I am sitting in the bleachers, watching my son and hundreds of his classmates file into Franklin Field, the University of Pennsylvania's football stadium. The dark phalanx of antlike creatures marches in perfect order, breaking apart only when it reaches the continent of folding chairs that, given how efficiently and single-mindedly the ants are filling them, must have been sprayed with honey.
Blinking back tears, like most everyone around me, I search for my son in the sea of arthropods.
Suddenly, there he is, his face upturned, scanning the bleachers. I jump to my feet and start waving. Arms flying back and forth above my head, I resemble a windmill. Or maybe an airport worker guiding a plane on the tarmac.
I see him smile, then laugh as he pulls his camera out of his pocket. He snaps a picture as he waves back, then he turns and goes to find his honey-coated seat.
What is it about graduations that makes them so moving? Why do we all tend to cry as we watch our sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews parade around in dark robes?
We cry partly because we are programmed to. "Pomp and Circumstance" is the musical equivalent of a fresh-cut onion. Whether you're hearing it for the first or the 50th time, tears flow the moment you catch a strain of it.
We also cry because, no matter how old our offspring are, and no matter how much they have accomplished, in our hearts they will always be our babies. It makes no difference if my son grows a beard or wears robes as distinguished as Albus Dumbledore's; in my eyes he is still the little boy I carry around the house to comfort at 3 a.m. when he's not feeling well, the little boy who knows the name of every engine ever to grace Thomas the Tank Engine's train yard. Seeing him down there among the visiting dignitaries seems almost as incongruous as watching a toddler in a television commercial trade stocks on his smart phone.
And, of course, we cry because something wonderful is ending, and we miss it already. Whatever is on its way to replace it will not be the same. It has been such a gift to have my son go to college close to home, to be able to see him often, to meet him once a week for a run on Kelly Drive, to never have to worry about whether he will be able to make the trip home for a holiday.
But this was a time-limited gift. My son will attend graduate school in California. We will talk and text and Skype like crazy, and visit as often as we (or he) can. There will undoubtedly be all sorts of new, as yet undiscovered, gifts. But it will not be the same. You cannot go for a run with a text message. You cannot hug a computer screen.
The other night my son showed me the photo he took from the football field: There I am, arms in the air, a windmill in a purple dress, ready to guide any plane that needs me.
As I looked at the photo I recognized the wave. Every summer we spend time on a small island in Maine. When visitors are leaving, going back to the mainland by ferry, that is the wave I use. As the ferry pulls out I shout goodbye. Then I stand on the dock, windmilling my arms like crazy as the ferry recedes toward the horizon, as it and its specks of passengers shrink into invisibility.