Commencement

It’s an iconic photo in our family album: Henry, age seven, and I are standing face to face in a deserted Times Square. It is about 8 a.m. on a summer Sunday morning. Bits of trash, empty soda cups, and old newspapers lie at our feet. His face wears a rare, uncharacteristic pout. I am bending over, leaning in toward my small son and, in a rare, uncharacteristic gesture, I’m waggling my finger at him, trying without much success to make a point: Broadway shows are not like videos. The fact that seeing “Beauty and the Beast” yesterday had been the high point of his entire life on earth to date did not mean that we could wake up the next day and go see it again.

What neither my amused husband, snapping the picture for posterity, nor I, deeply engaged in an effort to put Broadway ticket prices into some sort of perspective for a second grader, knew at the time was that in fact seeing that lavish Disney production featuring dancing teapots and singing candlesticks had indeed changed our son’s life.

One Broadway musical matinee and a shy, quiet seven-year-old was not only hooked, he suddenly had a vision, a sense of a road opening at his feet, even if the destination wasn’t yet something he could quite articulate: someday he would be part of such a show. He would get to go back again and again, night after night, until this music that made his heart crack open had become a part of who he was and of what he knew, a passion to be carried in his bones and in his blood. In other words, a vocation, a calling whose faint summons he was just beginning to hear for the very first time. There was a big, musical life out there, and it was just waiting for him to grow up and into it: a life to be had playing piano for the stage.

The thing about turning points is that we don’t always recognize them until we’re much further down the road. Then, one day we turn around to look back at where we’ve been and it seems that the future was in fact written long ago – if only we had known how to read the writing on the wall. That fifteen-year-old photograph and the cascade of memories it releases seem particularly significant – and poignant – now, as Henry begins his new life as a college graduate.

A week ago, my husband and my parents and I sat in the bleachers under a hot Minnesota sun, waiting to hear one name among the 763 being read into the microphone. “A graduation ceremony should not be rushed,” the president of St. Olaf had said in his remarks to the sweltering crowd. And, hot and sweaty as we were, I found myself in agreement.

There was a kind of beauty in just being there, allowing time to slow, taking this opportunity to consider that behind each and every name called from the podium that afternoon, there was a unique life story to be told, a path that had led to this particular moment and to an unknown destiny still waiting to unfurl. For every graduating student, there was also a community of connection and caring, a whole group of relations who had worried and cheered and laughed and cried all along the road to young adulthood, friends who had shared the ups and downs of growing up, teachers who had given of themselves in order to make a difference in a young person’s life. And for each of those graduates there was, too, a complicated, private history of turning points and obstacles no more or less challenging and meaningful than our own. There were memories of triumphs and heartbreaks, and just as much infinite potential in each of these young lives as we discerned in our son – all of it intertwined with the unfathomable mysteries of determination and destiny, fate and luck, choices and the consequences of those choices.

How amazing it was, simply to pause and contemplate the fact that 763 different life paths — paths that had had their various beginnings just over twenty years ago in countries that spanned the globe — China and Vietnam and England and South America, as well as in each of the fifty United States — had somehow, finally, briefly, converged right here, at this Midwestern college, on this football field under a cloudless blue sky in May, in an age-old ritual marking the culmination of one journey and the beginning of another.

Soon enough, the solemn procession of students to the stage would come to an end. The caps would fly into the air, the cameras would be tucked away, last loads of laundry carried out of empty dorm rooms, final hugs tendered and tears shed, car doors slammed shut. The class of 2012 would scatter into the world, never again to gather together in one place nor to turn their collective eyes to the future even as they bid their shared past farewell. No, commencement exercises should not be rushed.

Last week, two days after his graduation, Henry and I returned to Times Square. I had a day of work to do in the city and we had tickets to three Broadway shows – his graduation gift. For a kid who grew up far from Manhattan, he has racked up quite an impressive Broadway attendance record over the years – testament, in part, to the passion born on that very first visit, and to the singular nature of his desires. So it seemed only fitting that we return together to the place where it all began. This time it was the “The Book of Mormon” that had us laughing along and still singing in the morning, and the next night, at “Once,” it was my son who pointed out to me the subtle complexities of the lovely orchestration and staging.

He is a knowledgeable theatre date, this young Bachelor of Music who has clearly put in his time at the keyboard and in the classroom, doing the hard, necessary work that dream fulfillment demands. I still remember his very first recital at age six, in which he plunked out the notes to “Blue Jello” on a tiny guitar. Last month, for his senior project, he created, produced, directed, and played piano for an original Broadway revue with a cast of ten and a combo. I wonder if someday I will look back and remember sitting in that audience, and think to myself that it, too, proffered a glimpse of what was to come.

Meanwhile, the road at his feet twists yet again: on Friday, after a few days at home spent unpacking and repacking, our son will leave for his first post-college job, as accompanist at the College Light Opera Company on Cape Cod. It’s a career move that the seven-year-old Henry surely would have approved of, if he’d known back then that such opportunities existed – nine musicals produced in eleven weeks, a summer comprised of rehearsals all day and tuxedoed evenings in the orchestra pit.

