As June approached, I opened my mailbox to an assorted collection of high school graduation announcements. Just as it once seemed that everyone I knew was birthing children, it now seems that everyone I know is graduating children. How well I remember the chaotic pace of the senior year. Eighteen years of parenting coalesce down to that final sprint: prom dresses, tux rentals, senior photos, financial aid, college tours and applications. Not to mention the all-consuming task of keeping your children alive as they push their way past curfews, careening down county roads in cars stuffed with friends, struggling toward an independence that approaches with alarming speed.
A few years ago we sent our son off to college and, more recently, our daughter. The months of rushing and planning and calculating suddenly ended. My children took off on their own adventures and we were left in a quiet house, while one by one their aging childhood pets sickened and died. Such is the nature of parenting. I bet they don't tell you that in What To Expect When You're Expecting. But with the quiet house came an awakening of opportunity.
It took a little while to see things this way. I'd hesitated to change much in the children's old bedrooms — subconsciously holding their rooms for them like a hopeful concierge in a boutique hotel. But as I observed the dust gathering on my daughter's dance trophies or rummaged through a drawer full of my son's music awards, it occurred to me that our children appeared to be serious about this whole moving out and growing up thing.
You know something? I thought. I don't think they're coming back.
It was time to sort through the keepsakes, box up the essentials, refinish the hardwood floors and apply a new coat of paint. We set about the arduous task of moving out the furniture. But one afternoon, as I stood in the emptiness of my son's former bedroom, my mind overflowed with memories. More than two decades ago, I had stood in this room while the afternoon light flooded through these windows. I had just received the key to our new house and had wandered in with my 6-month-old son balanced on my hip.
"What do you think, M'ijo?" I asked him, as I surveyed the four empty walls. "You think this might be a good room for you?" His kicking feet and gummy smile seemed like a definite "yes."
From that moment on, we began to fill up that room with my son. Even the current emptiness could not completely remove him. He was there in all the pinpricks left on the wall from his posters, in the smudges of fingerprints that started low on the door and moved their way up the frame. He was even there in the silence, which only enhanced the memory of the bass -thumping music that once emanated from his room.
Moving on to stand in my daughter's room brought a similar deluge of memories. I recalled an evening, long ago, when I had come home from a brief outing. My 5-year-old daughter greeted me at the door, so excited to show me what she and her brother had accomplished while I was gone. She took me by the hand and led me to her room. Jumping in her bed, she flicked off the light and gestured to the hundreds of glowing stars that they had affixed to the ceiling and walls.
"Wow," I breathed, truly stunned at what they had wrought. "Did your brother help you with all this?"
"Yes," she answered, snuggling into her covers. "Because he doesn't want me to ever be afraid of the dark."
Now, in the stillness of this room, I remember her tiny face illuminated under her own night sky and realize that if I am to paint this ceiling, these stars will have to come down. I climb a ladder and slip a putty knife under each star, working my way across the room. I think of the graduation announcements that I have collected in the last few weeks: The graduating seniors arranged against beautiful backdrops, the vulnerability that hesitates around each confident smile. I know that behind each graduating senior trails a loving parent, one who is both bereft and brimming with pride.
As I work at loosening these stars, I hold in my mind all the graduating children and their parents. I hold my own children, who are living their independent lives, far away. I realize that I am praying — which is perhaps just a form of wishing — the quiet chant of mothers everywhere: Let them burn brightly. Let them be safe. Let them shine.
I send out these small, fervent wishes, as all around me the stars fall.
Peri Escarda was born and raised in Humboldt County and worked for two decades as an instructional aide. Now that her kids have moved out, she's busy writing.