Today is your last day of 5th grade.
When you were just 5 years old, you held the hands of both of your parents as you stood on the big field, waiting for the first day of kindergarten. It was loud and filled with hundreds of people and you were uncharacteristically quiet. Your eyes were big and you squeezed my hand. I squeezed it back three times to say, “I love you” in our secret code.
When it was time for the adults to leave, you clung to me and to your father. You cried and screamed for us, and in the end, your teacher had to hold you while we left. There were 26 kindergarteners in your class but you were the one she had to hold.
I cried in the hallway outside your classroom, sinking my face into your father’s chest. “She’s just so little to be in this big school,” I said, as though all of the other kids weren’t also the same size.
But I didn’t go back inside. I let you stay there out there in the big world without me and without your dad.
It wasn’t the first time you’d been without us, of course, but it felt so momentous. Kindergarten. As I left, I thought about how much you were going to learn in the six years you’d be in that building. I saw the fifth graders in the hall and thought about how big you were going to get. I couldn’t imagine what the future held, but it felt like the first of many times I’d have to let you go.
You faced a whole lifetime of emotions, it seems, when you were in that building. Just a few years after that scene in the kindergarten classroom, we found out your father had cancer, and you cried, because you didn’t really understand what that meant but you knew that cancer was very, very bad. And yet, you still went to school that winter. You walked down the same hallways and talked to the same friends and had the same teachers say “hi Claire” to you every day of his illness. And every day after he died, you did the same thing in those hallways, and the people in those hallways did the same thing they’d always done. “Hi, Claire,” I’d hear them say to you every single day. Often, you’d get a hug too.
You were scared a lot that year – scared of facing the other kids in your classroom and scared of eating alone in the cafeteria. You were scared of cancer and death and things that no 8-year-old should have to think about. But you still went to school, and even though my heart broke a little each day as you walked away from me and towards your classroom, I knew it was important that I let you go. That I let you face this world.
When your father was dying, he began to make a series of videos for you to watch throughout your lifetime. We had a whole list of events you’d likely experience, and we figured he should make a video for each of them. But as you know, he died too quickly, and he could only make a couple of them.
He made a video for your birthday and one for you to watch when you needed advice, and then it was time to make one more. The next video he was supposed to make was “5th grade graduation,” but he was too sick that next day. He didn’t get the chance.
I’m not sure what he would have said on the video. That was two and a half years ago, and you’ve grown so much since then that it’s hard to remember how we once imagined your future.
But I knew your father, and I knew what he wanted for you. So if I had to take a guess, think he would have said something like this:
Claire, today you are graduating from elementary school. You have made it through the first part of your childhood, and you have done it with an open heart and a joyful spirit. I know that the future will be good for you, but not because it will always be easy. There will be times that are hard, because life is like that, but what I want you to know is that you can get through those times. You will have your mother and your brothers and so many other people who love you and who will continue to surround you with love. And you will have yourself. So when you’re feeling like things are hard, you just have to remember who you are: a strong, thoughtful and brilliant young woman with a family that will always stand by you.
I love you. You are my girl.
I know you don’t have your dad to say those words to you today, but you have me. And I have you.
Yes, I’ve had to let you go in this world, and that’s meant that sometimes you’ve experienced hardship and lived through pain. But I’ll always be your home base, baby. So as you become older, reach out towards the world, move apart from me and grow up, know this:
Your mama is always here, watching and waiting. I cannot protect you from everything, but I can wrap my arms around you when you are sad or scared or so excited you just don’t know what to do. Go out into the world, but know that your family is here back at home, always waiting for you.
I’m so proud of you, Claire. Happy graduation.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.