Connie Schultz | She’s Graduating With Wings

I am the mother, and you are the child.

That’s what I told her the day she was born. I repeated it many times over the course of 22 years.

Sometimes, they were words of reassurance. I did not ever want my daughter to feel responsible for me, or my happiness. Other times, they were an explanation behind the ground rules: I am not your friend; I am your mother.

There were times when her childish certainty collided with my maternal fears, and the ground between us threatened to shift. I quickly leveled the terrain like a sandal smoothing uneven sand. It worked. For a while.

She was 7, and I was a newly single mother, when we stood together in the empty dining room of an apartment that would soon be our home. She looked around, smiled at my anxious face and said, “Mom, I think we’re going to be really happy here.”

“Really?” I said. Then I caught myself.

“Of course, we’re going to be happy,” I said, scooping her into my arms and nuzzling her neck to make her giggle.

She was 8, standing cheek to cheek with her brand-new American Girl doll — modeled after an African-American slave named Addy — and insisting they looked like twins. Weeks passed before I understood what she meant. We were lying in bed as I read from one of the accompanying books that described Addy’s brave escape to freedom with her mother.

“See, Mommy?” Cait said. “Addy had to leave with her mom, just like you and me.”

Deep breath.

“But we aren’t afraid,” I said, and for the first time, I believed it. “We know we’re going to be fine.”

I am the mother, and you are the child.

During her adolescence, Cait illustrated how tenuous a parent’s hold can be. She was a teenager pushing the boundaries. That was her job. I was a motherly parole officer. That was my job. We were both such worker bees.

And now look at us.

My daughter graduates from college today. Whoo-boy. Some shifting sands you can’t smooth.

She’s been at college, yes, but not so far away that we couldn’t have occasional dinners and overnight visits at home. That’s about to come to an end, and I know my daughter sometimes looks at my forced fits of cheerfulness and thinks, Hmm. Mom might want to cut back on the caffeine. I was on the verge of mopey, I’m afraid.

Fortunately, reality paid a visit. Big time. I walked into our newsroom last week and found on the seat of my desk chair two large printouts displaying 1,000 faces. Most of them were young like my daughter. All of them reported by The New York Times as American dead in Afghanistan.

A colleague, I don’t know whom, had left the photos for me, perhaps hoping I would write again about this war with no end in sight. It was a jarring reminder of other parents’ loss and my inexplicable luck of the draw. Mopey? Shame on me.

Today, I will walk on Cait’s college campus wearing a smile and pockets for tissues. Cait will wear wings poised for liftoff. So like her to rub it in.

She leaves this week to help orphans in a faraway land. After that, she heads to the East Coast, where she will don City Year gear and try to teach other children how to fly.

Now it is she who gives me the lecture, the one about how I raised her to do good in the world, and it’s up to her to find the patch of Planet Earth she’s supposed to change. For weeks, she’s called every day with news of incremental departure. She picked which city she’ll work in. She found a roommate. Soon, she’ll tell me that she’s figured out the day she will leave.

“You know, I’m always just a phone call away,” she said one recent evening over dinner. I looked up from the table and stared at her happy face. She had no idea she had just repeated the very words I used when she was so afraid to leave for college.

Well, then.

I am the mother.

You are the child.

No longer.

But let’s be clear: You will always be my daughter.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and essayist for Parade magazine. Copyright 2010