Paul Schneider explains what it feels like to be a divorced father at his daughter’s graduation.
This morning my 18-year daughter graduated from high school.
What a strange journey it was – and that was only in the three hours leading up to the ceremony:
I awoke today, with my body a jangle of emotions. My stomach especially was at once heavy and shaky, turning over and trying to force something, some sort of indecipherable sound, up through my throat. What finally emerged wasn’t a noise, but rather weeping, then profound deep-within-my-soul bawling.
For a few minutes, much as my girlfriend tried by holding me, I felt inconsolable. At the same time, her arms around me felt loving, caring and yet a part of me didn’t want her there. I just wanted to be alone with my grief.
But was it grief? And did I want to be alone?
The sensation felt like the same staccato painful crying I had experienced when I used to do deep grieving work with my therapist, and I realized that, though I wasn’t grieving here, I was crying for generations, crying for my mother, my grandmother, father and grandfather. I was calling out for them to help me through this.
Still the confusion picked at me: through what? Crying, pain-releasing sobbing – but why?
As soon as the question emerged, an answer came into plain view:
I’d never been the father of a child (child? She’s 18!) about to receive her diploma; this was my first rodeo. I was however, and continue to be, a divorced father of two who struggles daily with the idea that I don’t get to see my kids every day, and spends countless hours wondering, “What am I missing right now?” “What have I been missing up til now?” “What if….?”
The “what if” scenario disappears pretty quickly; there’s no wayback machine for me to jump into, set a few dials and try to re-write history. Since the day of my divorce, however, I’ve wrestled with the idea that I’m not there for my kids.
I’ve come to realize that that’s utter nonsense, that just because I’m not living under the same roof with them every day, doesn’t mean I’m not there for them. I like to think we have a close relationship, and I’m confident (perhaps naively, but it’s all I have to go on) that they tell me everything that goes on with them, or at least a majority. But that doesn’t mean I don’t long to be with them every day.
And this was the thought that floated around my head looking for a reason, a place to land so that I could face it head-on and try to make sense of it:
“It’s like I’m a prisoner in jail and they’re calling to me and freeing me and saying, ‘OK. You can go be part of this for these few minutes, but then you gotta go back in again.’ Like I’m way over here somewhere and then I get to go over to where she is and then I have to come way back over here again.”
My girlfriend massaged my psyche through this, reminding me that what I was feeling was just a feeling, that it wasn’t real. I was in my head. Reality was outside.
Once we got at to Northwestern, where the graduation was taking place, I realized she was right. Once I sat down inside Welsh-Ryan Arena and saw Ruby among the class of 2015, that emerging reality kicked that feeling out the door and took over that space. Once again I was reminded, for about the millionth time, what nonsense the thought was to begin with.
The day belonged to my daughter. It was all about her.
It was her graduation. And it was my lesson.