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Graduation: When parenting becomes art appreciation

May 27, 2018 Updated: May 29, 2018 at 8:07 am
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Zola Bzdek walks down the aisle after receiving her diploma the 2018 Cheyenne Mountain High School commencement ceremony at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs on Sunday, May 27, 2018. (Photo by Kelsey Brunner, The Gazette)

My daughter Zola, who graduated from high school over the weekend, once asked me a long time ago to watch an episode of a favorite show of hers on Netflix, "Dr. Who."

Dr. Who is a time-traveling adventurer/do-gooder whose ship looks a lot like a blue police box in London. In this particular episode, Dr. Who has joined Vincent Van Gogh in a battle against alien demons only the two of them can see. It's toward the end of Van Gogh's life, and the famous painter is in an asylum recovering from his severed ear and a nervous breakdown, having sold only one painting in his life, to his brother Theo.

After the demons are slain, our hero decides to take Van Gogh on a journey in his time machine to present-day Paris for a visit to the Musée D'Orsay. There, Van Gogh gets to see dozens and dozens of his paintings hanging majestically on the museum's walls. While there, Dr. Who maneuvers Van Gogh near a curator, who is explaining all the reasons Van Gogh, who died thinking he was an utter failure, is the greatest artist who ever lived.

The look on Van Gogh's face is one of complete, soul-deep, redemptive joy.

If only we could show our own graduates, right now, a similar glimpse of how wonder-filled and glorious their futures will be. I'd give anything at this moment to take my daughter in Dr. Who's blue box to catch a glimpse of her future days - which I am utterly certain will be things of magnificence and splendor - so that she, too, can know that this will all be worth it in the long run, that she should follow her heart's deepest desire and everything will turn out just as it should. If only I could pass on my confidence in that future as a Whovian gift to her now, as she leaves high school, for a destiny unknown.

In this season of graduation, it's the parents I worry about more than the graduates. Some piece of our souls is leaving us forever these May weekends, and as proud as we are, the hole from that lost part will never really scar over.

We have built our lives around them, and what happens now, when the very reason for that superstructure is slipping away?

It's a weekend filled with self-questioning for me as a result. Will she ever come back home when she's away at college? Did I do enough? Too much? Did I get her into the right college? Did I spend enough time helping her with homework? Was I too hard on her? Too soft? Was I around enough? Did I lose my temper too often? Did I teach her enough about her heart and imagination, rather than just facts, facts, facts? Will she be safe? Will she have opportunities equal to men, equal to mine? Did I explain the smelly, dank recesses of teenage boys' minds to her adequately? Will the cold, hard, real world appreciate her as much as she deserves? Or will it break her the way it often does the gentlest and best of us?

It's a roller-coaster ride through every worry and regret and fear I've ever experienced as a parent.

But on the last day of high school, after sending her a video of Alice Cooper playing "School's Out," which happily punctuated my own high school graduation a million years ago, an emotion in this worry-storm hits me that I hadn't bargained on.

Happiness.

Looking through the portfolio of all the artwork my daughter had created during high school - buildings she's treasured, cities she'd visited, people and canyons and mountains that she'd grown to love in her time here in Colorado - I lingered over the self-portraits. It occurred to me that this child of mine had designed and drawn her own unique self over the last 17 years, beyond and outside any outlines I created for her. Maybe I erased and colored in here and there, but this girl has been drawing her own life for some time.

So then, who am I to argue with self portraits that show a smiling, serene, beautiful girl/woman? It occurred to me, truly seeing how this graduate sees herself, that somehow, someway, despite all my faults and misfirings and slacker-dad mistakes, she's pulled herself through. Happy. Without losing a limb, without going off a cliff, with her heart and soul large and intact, with accomplishments and friends and a social circle and a future. Despite my flaws and absences, there's a resilience and drive and generosity in her that surpasses all I imagined she'd become. Perhaps she's better for those flaws and absences even - now she knows what not to do.

This graduate, all of our graduates, if we think past our worries for more than half a minute, they're walking works of art.

Near the end of the movie "Parenthood," Steve Martin's young son somehow finally sets aside his years of crippling self-doubt to catch a baseball and win the big game for his Little League team. Martin goes insane with full-body joy in that way only Steve Martin can, and soon tells his wife that his son's accomplishment means more to him than anything he's ever accomplished in his own life.

No kidding.

When it's your kid's accomplishment, for some reason it's so much better than your own, maybe because it's the culmination of a shared enterprise of so many years - block-long chalk drawings done on the sidewalk together, pretend restaurants made out of seaweed and starfish on the beach, last-minute tweaks to the college applications finished together at one minute until midnight.

This graduation represents a lot of shared stories, it's a bigger, more tightly braided thing than any individual accomplishment can possibly be. Go to Gazette.com and take a look at the faces in our galleries upon galleries of graduates from all the high schools around here. There's a real, genuine joy in the faces in those galleries, the joy of self-possession.

When you can see your child's own self-created happiness in her eyes, and the look reminds you of that look in Van Gogh's eyes when he realizes he made it after all, your own happiness is about a hundredfold.

"How you doing?" her mom asked her a couple days ago, right before her big, final-ever high school tennis match - mom probably being worried more about how mom and dad were doing, really, than how our daughter was doing.

"You kiddin'?" our daughter said. "I'm on top of the world."

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