My son Nathan graduated from high school in 1998. Wow! That’s 20 years next year. Can’t believe it. Anyway, I was asked to give a parent’s response at his baccalaureate service all those years ago. As I’ve spent the last couple of weekends with graduation activities for the high school seniors in our church family, I thought I might help parents a bit by sharing some of my remarks at my son’s baccalaureate 19 years ago.
Did you ever see Fiddler on the Roof? One of the classic songs to come out of that musical seems fitting for us parents on a day like today:
Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older.
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn't it yesterday when they were small?
Sunrise, sunset; sunrise, sunset;
Swiftly fly the days.
For most of you graduates, the speed of the last eighteen years may have felt like a round of golf on a busy day: hit and wait; hit and wait; hit and wait. But for us parents, these years have felt more like a fast break in basketball; like an 80-yard touchdown pass—just a few seconds and it's over. So cut us a little slack if we seem a little more sentimental, a little more nostalgic than usual. Be patient with us if we run through a box or two of Kleenex dabbing our misty eyes. This is all pretty emotional for us. We're happy for you, but we're a little sad all at the same time. It's sort of like swimming through a bowl of sweet and sour sauce.
You see, we remember. We remember how our hearts leapt when the doctor told us you were on the way. We remember lying in bed at night trying to come up with a name we could both agree on—we hope you like it okay. We remember the thrill of holding you in our arms for that very first time. And when we did, well, something happened inside of us that let us know we would be connected forever. You were bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh. And if you have been adopted, you are the very child of our choice. And we are bound together—bound in ways words cannot articulate. We dads remember proudly pointing you out to others through that nursery window at the hospital—and even though we may not have said it out loud, we believed in our hearts that you were the pick of the litter, the finest looking baby in the bunch. We still do.
And we remember taking you home. Video cameras cost about a zillion dollars in those days so most parents didn’t have them. But we had an instamatic camera, and we got plenty of snapshots of that Kodak moment. Now I know you don't remember this stuff, but trust me, you were there. And some of us parents can see it as if happened yesterday, and we remember it.
And we remember when reality set in. We quickly discovered that you weren't a doll in a box. You were a person, and you were determined to let us know that you were in the house and you were claiming your space. You woke us up a lot those first few months. We dads usually pretended to be asleep so mom would have to tend to you, but you woke us up too. And before any teacher ever schooled you in the "three r's" of "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic," you gave us a thorough education in the three p's—pee, poop, and puke—and you were very undiscerning about when and where you did all three. You took a lot of patience in those first many months. I read about a young father in the supermarket pushing the shopping cart which held his screaming baby. The father could be heard muttering gently under his breath, "Easy, Freddy, calm down now. Everything's all right, boy. Come on, Freddy, don't get upset." A woman customer gave him a real pat on the back by saying, "You are very patient with little Freddy." To which the young father replied, "Lady, I'm Freddy." Most of us parents, we've been there—many, many times over these last eighteen years we've been there.
Parenting is such a roller-coaster ride. We've walked with you from most of your firsts to many of your lasts in this era of your life. We remember so many firsts with fondness: first tooth, first word, first step, first haircut—back when we got to choose the style. We remember the first ballgame, the first recital, the first day of school, the first date. Those firsts were happy firsts. But other firsts were more trying: your first big sin against what you knew was right—that moment when we realized that you weren't as perfect as we hoped you were. Then there was your first note from the teacher, your first trip to the emergency room. And then when you started driving, well, that ushered in a whole new set of worries. Many of us have felt like the dad who received this Father's Day card from his sixteen-year-old son. The card reads: "Dad, everything I ever learned I learned from you, except one thing … The family car really will do 110." And your driving offered some of us parents a few other firsts to remember: first wreck, first ticket, first court appearance, first community service. And then, we struggled right alongside you with other firsts you experienced—like your first funeral of a loved one, your first broken heart, your first big disappointment. Parenting you has been such a mixture of worry and rejoicing, celebration and sorrow, good times and hard times. Just like life, I guess. But it's been a good ride all in all. There may have been a few times when we wanted to go to PTA meetings under an assumed name, but by and large, the journey has been a joy, and we wouldn't have missed it for the world.
So here’s some of what we want to say you graduates: "Way to go! You survived us, and all in all you look to be in good shape." How many of you are first borns?—raise your hands. Well, you were the guinea pigs many of us parents had to experiment with and learn on. Sometimes I marvel that my son Nathan is turning out as well as he is. When Nathan was about three years old, I was trying to watch a Razorback game while he was supposed to be napping. Very few Razorback games made TV in Kansas City, so I liked to devote full attention to them when they were on. But Nathan wasn't cooperating. He kept calling me for this or that, and I kept telling him to pipe down and take his nap. It became a war of words that wouldn't have escalated if I had just gone in there in taken care of the situation. But I was more interested in my game than I was in my son at that moment. So I let it get out of hand. I got so mad at his interruptions that I decided I'd fix him good … at the next commercial, of course. Since he was being so mouthy, I determined to wash out his mouth with soap—and not just any soap, but dishwashing soap. So I dragged him by his little arm into the kitchen, put a few drops of that slimy, blue liquid on my finger, and smeared it across his teeth and mouth. Then he looked up at me, tears streaming down his sweet, pudgy cheeks, and do you know what he did? He blew a soap bubble. Then I laughed and he laughed and I scooped him up in my arms and gave him a great big ol' hug. You know, I knew then that with a dad like me the kid was in trouble, but it's amazing what a little love and laughter and forgiveness can do for a family. I hope there's been a lot of that in your family. But even if there hasn't, you survived us. You made it. And now you get a fresh new start. Still, however, let's make a deal right here: we won't tell all our stories on you, if you won't tell all your stories on us.
And graduates, we also want to say thank you. Thank you for being you. We delight in you. We are so proud of you. There is no way you can know the depth of our feelings until you stand in our place in about 25 years or so. How we love you! And how we thank you. Thank you for including us in your lives, your world, your friends, and your dreams. That means a lot to us. And we say thank you.
And then we ask you something too: please be patient with us as we work at letting you go. We've been working on that ever since you've been born, some of us with more success than others. Whether it was presenting you to the church for baptism or dedication, watching you walk through the door of the primary school for your first day of kindergarten, running alongside of you steadying your bicycle and then giving you a gentle shove and cheering you on as you pedaled down the street on your own, we were learning to let you go. Giving you car keys on your 16th birthday was another big step. And now, as we celebrate your graduation and send you off to work or college, we are letting go most of all. We are going to do it, but be patient with us and understand that it's probably a good bit easier for you to be let loose than it is for us to turn loose.
After all, literally or figuratively, we've been holding your hands for a long time. And those hands weren't always so large as they are now. They once were baby hands that squeezed our fingers. Hands you used to play peek-a-boo. Hands with which you smashed spaghetti into your face while trying to get it into your mouth. They were small hands that turned the pages when we were reading you a book, tiny hands folded in prayer at bedside and at table. And those little hands were the hands we parents held when we walked you across a street or through a mall.
But now those hands are big and strong. Hands that in many cases dwarf our own. Hands strong and gentle. But hands that offer help to others. Hands that hold the potential to do much good in life. Hands that hold a growing responsibility. Hands that will find new work and challenges to tackle. Hands that will find new hands to hold. They are strong hands, big hands all right—hands strong enough and big enough to hold a diploma and firmly shake the hand of the one who gives it.
So use your hands wisely and well, okay. We will let them go. But we encourage you to put your hands into the hands of God. And then, with our two free hands, we send you on your journey with prayers and this blessing—"You are our beloved sons and daughters, in whom we are well pleased."