The tears were unexpected.
We're talking about 8th grade graduation--pardon me, "promotion"--here. A milestone, a signpost, sure, but not exactly the greatest of all accomplishments. Even the school sought to tamp down on the celebration, ripping through the ceremony with minimal pomp. They advised parents to treat the ceremony as a beginning, rather than an ending, and while seeking not to de-emphasize its importance, to remind us parents that we should expect our kids to be able to make it past the 8th grade.
So, at the end of a tidy 35 minutes ("thank you," say the parents trying to keep a three-year-old from spazzing out in a large crowd), a whoop went up and AJ came over to us. He hugged us each in turn, his step-father, his Mom, Emet, Caleb and me. I had no inkling I was about to start sobbing uncontrollably. But I did. That's not the unexpected part. No, what surprised me, all of us, was when I saw the tears in AJ's eyes.
When my marriage broke up nine years ago, I could not have imagined this day. I couldn't imagine anything. AJ was four and every time I looked at him, thought of him, innocent and all-trusting, I hurt exponentially worse for him than I did for myself. Which saved me a long, drawn-out healing process. Because I knew I had to protect him from whatever was happening between his mother and I. And that, more than anything else, moved me past my own self-pity. It was necessary for him to know where he stood in my life and I kept him front and center.
Now, all these years later, he knows this. Maybe he doesn't articulate it, but it shows in his actions. He knows, without a doubt, I have his back. Even when I have to discipline him, he knows it's not adversarial, that I'm on his side.
He's a very loving kid, a fact which manifests itself in a curious physical way. He's always touching me. It used to kind of annoy me, personal space and all that. Like, whenever we walk from the car, through a parking lot, into the store, to the park, he grabs on to my arm. As the years have gone by, I've not only expected him to do that, but looked forward to it. He's growing up, moving closer to leaving the nest, so I take comfort in him still being there, not yet burdened by cynicism. Lately, I've taken to wrapping my arm around him, pulling him close as we walk.
I asked him later why he was crying. I wanted to make sure he wasn't sad. He assured me he wasn't and said he didn't know why. I laughed and said I didn't know why, either. I suppose he's like his Dad in this way, sensitive to his surroundings, finding meaning in important events, in touch with how he feels. He admitted he'd really enjoyed his two years in junior high, the friends he made, and he'll no longer live inside that school setting. Of course I understood and emphasized he'll have the same friends next year, albeit in a much larger high school setting, and he'll be surprised how many memories he'll make there.
He's lucky. I tell him this all the time. He's lucky he has a step-father and a step-mother who really care about him. That's not the case everywhere. Some of his friends are even examples of that. Divorce is a tough, adversarial deal. Unless you choose for it not to be.
To be sure, a lot of the credit goes to him. I've asked him frequently over the years if it bothers him that his parents are divorced. That he has to shuttle back and forth a couple times a week to different houses. He's never complained. We've had some bumpy times, no doubt. When he went from the only child at two homes to having a baby at one and a step-brother at the other. He acted out to get attention. But that was fleeting. Because he's always had our attention. All of us.
We all went out to dinner last night. Parents, step- and otherwise, his brother (hurling forks at the wait staff) and step-brother. We laughed and toasted and did our best to tell embarrassing AJ stories. It was really fun and made me just stop to remember a bunch of amazing days in the last nine, the last 13, years.
One, in particular encapsulates AJ. When Emet and I told him we were getting married, he told her, excitedly "You're going to be a Mom for the first time!" This is not a child who is inflexible, who needs to cast people in defined role. He has love for everyone.
So maybe that's what the tears were after the ceremony. He hugged us all in turn. And it hit him.
They all have my back.