Graduation day

Friday is graduation day in our family.

I’ll be in the hot, humid gymnasium at Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys that night.

I know the memories will flow during the ceremony as I think back on the past 18 years.

My goodness, how those years have flown by.

Could it really have been more than 18 years since that frigid February night in 1993 when Melissa called me at work and asked me to rush home?

When Austin was a baby, people would say things to me like this: “They grow up quickly, you know. Today they’re in kindergarten, and tomorrow they’re graduating from high school.”

“What tired cliches,” I would think to myself.

“How right they were,” I find myself thinking today.

Now, I’m the one spouting the cliches to young parents.

I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in February 1993, and my life had never been busier. Bill Clinton had been president for a month, I was supervising a Washington bureau of three full-time reporters from my desk in Little Rock and it seemed there was a new controversy every day.

I also was supervising three full-time reporters at the state Capitol bureau, and we were in the midst of the first legislative session with Jim Guy Tucker as governor.

On top of all the supervision and editing, I was writing a piece from the state Capitol each day called Capitol Journal.

Oh, one more thing: Late nights and weekends were spent writing a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton that a New York publisher was wanting as soon as I could get it to them.

The stories were lined up for me to edit that Wednesday when Melissa called at 6:40 p.m.

“I’ve got to go,” I told Ray Hobbs, the editor at the desk next to mine. “You’re going to have to edit these stories.”

As I wound my way west on Interstate 630, I discovered that a freezing rain had begun to fall. I passed the exit to Baptist Health Medical Center, and I noticed flashing blue lights and wrecks on the bridge.

“We’ll never make it,” I thought to myself.

I made it home and, yes, we made it to the hospital by 7:20 p.m.

Austin arrived at 2:48 a.m. on a Thursday. He had been born a month early. I held off until 5:30 a.m. before I began making calls to relatives.

I called my mother and father in Arkadelphia. I called Melissa’s mother in Washington, D.C., and her father in Kingsville, Texas. I called my grandmother in Benton. I called my sister in Pensacola.

Melissa’s father is gone now. My father and grandmother also are gone.

But the others on that list — my mother, Melissa’s mother, my sister — will gather with us Saturday night to celebrate Austin’s graduation.

Fourteen years of school are completed.

College looms.

I vividly remember taking Austin to his first day of pre-kindergarten at Holy Souls on August 20, 1997. He didn’t want to go.

A precocious child, he had loved his routine at home — the television shows he watched, the nap he took, the lunch his mother fixed, the afternoon snack he ate, you name it.

Melissa often would leave him in a playpen with CNN playing in the background. She’s a news junkie, and our son would become one, too.

The first three words he strung together were “this is CNN.”

I kid you not.

When he was just 3, I came home one night in May 1996. He excitedly pointed at the television and exclaimed: “The ValuJet crashed!”

For hours, he had been subjected to the CNN coverage of the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Everglades.

Once we got him to school, though, he excelled. He has yet to make a B, though that could change in college.

There also were the other things boys do — the many baseball games at the old Highway 10 league and with a traveling team; the basketball games at Holy Souls and in AAU leagues during the summer; the cross country and track meets in high school; the other school activities; the church events; the family vacations.

My favorite photo on the refrigerator at home is one that was taken at Walt Disney World Resort in the summer of 1999.

Austin is age six in that photo. Brother Evan is two. They look like the two happiest boys in the world.

They’re 18 and 14 now.

Yes, the years really have flown by.

I know. I know.

I’m a cliche machine.

I think back to my own high school graduation in 1978 and realize now that it probably led to far more reflection on the part of my parents than it did for me.

It boggles my mind to think that I’m now as far away from that graduation night — 33 years — as the country was from the end of World War II at the time of my high school graduation.

I still feel young, still feel the need to say “yes sir” and “no sir” to those older than me and hate it when people call me Mr. Nelson rather than Rex.

I’ve been blessed these past 33 years and hope I have at least 33 years ahead that are just as fruitful and fun.

That’s not to say that life doesn’t throw you curve balls. Austin’s curve ball came more than two years ago just before he turned 16, and it was a big one. But I’m proud of him for battling the physical and emotional challenges on a daily basis.

My prayer is that his battle will make him a tougher and a more compassionate person, someone who understands the travails so many others face. He’s learning the hard way at a young age that toughness and compassion are traits that can go together.

Time spent asking “why me, Lord?” is time wasted. You put your head down and plug on in this life.

It will be a time to celebrate on Friday and Saturday, a bright spot in this somewhat melancholy spring when I’ve lost my father and another of my childhood heroes within a few weeks of each other.

We’re proud of what you’ve accomplished thus far, Austin, and look forward to the years ahead.

Godspeed as you begin your college years.

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