Two weeks ago we sat in a classroom at Eastern Washington University, my husband’s alma mater.
“These chairs are way more comfortable than the ones we used to have,” Derek whispered.
I shushed him as the lecturer stepped to the front of the room and introduced himself.
Even though we know him quite well, we sat forward in our seats so as not to miss a word. The speaker was our youngest son, Sam, and we were there to watch him defend his master’s thesis.
It was the final step to earning his master’s degree in English with an emphasis on literature and writing. Did I mention that Sam is just 22?
He started at EWU as a 16-year-old Running Start student. In six years, he graduated from high school, earned his bachelor’s degree, and now his master’s–and he didn’t incur a penny of debt.
The only help Derek and I gave him was housing him, feeding him and paying for his gas and car insurance. And maybe I threw in a few extra hugs and a listening ear when he decided to switch from education major to English.
As Sam introduced his thesis, “Navigating the Labyrinth of ‘House of Leaves’ Through a Postmodern Archetypal Theory,” I was stunned by his poise. In front of a panel of three professors and a handful of fellow grad students, he eloquently explained a new theory of literary criticism that he’s developed.
This from the kid who in first grade was sent to the reading resource room because his teacher felt he was lagging in reading skills.
This surprised me. Sam’s three older brothers and I had read to him since his birth and he was reading independently by kindergarten.
It turned out Sam found the first-grade reading material “boring.” When he understood the faster he progressed through “The Cat Sat on the Mat,” the sooner he could read chapter books, he suddenly didn’t need additional tutoring.
Our fourth son has been surprising us since birth.
He arrived on a golden September morning within an hour of our arrival at Holy Family Hospital. Weighing in at a hearty Norwegian 9 pounds, 9 ounces, Sam had his father’s broad shoulders and the trace of a dimple in his chin.
Soon after his birth we were told his time with us might be brief. Sam was airlifted to Sacred Heart Medical Center where he was diagnosed with congenital diaphragmatic hernia. A hole in his diaphragm hadn’t closed early in gestation. As a result, his internal organs pushed into his chest cavity, squashing his developing lungs. Only his right lung was fully formed. Our newborn was given a 50/50 chance of survival.
Twenty-two years later, the grief and terror I felt when I saw him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit hasn’t abated. It’s still as sharp as the moment I was told he was so fragile, I could only touch his toe with my finger, and even my whispered “Mama’s here,” elevated his blood pressure to dangerous levels.
Obviously, this story has a happy ending. Sam survived. He grew. He thrived.
And he’d prepared us for the outcome of his thesis defense.
“I’ll either fail, pass with revisions, or pass,” he’d said.
After his presentation, attendees were invited to pose questions or offer comments. I may or may not have shared that after Sam had his wisdom teeth pulled, he’d asserted that the anesthesia had a minimum effect on him.
“It’s because I have a really big brain,” he’d slurred.
Honestly, when you invite your mother to this sort of thing, these kinds of comments are inevitable. As Sam’s older brother said, “Mom’s gotta mom, whether we like it or not.”
I may have been a teensy bit anxious as we waited in the hallway while the panel debated Sam’s fate. I needn’t have worried. He passed with no revisions.
After attending college for six years, Sam isn’t interested in pursuing a doctorate right now. Ideally, he’d like to teach at a community college or private university.
Who knows what the next year will bring?
But this I do know–the students who attend Mr. Hval’s classes will be blessed by a passionate instructor whose love of literature and language stems from both his intellect and his heart.
His time in our nest is drawing to a close. Over the years, I’ve battled the urge to smother, hover and over-mother, but I’ve not taken a moment of his childhood, nor his early adulthood for granted.
Each milestone is a gift I was never sure I’d be granted.
Cindy Hval can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hval is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation” (Casemate Publishers, 2015) available on Amazon.