As I type these words, Henry’s putting winter clothes away in his closet, packing summer clothes into a trunk. The soundtrack to “Smash” is playing through his iPod speakers. He is singing along. In a few days, his room will be empty again; he’ll be setting up housekeeping with a bunch of young actors and musicians in an old Victorian house near the beach. The partings are always hard, but after four years of college and summer jobs away from home, I’ve grown used to them. His life is meant to be elsewhere now.

And I’ve also realized this: when our children were small, our job as parents was to introduce the world to them, to expose them to a wide range of experiences that might begin to give shape to their aspirations. Now, the tables are turned. Growing up, finding his way into adulthood, independence, and the first steps of a career doing what he loves, our son is providing us with some new experiences in return.

Steve and I have already made reservations at a B&B on the Cape, and we’re looking forward to heading down there later this month to see the first musical of the summer season at the College Light Opera. I suspect I’ll be tempted, when I wake up the next morning, by the same impulse that moved Henry all those years ago. Maybe I’ll even put in a call to him, just to see if he can possibly score us a couple more tickets, so we can go back and see the show one more time.

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  1. Can I just take a minute to gush about you and your husband, letting your artistic son follow his dreams, with full support?

    I was always artistic–”artsy fartsy” as my father called it, and my parents never supported my love for the artistic. “Get a real job and do that artsy stuff in your spare time,” is what they said.

    “They’ll eat you alive,” my mother said. And maybe she was right.

    But you, standing behind your son, watching as he makes his own way, are pure magic.

  2. I loved reading this, Katrina. It’s wonderful to see how Henry has evolved with his gifts. And you and Steve have done a fabulous balancing act of nurturing him and letting him go. Bravo and congratulations to all of you.

  3. Reading this, as I’m sure you can imagine, through floods of tears, as I listen to my own seven year old son down the hall shouting and knowing that I will blink and be sitting in the bleachers watching him graduate from college. Oh how resonant is the idea that it is often only in retrospect that life’s turning points reveal themselves, only after we’ve walked it that we can see the pattern of our path emerging.
    Congratulations to all of you and once again my enormous and heartfelt thanks for the way you light the path for me … I’m watching closely as I follow behind you. Thank you. xox

  4. What a lovely post, Katrina! And such happy, proud times for your family. My son also followed the artistic course in college and, like you, there was one defining moment that we couldn’t realize at the time.

    He was almost three, and we took him to see Cathy Rigby in a stage production of “Peter Pan.” This was my very favorite show to watch once a year on TV in the ’60′s with Mary Martin. I well remember crowding the small B&W TV, shouting “I beleive!” when Tinkerbell was about to die.

    So it was a watershed moment to watch my son perched on the edge of his seat, glued to the drama that was unfolding before him. I cried through half of the show, reliving my own passion for Peter and feeling even more nostalgia pouring off my mother as she remembered those childhood days as well.

    We are so blessed with these experiences. And even more blessed when we pay attention and notice them!

  5. And I sit here, reading about Henry’s life path, while my house rocks with rhythm. Three days ago we finally found a good used drum set for my boy who has pounded out patterns since his high chair days.

    He’s 11 and just finished an enthusiastic year of beginner band at school. It’s time to see if he’s ready to go to the next level.

    I’ve always been suspicious that this would be my musical one. Bobbing his head to the Muzak at the grocery store when he was still in the baby seat of the cart. Patting every restaurant table with his fingers, just occupying his wait time, until siblings begged him to stop.

    This may be his watershed moment. This may be the summer he takes refuge in those drums, his release in getting away from two older brothers who know his buttons to push, and he attaches himself to a dream.

    Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it will just be one of many things he tries before he finds his path. I have three old kids. I know how quickly paths can change.

    So I savor this moment. This joy that radiates from his face as he finally emerges from the basement, sweaty from his effort, still twirling the drum sticks through his fingers. I savor this moment because it’s what I have today.

    Love your Henry post, as always. Wish I still lived closer so I could say, “I’ll come by to see you this summer!”

    Have fun with Steve. Bask in your job well done. It wasn’t an easy road, but it was your road. And you’ve navigated it well.

    Hugs, my friend.
    Judy
    justonefoot.blogspot.com

  6. I am so, so grateful I was able to meet Henry for real this winter. I didn’t want to be a complete nerd in his presence, but it was clear I was in the company of someone special.

    I am SO in awe that he created, produced, directed, and played piano for an original Broadway revue with a cast of ten and a combo.

    That is amazing. And yet not surprising. Nor is his job at one of the most famous summer stocks in the country.

    (I also love that you have a photo of you wagging your finger at him.) Adorable!!

