As her son prepares for his final year of high school, writer and adoptive mom Susanne Antonetta holds fast to the moments and milestones still to come.
There are days when my son’s growing up feels like what it is — slow and gradual. And there are days like today, when I look at his six-foot-tall, 17-year-old self and feel as if I lost track of time somewhere, and he went from an infant to this near-adult boy while I looked for my missing glasses, or stirred up lemonade, or something. Nothing gives me this what-the-heck-happened feeling quite like the word graduation.
We adopted our son, Jin, from South Korea. All we had of Jin before he came home was a tiny photograph, barely bigger than one from a photo booth. It was a surreal way to become a parent, driving to an airport several hours away from our home in Bellingham with an empty car seat we had clicked various teddy bears into, to make sure we had the safety moves down.
Jin could not yet crawl or roll over when he arrived, though my husband Bruce and I sensed neither of these milestones was far off; our new baby worked his limbs like a sea turtle when we put him down to play. As we might have guessed, he went from rolling over to crawling, then to cruising and walking, at a dizzying speed; by eight months, a little over three months from his arrival, Jin took his first step.
Jin’s achieving speech felt a little harder to imagine. We understood what our baby felt when he made those feelings all too clear: he giggled when we tickled him, he cried when he was hungry. He woke up grumpy from naps, frowning and rubbing his eyes, and we took wake-up walks up and down the block to jolly him out of that.
As all parents do, we knew that one day Jin would talk; still, it felt unimaginable that sooner or later, when we wanted to know what Jin was feeling, we could ask him and he would tell us.
But one day, when Jin was just at the stage where he could say Mama and Dada and not much else, my husband Bruce swung him at our local park. Bruce asked Jin, in that no-expectations way you use to talk to a tiny human, whether Jin wanted to go home and throw the ball for the dog, or stay at the park a little longer. To Bruce’s enduring surprise, Jin raised his little hand behind his head, curving it around an imaginary ball and pretending to throw it. Bruce called me and told me the story. And then we knew that, yes indeed, Jin would speak. He could understand us already.
Fast forward: Jin is 17 now, and a year away from graduating from high school. He is in the process of getting his driver’s license. It was not as strange as I would have expected for him to drive. But graduation? With graduating from high school comes independence, leaving home. And while it’s a year off still, it feels just a breath away.
Of course, parents go into this process knowing it will lead to this — maturity, independence, a life of the adult child’s own. Parenting is the one piece of business we take on in our lives in which the worst outcome, and the best, can be the same. It’s our job to make our children capable enough to do the one thing we most resist, or at least I do: leave us.
For adoptive parents, I think, these moments can feel even harder: it took so much, so many forms and interviews, so much staring at a little photograph and waiting for news of a plane, so many miles for this child to come into my life. Why is it just as easy as it is for any other child for him to leave me?
I am watching the clock of Jin’s final year of high school with a sense of nostalgia, noticing even the small things that may never happen again: driving him to school in the morning, his first prom.
At the tux fitting for Jin’s prom last month, it took me so long to find a parking space in our downtown that I dropped him off, and when I finally made it to the shop, Jin was sitting with a saleswoman, casually explaining the shoes he wanted.
“I prefer the square-toe formal shoes,” he informed her, and I thought to myself: what is this? How does he even know there are square-toed formal shoes?
And this is one of the secrets to our kids growing up: somehow, without us knowing it, they have become capable adults who know things we couldn’t imagine they might know. It’s all strange. And a little sad, and exhilarating, in equal measure. I will try to take this last year together intentionally. That’s all I can do — notice the milestones, try to get around that how-did-it-happen feeling by paying attention. I’m going to go back to the journal I kept when Jin was a baby, keeping it all fresh for those days when he has thrown his cap into the air, and walked out the door into the rest of his life.
Susanne Antonetta | Bellingham, WA
Susanne Antonetta is the author of the recently published memoir Make Me a Mother.