Saturday, June 06, 2009

Dear Matthew

Dear Matt;

I've been staring at this blank screen for the past two hours, trying to figure out what to write. After all, it's not everyday that your oldest graduates from college and starts to make his way in the world. And that means that this may be the last time I will get your full attention for the rest of your life. For your graduation is many things: an accomplishment, the turning of a page, the beginning of a new journey, to name but a few. But most assuredly, it is the start of your journey.

For after this rite of passage, you are truly on your own. Oh, I don't mean we won't see you, or visit with you, or spend time talking with you. But with each passing day and experience, you have grown more sure of yourself and less in need of our support. Of course, that's how it should be; we would want nothing less. Still, you could argue that at this juncture, our work... the work that is you... is finished.

That point was crystallized for me when you were in the city last week. We spoke via phone, and agreed to meet at the station to catch the train home. As I came down the escalator, I scanned the hall looking for you. My gaze swept over you several times, not realizing it was you. Yes, you had your back towards me, but it was something else. I was looking for my child: a little kid I had played soccer with, had read stories to, had made pancakes for. He wasn't there. When I changed my focus to look for a confident young man, one who was comfortable with who he was and ready to take on the challenges before him, I recognized you in an instant.

So on this momentous occasion, what to tell you that I haven't already? It seems that there are a thousand cautions and exhortations I could convey about life and how to live it. In truth, though, they are no different than those I have been flinging at you non-stop since the day you were born. They represent the things I have done right, those I have done wrong, those I wished I had done and those I wish I hadn't. No doubt you will agree with some and dismiss others. But the bottom line is that if those messages haven't gotten through by now, it is unlikely that these meager words will do so.

Still, I wish I had some magic phrase or exhortation that I could give you to guide you through your life. But you've likely heard them all in one form or another over time, from your mom and me and many others. Many may be trite and simplistic, but that doesn't make them any less valid. However, they can all be reduced to this: answer to your heart, and nothing else. As I have told your brother and you from the very beginning, there is only one standard you have to live up to: yours. Mind you, that's not always an easy bar to clear. But if you can honestly say that you've done the best that you can for yourself and those you care about with what you are given, you can ask no more.

Selfishly, I wish you weren't where you are in the world. I'd much rather think of you as ours forever. But it's at this time that we formally hand over the deed that we had on you. Mom has a little sign on her desk with a quote from Elizabeth Stone that sums it up neatly: "Making the decision to have a child is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body." I have never felt it so true as I do on this occasion.

You face turbulent times, but times which you and your peers are better equipped to deal with than any generation that preceded you. When great trials engulfed the country, Lincoln said, "It is not 'can any of us imagine better?' but, 'can we all do better?' The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion." And so it is with you. I must say I feel better knowing you are there for us all.

But enough grand statements. As I read what I've written, I fear it may come across as cold or distant. Nothing could be further from the truth. As you take this next giant step, we watch with joy, with sadness, with excitement and with wonder. We are thrilled for you and proud of you. Yes, it is trite, but it is true: parents should give their children roots and wings. Remember the first, make sure to use the second. And most importantly, know that wherever you fly, we love you.


Matthew Wollin graduates this weekend from Williams College. You can send him greetings at His dad's column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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