  7. Katrina
    Thank you for such a lovely post about Commencement. It reminded me of how cheated I felt when Rachel opted out of her Commencement ceremony to go to Bali. I was doing the same though – encouraging her to follow her passion of drinking in every country of the world. I am so happy for Henry that he is on the road to pursuing his dreams. I think Nicki might want to marry him someday. She lives and breathes Broadway musicals. Congrats to you for getting one child launched and on his way to a life of purpose. Still waiting for that to happen here.

  8. Thank you for your lovely post, Katrina, and congratulations to Henry on his graduation, and to you and Steve for a job well done. How wonderful that Henry has found his calling, and that he is blessed to have parents who were willing to support him in following his dream. Having a solid “launching pad” makes a great deal of difference, especially for those who truly follow the less “conventional” paths. Enjoy the summer months, and the performances at the Cape. I am sure that Henry will shine.

  9. I’m sitting here. At my own kitchen table. In Australia.
    Fighting back the tears.

    Congratulations to your son, who sounds like a truly fine young man… and to you and your husband for letting him find his own way.

    My own two boys sit here at the table with me. We homeschool. They’re right in the pocket of those formative years, 6 and 8. We have a wild adventure ahead of us, that’s for sure!

    Amber. X

  10. Jacki S says:

    Our job as parents is to parent ourselves right out of the job. You have seemingly mastered the task. Congratulations to your son and your entire family. Kudos to you for allowing your son to follow his passion and pursue his dreams. As always, thank you for sharing your insights and personal moments. Bless you.

  11. Connie C. says:

    Great piece, Katrina. As I watch my kids reach milestones in their lives (graduations, weddings, etc), I am reminded each time of how we are only the temporary caretakers of their lives and each day is precious. Thanks again for reminding me!

  12. Cheers Katrina, This post is a luminescent and melodious sprite upon the path of the ever-present moment, stringing together the rising graduation of my own son from high school this week and illuminating the hopeful and unbroken chain of love that I hear tinkling like bells, back and forth along the strand of comments and a glimpse rising into the so-called future. I hope one day I’ll be seeing one of Henry’s shows, and perhaps running into you in the mix. XO

  13. Bravo!! Congratulations to all of you!!

  14. Simply congratulations to you, your son and your shared future.

  15. Thank you for sharing this. My husband and I are at the beginning of the school years for our youngest. We just decided to hold her back in Kindergarten, since she is the youngest in her class and is just now showing some interest and motivation to do her class work. Our other daughter is in third grade. Still, I can’t imagine how they got to be so big so quickly! So I’m sure we’ll be attending their college commencement sooner that we can imagine!

  16. I am so happy that I found your beautiful writing, Katrina. Thank you for opening your heart and showing me what’s in mine. I watched my youngest son graduate from college a month ago, and I am still processing what it means to let go. (I thought I’d learned that many times!)

    After reading your exquisite post, I realized how much I’m mourning the moments of connection I had with my sons before they set out in the world officially, to find themselves and their passions, to stumble, dust themselves off, thrive, recover from pain and build new families of their own.

    This can be a lonely time. And so it’s the perfect time for me to discover your blog and begin reading your books. I’m looking forward to both.

    Thank you Katrina.

  17. Wonderful! Congratuations to you and your husband, and to Henry, for following dreams and inspiration and intition. That is what we all should do, but too many times, we put walls up. I love the way the walls are down for Henry. He will LOVE his time in Cape Cod.

  18. nancy franke says:

    I have been to two graduations and a confirmation ceremony in two weeks. Your thoughtful and insightful post certainly put a new perspective on them. Good for you for nurturing Henry’s talent, and good for him for pursuing the dream!

  19. Deepest congratulations to all of you, Katrina! What amazing parents you and Steve are! Your stories about your boys always bring on a little knot in my belly, for I know that you were where I am now (rose ceremony tomorrow) and before I know it, I’ll be right where you are. I only hope I can approach it all with as much grace! XO

  20. Beautifully written. How wonderfully content you must feel, especially as you look way back and have the peace of knowing that all the challenges, hopes, fears, worries, questioning, triumphs and trials of his life to date have led to this remarkable place — which, in itself, is also just a beginning. Congratulations, and best to you all.

  21. As always I cry reading your posts. I’m at that stage (my oldest going into 11th grade) where I worry that their has been no turning point yet and maybe their never will be? I worry about his future and a seemingly lack of passion for much, more of a laziness that seems to have set in? I’m sure it’s all just part of the plan, a natural stage in his own path and someday I hope i will look back and it will all be as clear as it is for you. Congrats on being in that place and being so proud of the fine person Henry has always been.

  22. Denise McCleary says:

    Dearest Katrina, what a beautiful picture of you and Henry. He is really amazing. Thankyou so much for sharing his graduation with us. He is very gifted. You have learned the secret of “giving them roots and giving them wings.” Giving them “wings” is still the hardest part. My daughters are 32 and 37, and I still miss those 2 little girls they used to be. It is nice to know there is someone like you out there that truly knows a “mothers heart” like we do.

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