I attended my son’s high school graduation; the decision about which I wrote earlier this month. If I had to use one word to describe my experience, it would be “wistful”. But if I had to use two words, I would say, “Mission accomplished.”
I was up early – very early – to make sure that I got there in time. The weather the night before and even that morning was a bit iffy, so I wasn’t sure whether the graduation would be indoors or on the football field. Heck – I wasn’t even sure that my son would attend the ceremony. But I was going to be there no matter what. My mission today was for him to see me – for him to know that I was there.
My wife and arrived an hour before the scheduled start time. We bought a commemorative t-shirt to give my son. We then took a seat in the stadium and started to bake in the sun.
As people began to stream in, we kept an eye out for my ex and my youngest. Would they be there? But after a while, we stopped caring. I perused the program… there was his name, but no asterisks or other funny marks after his name that would denote members of the honor society, scholarship recipients, and other honorees. My son – whose ninth grade math teacher had said he should be a math major – now simply had his name listed. But at least he was graduating – something that was not a foregone conclusion just a few months earlier, thanks to a spate of unexcused absences.
And then – there he was. As fate would have it, his seat was on the end of a row in full view of the bleachers. I moved down to take a closer look. Did he see me? I think he did.
As the graduates were called, I moved even closer in order to take his photo. His name was announced, and he proceeded down the reception line of teachers and administrators, stopping to shake hands. I snapped away with my iPhone and got the best picture of him when he stopped for the photographer at the end of the line and posed with his diploma.
The ceremony finally concluded. Parents and family flooded onto the field. We lost track of him for a while in the scrum, but then my wife spotted him walking by himself off the field.
“Go,” she urged me, “Go find your son.”
He spotted me as he approached the gate that separated us. No acknowledgment – not a word. He passed through the gate. I approached him, congratulated him, told him I was proud of him. I handed him the commemorative t-shirt; he grabbed it from my hand – but never stopped walking. He didn’t say a word, but simply kept walking back to the school. My wife snapped a picture of him from the back. We ended up walking behind him for a while as we made our way back to our car. He never looked back.
My wife and I went out for lunch, and then we went to the mall. I thank God for my wife. She kept me grounded and centered the entire time – encouraging me to do the right thing and pushing me to do so when required. It would’ve been easy to plunge into a full-out pity party, if not outright depression, but she wouldn’t let me go there.
That said, I couldn’t help but feel wistful as I reflected on the day. I couldn’t help but think about what could’ve been – or, more accurately, what should’ve been. While there are certainly no guarantees in life, I can certainly tell you that I never in my wildest dreams thought, when I was holding my infant son, that I would one day be experiencing this. My son – my extremely smart, witty, good-looking, talented son – barely got to be a high school graduate. And all the dreams of a father – the dreams of teaching him how to shave or how to drive, the excitement of visiting colleges, of sharing moments at a game or helping him get ready for the prom – all gone, never to be experienced.
That afternoon and evening, the pictures from the graduation started to pop up on Facebook. There they were, like needles being stuck into my eyeballs – pictures of proud parents standing next to their children. I posted pictures taken from afar, but at least taken and posted with pride. We joked that the picture of his back as he walked away would be our graduation picture. We were able to laugh at that notion because of our knowledge of the pathology of parental alienation; we both fully understand the dynamics that caused my son to act the way he did (it wasn’t his fault). But we also both knew that the picture of him walking away, back turned towards us, was also the perfect metaphor for the pain that we suffered that day.
My wife has a wonderful saying that is her equivalent of “that dog won’t hunt.” As I got close to tipping over into Pity City by thinking about the what-ifs, what-should’ve-beens and what-could’ve-beens, she said it: “You can’t expect a guy in a wheelchair to kick a field goal.” She reminded me that there was no other way that this could be. And you know what? She’s right. There was a myriad of decisions, actions, actors, and circumstances that led up to this situation, and there wasn’t a thing I can do about the past.
I can, however, change who I am right now, and what I’m going to do in the future. That change started when I learned that parental alienation was a “thing” – that there was a label (if imperfect) and that I wasn’t the only one experiencing this. It started when I vowed to do something about it – for my children and for other children. It started when I got help by reaching out to a professional who is an expert in the field. And it started when I sorted through the roller coaster of emotions and feelings of graduation day and ended up where I needed to be: I saw my son, and he saw me.