I've had a whirlwind week or two, watching almost from the sidelines as the final words in several chapters of my life have been written. My oldest son Michael leaves this morning for his senior trip to Ocean City, and when he returns, he'll have all of a week with Joe and me and his four younger brothers before he leaves for college. Michael works all summer in Ohio, so I can already envision the mad rush to do laundry, pack and head west for 10 weeks of camp counseling on Lake Erie. When he returns from that, he'll have four frantic days to figure out everything he wants to take to college at Clemson University before he, Joe and I load up the car and hit I-79 and beyond.
But it's not like I didn't know these days were coming.
First, it was the baptism of the O'Toole Family's youngest grandchild, Fionn James, with Michael as his godfather. It was surreal almost. Sitting in a church pew watching my oldest boy who'd been baptized on that very altar 18 years earlier (and by the same priest, I might add) holding a candle and praying for Fionn's physical and spiritual wellness. In another 10 years, I thought, that might be Michael's baby being baptized. That's a very strange idea to chew on.
Michael with Fionn
Then was prom night. Michael's last dance. His final high school activity with his friends before graduation. He and 200 other 17 and 18 year olds gathered on the grassy lawns at Mellon Park and stood with their dates, smiling for photos. As grecian fountains gurgled in the backdrop and the sun reached through the towering oak trees, I stepped away from the crowd and looked at the view. We used to go sledding here, down this hill, I thought to myself. Has it really been that long?
But it was the baccalaureate mass at St. Paul Cathedral last week that sealed the deal. Joe and I sat in the smooth, wooden pews as Central juniors dressed sharply in crisp black tuxedos handed out programs to the seniors' families. A horn sounded and we all stood, turning our attention to the center aisle where the soon-to-be graduates processed in, two by two. They wore dress shirts, ties, slacks and fine shoes and marched in wearing their blue graduation gowns. When I saw Michael finally appear, it nearly took my breath away. When did he get so tall? I thought to myself. Where have I been?
And then yesterday. Graduation. Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Gridlock down Fifth Avenue. Wall to wall sunshine. The long walk past the cannons and the immense grassy front lawn into that historic auditorium left me speechless. Pomp and circumstance and a voice saying Michael Patrick O'Toole. I was happy to be sitting in the balcony. Michael couldn't see my face up there.
And now, the countdown begins. Twelve weeks from yesterday, we leave for Clemson. It will be time, I know that. We'll all be ready. He needs to move on and start his own chapters. Write his own book. Follow his own path. Chart his own course. But our family of 7 will go out to eat as 6. There will always be an empty seat. No shoes to pick up. No more nagging to do his laundry, or flush the toilet, or turn off the lights before he goes to bed. He'll be gone.
(From L-R:) Joe, Chris, Michael, me, Ryan, Jack and Bobby
Each of us is writing our own book of life. The chapters may be similar, but the words on the pages are different. With each turn, something new unfolds. Something old ends. And the promise of untold mystery and adventure begins. It is exciting! But sad, too.
We can never get back yesterday, and there's no promise of tomorrow. What we have is right now. And we need to give this moment, this sweet slice of our lives' books, everything we have.
All the O'Toole cousins: Declan, Reagan, Ryan, Michael holding Fionn with Faolan by his side, Jack in the back, Bobby, Baden and Christopher
To all of you turning your own pages, may we all be blessed with happy memories and few regrets as our lives continue to unfold. Here's to making our family albums even more wonderful. Peace to you all!