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My grandma’s standard answer when it came time to discuss upcoming events, holidays, or family gatherings was the following, “I’ll be there . . . if I’m still here.”

“See you at Christmas, Grandma!” Or, “Can’t wait to come visit this summer.” Or, “Wow, it will be so exciting to have you at our wedding.”

“I’ll be there . . . if I’m still here,” was always her response. And the thing is, for a very long time, she was. She enjoyed nearly 90 years and took in every possible moment when it came to time with family and friends.

Grandma’s response exasperated and confused me. But as time passed, I understood she used those words to remind us that not everything is promised. While we want to be there for the milestone moments in our children’s lives, we quite possibly may not.

It’s only natural to want to be part of all we wish for our children. They have big dreams. Our dreams for them are even bigger. We think about who they will become. What they’ll choose to do in life with their God-given abilities. The goals they will set. The milestones they will achieve. Who they will fall in love with, marry, and hopefully raise a family with. We hope to be there to witness the fulfillment of all these dreams.

In a perfect world, we would be. But parents aren’t always meant to see the finish line, only a leg of the race. Even so, we never quit envisioning the journey and remain steadfast in our belief in the traveler.

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I thought a lot about those present at the start and those celebrating the finish as my sister-in-law recently earned her PhD in statistics. The road to earning her doctorate was long. The journey was tough. She and my brother welcomed a baby just a few months into her studies. Even with a newborn, a less-than-restful sleep schedule, and all the demands that come with motherhood, she plugged away.

My family admired her drive. Honestly, I was utterly amazed by her calm way of talking about the arduous, seemingly impossible process, and never melting down in a pool of stress and puddle of tears.

To understand her determination, I needed only to look at her dad. Even though Emma had already earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees her father knew deep down, Emma was meant for more. A firm believer in the power of education, he was always there to encourage her and remind her of the difference she could make. Simply put, Lorcendy believed there would be difficult challenges ahead, but he believed in Emma more.

My brother recently shared a memory about seeing Lorcendy’s unwavering belief in Emma during a visit a few years ago. Emma had started her doctorate studies and the difficulty of raising a newborn while carrying a demanding academic workload had begun to take its toll. Emma questioned if this was truly meant to be her journey.

Emma may have had her doubts, but her dad did not. Instead, he commented on the well-worn backpack she carried to campus, “Your backpack is tired,” her dad told her, “that will never carry you over the finish line.”

He insisted they shop for another because if his daughter was going to make it through the five-year program, her bag should make it, too.

To hear my brother tell it, countless Houston youngsters crowded the store that afternoon to find a backpack for a new school year. A 30-something and her proud 60-something dad were among them, doing exactly the same. Dad and daughter posed for a picture before Lorcendy bought Emma just the right one. And then, he flew back home to Africa, knowing his faith was well placed.

We were all so excited to celebrate the message shared via our family chat on a recent Thursday evening to let us all know Emma had achieved what Lorcendy knew she could: she’d successfully defended her doctoral dissertation and earned the title of Dr. Zohner.

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The backpackand Dr. Zohnerhad both made it to the end of the journey. Sadly, her amazing father did not. Lorcendy’s own journey had ended one year earlier.

“I’ll be there . . . if I’m still here,” echoed in my mind, and my heart broke as I thought of Emma’s amazing, supportive, and loving father missing her journey’s jubilant conclusion.

But then, the backpack reminded me that as parents, we’re not always meant to be there at the end. We are sometimes only there to start our children on a journey. To witness their brave, first steps. To gently remind them even though the road will be long and difficult, they’re not only made to meet the challenge, they are created to fulfill the life God has planned for them.

Our hope for them and our faith in them allow our children to make a brave beginning and strengthen them to remain steadfast on their path. Our support comes in all forms and is forever presenteven if we’re not. Sometimes, we place those hopes in a backpack and send them on their way.

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Anne Zohner Maxwell

Anne Zohner Maxwell is a former journalist and freelance writer. She is the mother of four and a grandmother of one. She currently teaches struggling readers to help children discover the joy in written language.

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