This piece appeared in the WEEKEND section of the Commencement Issue for the Class of 2014.
All my friends who have already graduated and are living out in the real world tell me that they miss their parents. They say they miss her cooking. They miss his stupid jokes.
My parents have never told me what they missed about their own parents. My mother’s parents passed within a year of each other when she was a few years out of college, leaving her responsible for four underage siblings as well as newborn me. My father’s mother died last year in May, 12 years to the day after the death of my grandfather. My mother occasionally comments that my father is more childish because he had more time with his mom and dad, because his growth wasn’t arrested and then fast-forwarded, in the same way hers was. My father had the opportunity to grow up with a parental safety net, so he believes in preserving the many liberties of childhood. But my mother left adolescence so far behind that youth is another language to her altogether. Both my parents strive to impress upon me how different life after graduation — life as an adult — will be. But the questions surrounding their absence, or the absence of their own parents — why my father visited his mother’s grave this Mother’s Day, or why my mother drove 30 miles on impassable roads to clear the dirt from her father’s grave— are never broached.
Today, like my mother 21 years ago and my father last May, I am standing on the cusp of my parents’ disappearance. The cliff I’m staring down has a stomach-churning, seemingly bottomless drop. I’m graduating soon, and I don’t really have a five-year plan because my parents and I can’t seem to agree on what’s worth my time. More importantly, my parents tell me that my line of credit with them has almost run its course. “What’s up with that?” I asked an aunt last week when I called her to complain. “I’m not planning on living at home, and I’m applying to grad school soon — so why aren’t they helping me out here?”
“What kind of help?” she responded, and I found that I couldn’t answer her. I guess I meant financial or emotional support, at first — but then I thought about all my post-graduate friends, and their disappointment at life after mom and dad.
Both of my parents, at some point, taught me how to read, how to avoid directly telling people that they’re rude while letting my eyes do all the talking, how to hold myself (with grace, in silence, with confidence) when things start going downhill. I send my father countless whiny texts demanding to know how it could be possible that he is always, always late to pick me up at the airport, then try my hardest not to smile as he produces long-stemmed sunflowers from the back seat. My parents have made me into someone I enjoy being, and only at the edge of their constancy’s withdrawal have I realized it.
“What kind of help?” my aunt asked me, and in retrospect I have to roll my eyes. I was being told that my parents had done enough, in the middle of my asking why they wouldn’t do more.
When I moved into college, on the last day of move-in, my mother started crying in the middle of an argument between my dad, my brother and me about how often exactly I was expected to call my father each week.
“You call us,” my mother commanded, as if unaware that the rest of her family was staring at her in uncomfortable shock. “Call us if you need help with anything — food, books, homework, money — you call us.”
While I may not have been the most dutiful caller, I did pick up their calls, at least for a while. But parents call at 11 p.m., when you’re on your way to penny drinks, or at 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, when you are definitely not at church and definitely not in the mood for family gossip. Recently, I discovered that the best way to avoid the unavoidably taboo act of hanging up on your parents is to not answer their calls. And while they never stopped calling, I felt finally — peacefully, blissfully — out of touch.
Two weeks ago, as I finished up my finals, I asked my parents to avoid speaking to me, and told them I would finish our last argument on my post-graduation plans afterwards. My father ignored my request and texted and called nearly every day. This text read ominously: “In life you should never waste your allocated time … always remember that the clock is ticking and not to lose the time given to you. Show your love. Don’t keep it in. Say it. Time, life, death are not under our control.” Still frustrated with his previous efforts at contacting me, I didn’t respond. An hour later, my mother called to tell me that my father was in the hospital and undergoing surgery following a severe heart attack—his sixth and, perhaps, final one.
I almost didn’t pick up her call. I almost decided to turn my phone off to avoid her. What I sought—the absence of my parents—was a desire so all-encompassing that I thought briefly she was lying to me just to break my silence. I had forgotten, in my rush to grow up and to make decisions without them, that more fleeting than the Yale experience is the presence of my parents in my life.
This Mother’s Day, I called my mother early in the morning at my father’s behest. He texted me from the kitchen as he was making her breakfast and joked that he’d gifted her with his life and there was no way I could outdo him. She didn’t pick up, and for once I didn’t panic — didn’t think immediately of the possibility that she and my father had been kidnapped, that she’d been bitten by a snake in the tangle of our wild backyard, that she’d left something on the stove for too long. Instead, I left her a voicemail and sent a follow-up text.
Contact Larissa Liburd at firstname.lastname@example.org.