Box of Tears

by Robert P. Barsanti

My son came back from April vacation with a date for prom. This fact rose up from the sea and flopped up onto the beach in front of me. I looked at this heaving thing and, as one does, accepted that this is what must be. I hate prom. It comes prancing up to the kids with unreasonable expectations and unhealthy bills. A dance in the spring rolls downhill, gathers moss, and becomes a practice wedding complete with promposals, tea-roses, and backless gowns. Then, after photos and dancing and hairstyles coming undone in Beyonce’s insistent beat, the young drive up to Gibb’s Pond for what the lawyers would refer to, as “victimization risk.”

Yet, we, their parents, have made a full and complete botch out of initiating our children into adulthood. The quiet, stately, and accustomed path through high school to graduation, complete with driver’s licenses, summer jobs, and confirmation practice has dissolved in an acid rain of fentanyl, suicide, and gunfire. Our children don’t emerge from childhood so much as they survive it. If, after a spring of overdoses and chemotherapy, they ask for a fairy tale dance, can we deny them that?

My son has been lucky; he has arrived at this age in a long march of baby steps. The daily churn of donuts and driving distracted us from the build up of the years. We watched his grades, ferried him to practices and concerts, and let the days pile up. We keep replacing his shoes, he remains the same guy, same smile, and then time stuttered, seized, shaked. And jumped to now. Before this year’s prom, the couples and their supporting actors met amid the perennials in one of the Bartlett Greenhouses. Fog and wind deprived them of a more memorable and timeless Instagram setting in the dunes. Still, the potting soil, fertilizer, lilies and lilacs, clustered about them and told a story that we all known was coming. For this night, they got the protection of the greenhouse.

I recognized more parents than I had expected—we had all been in the playgrounds many years ago and met and re-met at the grocery store—but only now, paired with graceful and handsome young people, did we finally realize that we had become supporting characters. Up until now, we were the stars and they were our helpers. We brought him to swim to practice, we attended the concert, we picked him up at the boat; we shared knowing glances with the other parents, as well as wipes, juice boxes, and birthday invites while they raced off stage. Our dramas were the real thing: our relationships, our careers, our families had weight and matter, while they were comedic props in our lives.

Time has pushed me aside. I am now the supporting actor in my son’s drama; his story happens without me. No longer Romeo, I am now a helpful friar, a bellowing father, or a dark apothecary. I drift on the stage, say my lines, advance the plot, and perhaps cause a friendly laugh, before drifting off the wings before the next kiss or swordfight.

The month of May shuffles and waits for the young, the green, and the nervous. She does not wait for me. Armed with sandwiches, we crashed into the Prom with polite smiles and were welcomed as if we were children who crept downstairs during a party. Parents aren’t welcome at Prom; they are left at home with Netflix and silent phones. They smiled at us, chided us, and shooed us away.

As they should. In the sober cold of a quiet house, we have been working for this moment for years. Blue’s Clues and Dora were the first steps to closing the Great Harbor Yacht Club doors to us. Playdates led them to prom and left us spurned. If all of the ridiculous pomp and expense of prom has only one lesson, it is that: parents must step away. If we have done our jobs well, then the Prom Party has no terrors for us.

Prom has one more painful lesson for the young. As a parent, our singular charge is to prevent the little ones from getting hurt. This has meant baby monitors in their rooms, safety plugs in the outlets, and lots of comfy wood chips in the playgrounds. It has also meant that we have shamelessly lied to them about Santa, about the Tooth Fairy, and about the Farm Off Island where we took Rover for his retirement. After the doors close on the couples, we can’t protect them anymore.

In jacket and in gown, our children walk a red carpet into this world of heartache. Between the pinning of the boutonnière and the last notes of “Fade Into You,” they have stepped out past safety into their own dangerous world. Prom is the first time I let my son enter into situation where he would be hurt or he would hurt someone else. We still keep “Boo Boo Bunny” in the freezer, but it will not help his hurt heart.

To me, the final initiation to adulthood doesn’t come with a car, or a job, or a diploma. It comes when you hurt someone deliberately. You welcomed them into your heart, you warmed, then you cooled, and then, one morning over coffee, you wounded them with words and walked away. We all have done this. We all know this. It is the story we cannot tell to anyone, but it is the story that defines us. Eventually, if we are lucky, we find someone who we can’t walk away from. But every adult owns a box of tears; we built it, we filled it, and we keep it safe and secret.

I have to say that we also own a box of flowers. We built it near the same time as the box of tears, and we keep it as secret. We have those moments when she called and when she stayed and when she bent down with a kiss. No matter how many tears came later, those flowers remain fresh.