I’m on the elevator when the girls get on, a tightly clustered group of young women, heads together, poring over a map of the college campus, excitement and anxiety in every line of their tilted heads, in the eager way they gaze around, and reluctance with which they approach strangers and other students. It is a long elevator ride up to the fourth floor, and I have perfected the art of being overlooked, of standing quietly enough in the back that I blend in, and they begin to forget I am there, an unknown adult on her way to work, riding an elevator on an early summer morning, and so I hear them chat and worry and argue over where to go next, and what the most important things to see, to discover, and to understand are, and I am sure I was never this young, never looked at the world with such awe and determination and angst and apprehension, but I think this every year as convocation approaches, as the halls and walkways and study carrels in the library begin to fill with new freshmen, and I think “was I ever that naive” and although the answer is obviously yes, I can’t believe it, not really, especially when I catch the eye of the parents walking behind them on their college tours, those parents who are just as apprehensive as their children, and I think of my own rapidly growing house full of young adults, and we share a glance, those parents and I, a nod of understanding and empathy, and maybe a little bit of fear.
Last year for Christmas, my husband bought our kids matching t-shirts. Royal blue and white, the words “Decisions Determine Destiny” emblazoned across the front in bold lettering. And it is true. Their decisions will determine their destinies, in more ways than one—the trajectory of their lives, their futures, their half-formed plans about what they want to do and to be; and I wonder, as I have watched my two oldest daughters engage in this same ritual of entering college, and watched as they begin to sever the childhood ties that have bound them so tightly to our home, watched as they start to learn who they are and what they want; and I wonder as my third child, a son, graduates high school and prepares to follow his sisters—I wonder what those decisions will be, and if they truly understand the implications of their rampant curiosity and fledgling independence and headlong insistence on writing their own stories in bold black letters across the empty spaces they leave in our hearts.
And I worry about those decisions, in the quiet, still moments of the day when the chaos of having four children between the ages of 21 and 15 in one house has ebbed, when they have left for work or have left for fun or have fallen asleep sprawled across the living room floor, the only time they are quiet is when they are either gone or asleep. And I worry when I watch the news, with stories of terror and prejudice and bigotry, and I worry when they leave the house each day, and before they come home each night. And I am not sure there are words for this, for watching your children begin to become the people you have always hoped they would, and the anxiety of all the pitfalls and perils that lie in their way, and the wish you have that you could sweep it all out of their path, and the knowledge that you can’t. As well as the hope you feel as they begin to build lives that ripple outward, begin to become people who you not only love, but like as well, begin to make choices that you might not have made, but that fit the lives they are creating for themselves in unique and lovely ways.
But there are no words for this sort of feeling, and so all you can do is watch and witness, and pray and hope; and you find yourself telling stories, stories that are really a prayer—that your children will find themselves making the kind of choices that lead to joy and satisfaction and surprise and awe in the discovery that they have been able to change the world into a shape that fits them exactly, that they will advocate and defend, that they will build and shape and engineer a future that is better than even the one you can imagine; because, after all, their decisions will determine their destinies, and this phrase is not only a statement but another prayer—for there are many when it comes to raising children—this prayer muttered hastily in the back of an elevator as it travels four short floors, and I watch three unknown college freshman step up, step out, and walk away, all nervous energy and potential that reminds me to look around at the important things, even the important things found in a nondescript elevator on the way to work on a summer morning.