My son turned 18 just a few weeks ago. When he was seventeen, at the end of his junior year of high school, he was invited to prom. He asked me to help him shop for things like shirt and shoes, suspenders, and a tie.
He tacitly avoided my cell phone camera the night he got ready, but I was lucky to get in this shot before he could dodge it.
Once I got a good look at it, I realized it was a gift.
The first thing I noticed was the sunlight glowing at his feet. They almost appear to be held in the light, floating in it. His big shoes represent so much to me: his steady march toward manhood, big shoes to fill just like his dad, Sunday shoes that he now disdains as he’s abandoned childhood faith for a less strenuous agnosticism. Stepping off the platform of childhood and into the big world of being grown up.
I found the sunlight at his feet stunning. As a devout Christian mother, I pray and yearn that my children will keep the lamp of Christ’s gospel at their feet, lighting their path through a dark and dreary world. Even though he has chosen a different path for now, I will not let go of hope that he might someday join me once again under the light of the Son.
Second, I noticed his suspenders, not yet attached as he works on tying his tie. My eye is drawn to the unfinished outfit, the potential of his ensemble dangling there, waiting for that last step to complete it.
Third, my eyes drift to the expression on his face in the mirror. He’s concentrating, a little unsure, but patient and determined to get it right. His focus on the tie is what allowed me to snap the photo quickly.
As a good photograph encourages, my eyes travel in that famous design triangle. Somehow the shoes, suspenders, and face are positioned such to continuously draw my eyes around and around but then they range outward to other elements. This is where the photo becomes even more meaningful to me. The next thing my eyes catch is an artist’s depiction of Christ. He is looking toward my son, and my heart does something right there. It’s as if Jesus knows what I’m thinking and feeling and worrying. Yet he wisely says nothing.
Next I notice the catcher’s mitt and upended truck lying on the floor. They belong to my younger sons, but my eighteen-year-old played with those things once upon a time. They are cast aside for him, as he works on tying the tie that was painstakingly chosen to match his date’s dress. They are another sign that his childhood is long past while his adulthood stands just outside the door waiting for him. The door that is reflected in the mirror on the wall, almost mocking me: the mother catching this moment of quiescence. Like the hang glider about to step off the cliff as soon as the updraft catches his wings.
As I study this photograph, it’s almost as if an entire lifetime is encased within it. I feel the tender feelings of a new mother toward her innocent babe. I feel the necessary twinges of release as the apron strings begin snapping away from my connection to him. I feel pangs of nostalgia when I recall his boyhood filled with firetrucks and Matchbox cars and Halloween candy and innocent thought-provoking questions about the afterlife. I feel hope for his future, because regardless of his beliefs, he is becoming a good man, and I hope for him all of the things he deserves, such as meaningful companionship, a fulfilling career, joy in living, and selfless loving family connections. All of these things bubble to the surface whenever I look at this snapshot, and it makes me smile every time.
Just as much as his prom ensemble is unfinished, so is he–and so am I. There are four more kids after him, one ahead of him, and if there’s anything sure for me as a parent, it’s that I still don’t know what I’m doing. I can only hope and remember, love and encourage, as he embarks on the next stage of his life and finishes up the work I began eighteen years ago. Thankfully, I will always have this photograph to remember the moment I captured right before his feet lifted off the ground as he glided away.