My daughter graduates with her bachelor’s degree next month. It’s a little over a month away. She agreed to let me use my vast craft supplies to make graduation announcements, so I’ve been busily puttering away with colors that will make her happy.
I’ve mentioned the upcoming date to coworkers and friends as we try to make plans for the summer. “I can’t do that weekend, because it’s Sophia’s graduation.” Immediately, they respond with compassion, “Oh, that’s going to be a big day for you, huh?”
My answer has always been “Not really. Why would it be?”
Maybe it’s because she’s been on her own working on this degree outside my world, and I’m not involved in her day-to-day struggle for this accomplishment. Maybe I did all my crying over her growing up the night before I dropped her off at university so many years ago.
It could also be that I’m ignoring a huge wrecking ball of emotions that’s about to hit me.
My daughter was born to me the Sunday before exam week 24 years ago. I call her my exam week baby. My pregnancy spanned half the spring semester, all of summer and all of fall, and during that time, I made straight As. Either the hormones of that particular pregnancy made me suddenly brilliant, or I finally learned how to study, but something clicked and my academic career bloomed. Unlike my pregnancy with my son, when I was 20 and alone and rejected by my family, this pregnancy came at a time when I was confident in my parenting skills and saw the completion of my degree on the horizon.
When she was born, the neonatologist mentioned a list of possible issues we might face with a child with severe osteogenesis imperfecta. He said some children are too weak to even hold a pencil. I took her home on a pillow, certain she’d require round-the-clock care well into adulthood. I took every dire prediction as fact, but her early childhood play therapist gave her toys to strengthen her hands, and her occupational therapist in school helped her learn how to write (using both hands and, at first, her chin), and the physical therapist helped her strengthen her core so she could sit up for a whole school day.
Those first years of school were almost unbearable for me. The adage about having a child being the equivalent of having your heart walk outside your body was doubly true for me, with this child who needed protection. Those early days of toddlerhood, when my son had raced from my arms the moment he could walk on his own, never came for her, so I didn’t see her independence grow like I saw his. I felt she needed me more, that I should be her protective bubble every moment of the day. The horrible, hard and painful world was not ready for my crystalline daughter.
Into middle school, though, she showed signs of becoming who she was always destined to be; tough, outspoken, irreverent, bold, and very independent. Those years were physically painful for her, with several surgeries over that three-year period. She had a home-based tutor for part of the time, learning complex information while she laid on her stomach on the floor of her bedroom after a surgery that left both of her legs splinted from waist to toe for nearly four months.
If I remember correctly, she got straight As for that semester. I should have recognized right then that this child thrived in difficult situations. She’s forged in fire, this child.
In high school, she marched through her day with her chin up, her “come at me, bro” attitude stepping into the spotlight. She says she doesn’t remember this story, but I do: during one class, the room became especially hot. A friend of Sophia’s started to feel sick. Sophia, using the one privilege she had as a person with a disability, asked the teacher to open the window. The teacher refused, saying the administration would not allow them to open the windows until a certain date in the spring.
Sophia left class and went straight to the principal’s office, where she instructed the principal to allow the windows to be opened so her classmates didn’t feel sick in the heat.
They opened the windows.
When it came time for Sophia to choose a university, she was clear about one thing: she wanted to be as far away from home as possible. She knew it was imperative both for her development as an individual and for me to learn to let go. Her one demand was to go out of state.
And so I dropped her off at Iowa six years ago. She moved into a dorm with a stranger, and her old Girl Scouts friend lived in the same building, and she could get food in the cafeteria on the same floor as her room, and every sidewalk was paved and had a nice even ramp, and she had friends and professors she admired and she became this person that I admire and adore. She walked away from me at Iowa as quickly as her brother had when he was 9 months old, seeking her own life and adventure and joys and sorrows without me holding her back.
And now she graduates college. But this isn’t my baby anymore. I’m no less proud of her, now that she’s a person in her own right; perhaps I’m even more proud because of what she’s done to get here. But this isn’t a piece of me moving into a new phase of life, like it was when I held her as we both cried ourselves to sleep the night before she went to Iowa. This is my adult child accomplishing a major life goal.
My daughter wants to become an activist when she finishes school. I don’t know anything about taking that professional route. But what I do know is that my daughter, this fierce and brave soul who isn’t afraid to stand up to anyone, is going to blaze her path directly wherever she wants to go. She’s so much more than I was at that age, and so much more than I ever, to my shame, expected her to become, and I am in awe.
I will cry at her graduation, these tears of joy. She’ hasn’t been my little girl for a long time. She is not a piece of me walking around outside my body; she’s a full-grown person I am proud to know. I am overjoyed to be a part of her life, and have her in mine.
We will celebrate with cake and dancing before she goes out to set the world on fire.