Graduation Day

Graduation day is a peculiar one. After spending 4 years completely immersed in the lives of your friends, your attention is abruptly shifted to your family and future.    For weeks you’ve been engaged in survival mode- papers and finals and late night pizza and parties- and then suddenly there you are on the day where you formally and finally exit this world that has been your… everything.

I remember that sunny day in May well.  My roommates and I were living off-campus in an building filled with upperclassmen like ourselves.  After spending two years in a dorm room the size of a walk-in closet , this three-room apartment was heaven!  It was an old building, but that only lent charm to our autonomy- wood floors, sculpted moldings, high ceilings and tall windows letting in lots of light.

On the morning of our graduation, the apartment was a buzz with preparations- hair, gowns, caps, and families arriving for the traditional brunch before the ceremony.  My parents were recently divorced so the day had been neatly split in two:  the more affordable brunch with Mom and my stepfather, and the expensive dinner with my dad and his girlfriend.  My younger sister Robin would ride up with my mother to bridge the divide- attending both the brunch and dinner party. Everyone would be at the graduation– in separate seating.

My roommate Margie’s parents arrived first, and then Annie’s.   Everyone lingered waiting for my family.  Before they left, Margie asked if I wanted to join them.  She was in high spirits.  I encouraged everyone to head out, but Annie’s family stayed on, growing concerned.  “Are you sure you don’t want to come to breakfast with us Kelly?” they pressed.   I wasn’t worried at all and practically had to force them out of the apartment.  My family had a longer drive than theirs, close to two hours if there was traffic, and I would rather have a rushed breakfast with them than a leisurely one without them.

Just as the apartment emptied, the phone rang.  In the days before cell phones, a ring wasn’t a good sign.  It implied serious delay because it meant that someone had to pull off the road, find a pay phone– and the pocket change– to make the call.   It was my sister Robin on the other end and she was sobbing.  I couldn’t make out what she was saying at first, and then I did.  They weren’t running late, they weren’t stuck in traffic, and they didn’t have an accident.   They hadn’t left yet, and… they weren’t coming- at all.  My mother was drunk.

The apartment grew larger and emptier and quieter, and I grew more alone.  How would I face my roommates and their families with this news?  I couldn’t inflict this on their day too. “Why?” I wondered through tears I held tightly inside.  “Why today?  Why me?”

It made sense when my mother drank because her life was lonely with my father working all the time, or when she drank because my stepfather was unfaithful, but why now?  I had been her friend and confidante all these years.  Why would she be drunk on my graduation day and so early in the morning at that?

After calming my sister and suggesting she quickly call my father to salvage a ride up for herself, I hung up the phone and felt a chilled vacancy replace the excitement inside.    I considered catching up with my roommates and their families with a lie.

I considered not going to graduation at all.

I considered not existing at all.

I didn’t want to be in this messed up family!  I didn’t want this story to be mine.  I had grown up in a normal family where my mom kept the house clean and make cookies for Christmas.  She was always there — after school, whenever I called, whatever I asked for.   What kind of graduation gift was this?

…It’s been twenty years since this day and yet is still shakes me inside.  From this vantage point, I can see that life is a string of stories and moments whose thread is made up of– you.   Sometimes the thread is lost in the heaviness of the story beads, and sometimes it is found– stronger than ever.  The was one of those moments for me.

I let out deep exhale, and then sucked in my determination.  ‘This is MY graduation day,’ I said to myself.  “This is the day that celebrates all I’ve given of the last four years.  I am graduating Magna Cum Laude!  This is MY day.’”

I threw my robe and cap over my shoulder and headed out of my apartment to walk the thirteen city blocks to campus.   I continued walking a few blocks past the college until I got to Cavanaughs on City Line– our college hangout.  With all the money we spent there over the years,my roommates and I joked that we’d paid for the new ceiling they’d recently put in.

Opening the heavy door to the pub , I moved out of the sun and into the cool, dank darkness.  There, even though it was morning and graduation day at that, I found another classmate having a beer.   I hopped up on a barstool and joined him.  There were even pastries laid out instead of classic relish tray of hot peppers, horseradish and spicy mustard.   In a booth alongside us, another friend sat with his family.  I regained my sense of place, and a bittersweet feeling of belonging.   With a beer and a pastry for breakfast, I reclaimed this day as mine and headed to my graduation ceremony.

There’s not much more I remember from that day.  Most of my friends were in the Business College at our University so I sat among relative strangers in the college of Arts and Sciences- without having to explain my morning.  There’s a single commercial photo of me on the podium– the sun in my face– as I received my diploma.  Afterwards, I hugged friends goodbye as we all rejoined our families.

My father took me to my favorite upscale Italian place on City Line.  Though it seeped from my pores, there was to be no talk about my mother and what happened that morning, especially in the presence of our future stepmother.  My sister and I wearily smiled at each other from across the table with bruised hearts.

In the years since my parents separated, my relationship with my father had been strained at best.  That June he threw me a huge graduation party at a family restaurant. “I’m only doing this because it’s expected of me,” he told me with contempt.

My mother’s drinking got worse that summer and instead of joining the “real world”, I took the party money and went backpacking through Europe while my classmates embarked on careers.  The following year I fell in love with man who became my best friend and partner.

My mother “hit bottom” the week of our wedding and arrived to it drunk with matted hair.  We had two ushers escort her down the aisle.  In the face of community pity, I was thankful she made it at all.   We both wore the same shoes- hers in cream, mine in white.  We’d picked them out together.   Her pretty dress hung on her emaciated form.

While away on my honeymoon, she went into rehab, and then spent the next ten years sober before she perished from lung cancer.  One afternoon long before she got sick, she invited me out to lunch and tried to apologize for my graduation and my wedding, but I couldn’t bear it.  I just smiled and told her it was okay.  I loved her too much to feel all my anger and betrayal and sadness–and I didn’t want to threaten her fragility.

She was diagnosed with cancer in my last trimester of pregnancy and died two weeks following the birth of my son.  Her photo sits beside my computer as I write.  Sometimes I yell at her and sometimes I cry tears of anguish and abandonment.  But mostly, I’m grateful for knowing who I am– apart from it all.

My graduation morning stands out as a defining moment in my life’s story. Sharing it now drains what hold it still claims on my spirit, revealing a strength of character that I’m proud to call my own.

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