "wisely" implemented our plan to escape the inevitable after-graduation gridlock by making a run to her car so we could leave and start our night of fun. In our mad dash, we missed celebrating with our peers, some of whom we would never see again. Sure, we were one of the first cars out of the melee, but we ended up in front of my house waiting for 45 minutes for my family to escape the mass of cars.   In all of our planning, it never occurred to us to let our parents in on our idea, or at least get a key so we could enter the house.  What a way to put an end to the adrenaline rush.  One minute, we were revved up and ready to go, screaming and shouting.  The next minute, we were sitting silently on the hood of Jenn's 1970s' Chevy in our caps and gowns, in the excruciating humidity of a Virginia, June evening, looking at our watches, and watching as our time, our "moment of glory" mixed with the heat coming off of the engine and melted away.
Jenn & I leaving for Graduation

In the midst of all of our current preparations, this is what I am faced with.  Flashbacks from the past--so vivid in detail and emotion, that I can literally feel the moment as if it were happening right now.   I know it's cliche, but the years have gone by like seconds.  Mere moments have passed since I was the one at the center of the frenzy--buying my graduation dress, snagging a prom date at the last minute, making plans for Beach Week, and trying to avoid the annoying "lessons about life" sermons from my parents. 

And now here I am, the one on the outside, trying to make plans about things that Courtney could care less about and trying to offer advice that she does not want to hear.  I want her to know all of those things for which I wasn't prepared that night Jenn and I sat on the hood of her car waiting for our lives to begin.  I want her to have all of the tools I didn't have, know the things I didn't know, be ready for the world in the way that I wasn't.  I want her to set her expectations high, dream for everything, expect the best always.  I want her to know that even when things don't turn out the way they were planned, they still have value.  But I'm not sure she wants to listen any more than I did at that age.  And, truthfully, I don't blame her.  She has to live it for herself.

A couple of months ago, Courtney asked me (an amateur photographer with a really good camera) to take her senior pictures.  Her rationale was that she would feel more comfortable, get a choice in the settings, and get more pictures for a lot less money.  I readily agreed and we commenced with the picture-taking, which stretched out over a period of weeks, took place in multiple different places, and ended with an incredible portfolio.  We had a lot of fun and I'm so glad we did it.  I don't know if the photos turned out so well because the photographer (me) actually loves the subject (my daughter) but, for whatever reason, the photos truly capture Courtney's inner and outer beauty. 

Today I will go pick up the actual prints and I will undoubtedly hold them in my hands, stare at them relentlessly, reminisce about the past and wonder about the future.  I know I will do this because throughout the last few weeks, I have been posting them on facebook.  And every time, a friend or family member makes a comment, I go back and look at every single picture again.  But despite my desire to share these great photos, there's one I have kept for myself.  One that I just keep looking at over and over again.  It's the one of which I am most proud.

Even though it's not a traditional senior picture, there is something about it that captivates me.   On a basic level, I planned this shot--I wanted a picture of Courtney's profile on the tracks as she looked off into the distance of the great unknown---her future.  But, as I said before, things don't happen the way I plan them.  I told Courtney what to do and she did it the way she thought it should be.  So, in the end, I got a shot that transcends my expectations. 

It's something in the way she's walking--slowly, gingerly, carefully.  It's something in the hang of her head, the hand on her hair, the slight tilt of her shoulders.  She's halfway to the safety bridge on the trestle, halfway between looking forward and looking down, and halfway between caring about her hair or just letting it whip in the wind.  To me, it is the perfect representation of how all of us feel as we stand on the brink of adulthood.   We look forward to it, we plan for it, and, then, when we get there, we're not quite sure if we really want it or not.

When I think back to my last year of high school--the year when I almost ruined everything I worked so hard for--I realize that my actions, although surely frustrating to my parents and teachers, really did make sense.  I wanted to grow-up.   And I didn't.  Like Courtney in the picture, I was halfway between. 

Perhaps that's why I keep looking at this photo. As we get closer to the big day, I need to remember what it represents.  Things are going to get crazy around here: I will be stressed about getting ready for visitors, the graduation party, the slideshow---all of the maddening details.  What I need to think about is the image of both of us during that last photo shoot. Courtney walking cautiously towards the future, while I stood back, taking pictures from behind.  It's not my time anymore--it's hers.  I don't get to tell her what to do anymore.  I can advise, I can watch, and I can hope.  But I have to let go--to give her the opportunity to make the right choices, to do the right things, to make things better than I planned, to make things better than I ever thought they could be.

Courtney in her Cap & Gown

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