Graduation Day

~When everything around you seems to be lacking in integrity, you know what you do?
You find it in yourself. You change the world right where you’re standing.

(from the HBO series, Madam Secretary)

Graduation day was both a celebration and an initiation.
After spending years immersed in the lives of my friends, my attention was abruptly shifted back to family and into the future–without any of them.

The previous weeks dissolved in survival mode–papers, finals, late night pizza, parties–and then suddenly, I find myself on the day when I formally exit this world, that has been my… Everything.

I remember that sunny day in May ’86 well. My roommates and I were living off-campus in a building filled with upperclassmen. After two years in a dorm room the size of a walk-in closet, this three-room apartment felt regal. 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 graduation, the apartment was buzzing with preparation–hair, caps, bobby pins, gowns. Margie’s parents arrived first, then Kelley’s.

My parents were recently divorced so the day was neatly split in two: brunch with Mom and stepfather; dinner with Dad and girlfriend. My younger sister Robin was my extra (each graduate received 5 tickets for the ceremony.) She would bridge the divide–riding up with my mother, returning with my father; while both sets of parents would be at the graduation–in separate seating.

Everyone lingered in anticipation of my family’s arrival. Ten, fifteen, twenty-minutes passed; and Margie, who was in the highest spirits, insisted I join her family for brunch. I encouraged everyone to head out, and not to worry. My family had the farthest drive and no doubt they’d hit some traffic.

Kelley’s family stayed behind. We had been roommates since freshman year, and her people had become my own over the years.  “Are you sure you don’t want to come to breakfast with us?” the Smiths asked, before I insisted they depart. I assured them that I wanted to wait for my family even if though it might mean I missed breakfast.

After the apartment emptied, I stood in the empty space, feeling the echo of love, in anticipation of my own reunion. Soon after, the phone rang.

In the days before cell phones, a ring, at a time like this, was cause for alarm. It implied a serious delay (or worse) because it meant that someone had to pull off the road, find a pay phone, and dig up pocket change–thus creating even more of a delay.

It was my sister Robin on the other end of the line.
I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
She was sobbing.

They weren’t running late.
They weren’t stuck in traffic.
They didn’t have an accident.
They were still at home.
At home?
They weren’t coming.
At all.

The apartment grew larger and emptier and quieter, and I grew smaller.

My first thought was my roommates and their families. I didn’t want to dampen their day.

My second thought was: Why? Why today? Why me?

It made sense that my mother drank because my father worked all the time; or because my stepfather was unfaithful. But I had been her friend and confidante all these years. Why on my graduation day? Why so early in the morning?

I soothed my sister and told her it would be okay. (We’d shared many phone calls like this in the past months.) “Hang up the phone,” I said, “Call dad right away and get a ride up with him.”

As I put the receiver into its cradle, the love drained from the room. 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 this story to be mine.
I didn’t want this family to be mine.
I grew up in a normal home 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, but lately everything was falling apart.

It’s been twenty years since this day and still destroys me inside.

From a distance, 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 beads, and sometimes it’s found–stronger than ever.

I let out deep exhale, and sucked in determination, affirming that this was MY graduation day. Celebrating  4 years of hard work. Magna Cum Laude.

I tossed my robe over my shoulder and headed out of my apartment with my cap in hand. I walked the thirteen city blocks to campus, and then continued walking down City Line. I stopped when I reached Cavanaughs.

I pulled open the heavy door, and stepped across the threshold from bright sun to the cool, dank, familiar darkness of the pub.

I was surprised to see another classmate on a bar stool. I took the one beside him. In front of us was a plate of pastries instead of the relish tray of hot peppers, horseradish and spicy mustard–which I had mastered over the years. (My friends and I often joked that we’d been the ones to pay for the new ceiling they’d recently put in.)

In a booth behind us, another classmate sat with his family.

I ordered a mug and took a bite of a lemon pastry, finding a sense of belonging.

There’s not much more I remember from that day. Most of my friends were in the Business College and I was seated among the Arts and Science majors–without ever having to explain my morning.

There’s a single photo of me on the podium–the sun in my face–a diploma in my hands. Afterward, I hugged friends goodbye and we all dashed off toward our families.

My father took me to my favorite Italian restaurant on City Line where Mr. Smith had often taken my roommate and me over the years. He wrote me a check in the amount of my GPA. Three-hundred and seventy-eight dollars, he said, Happy Graduation.

Though it seeped from my pores, there was no talk about my mother, especially in the presence of my father’s girlfriend. From time to time, Robin and I shared weary smiles across the table. There were four years between us, filled with fights and jealousy and resentment, but our bruised hearts were weaving closer together as what we knew of our family disintegrated beneath us.

A few weeks later, my father threw a huge graduation party for the two of us after Robin’s graduation from high school.

“You’re terrible daughters,” he said. “I’m only doing this because this is what you do.”

My mother’s drinking worsened that summer, and instead of embarking on careers like my classmates, I took the party money and went backpacking through Europe. The following year, I took off for the Rockies. Fell in love with a man who became my best friend and lifelong partner, and returned home to begin my teaching career.

My mother finally hit bottom the week of my wedding. She arrived to the ceremony with matted hair, barely able to stand. Two ushers escorted her down the aisle to her seat in the front row. I was relieved she made it all. I didn’t want pity to distract from my wedding day.

We both wore the same shoes–hers in cream, mine in white. We’d picked them out together. Her dress hung on an emaciated form.

While I backpacked through Europe with my husband, she went into rehab, and spent the next ten years sober before succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 57.  One afternoon, long before she got sick, she invited me out to lunch to apologize for my graduation and wedding. “It’s okay,” I said. I was too afraid of my feelings and of her fragile sobriety to say anything more.

She was diagnosed in my last months of my pregnancy and died a few weeks after my son’s birth. Her photo sits at my desk 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 bead on my life’s thread. Sharing it now drains what weight it still held, revealing a strength of character that I’m proud to call my own.

(2009; first published in Chicken Soup, Campus Chronicles)