I love baccalaureates and graduations. I never thought I would say this—not I, the one who might once have chosen not to stand on ceremony, to be casual about the beginnings and endings and changes, the one who decried pomp and circumstance in so many areas of life during the twenty-something years. Not I, when the pain of missing one who should have been there was first in my thoughts. But now I can often see the beauty of some of the ceremonies in life, the necessity in them.
The symbolic bridge to another chapter in this life, that’s what many ceremonies are. Of course we could get to the other side without those bridges, but they are celebratory spans, after all, a chance to walk more slowly with our Janus-like faces turning to yesterday and then toward tomorrow, to enjoy the transitions, to celebrate. Even some funerals are like this: bridges of celebration. And in this season, certainly graduations are like that.
For many years, I was required to work at graduations as a teacher of high school, and I dutifully collected prized tickets from family members (one year only–because I let too many pass with sympathy for the distance they had traveled to see a new graduate) or I checked them in, lined them up, led them through a tunnel to their assigned entrance to march in, checked them out as they turned in rumpled gowns and caps and picked up the “real” diploma if they had paid all their debts to the school. And I hugged them goodbye.
And I have sat in the audience and shed a few happy tears for my own sons and daughter at kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, university and graduate school graduations. And for daughters-in-law, nieces and nephews and other relatives I have sat proudly listening for their names to be called—and it’s often been a long wait since our name begins with “W.”
I have sat on wet bleachers in an outdoor stadium and listened to raucous music in the hour before a ceremony began, and I have sneaked cold water bottles up the sleeve of a warm black gown in an open air amphitheatre, an orchestra ensemble playing as I marched in before my students on warm mornings in May. I have watched exuberant graduates in a small independent girls school toss their caps into the air with full permission, and I have reprimanded the hundreds of graduates in a huge coliseum who wanted to toss their caps but were threatened with having their diplomas withheld if they did.
My daughter missed her high school and college graduations. She died before she could don that cap and gown for high school, and I could not bear to go to her class’s graduation that year. I did go the next year to cheer on Brooke, the dear friend who walked proudly on her own power across the stage, the whole coliseum erupting into applause and cheers as she received her diploma after missing a year of school to recover from injuries in the car crash in which my daughter was killed. (Thank you, friend Jim, who allowed me to slip into the seating area far removed from most others to watch from a safe distance.) And almost a year after our daughter Elizabeth died, at the graduation of one of our sons from college, I felt great joy for him and for our family that this time we had an event to be happy about. But I missed several graduations and weddings in those years near our daughter’s death. It was just too hard to be there and think about the milestones we had missed seeing for her.
Gradually, I have come to enjoy going to graduations and baccalaureates and ceremonies of life again.
We had a sweet surprise visit from a young woman and her mom, dad, sister and grandfather on Sunday. She was on her way to her school’s baccalaureate. Last week Brooke and I had presented a scholarship in my daughter’s memory to this about-to-be-graduated Kathryn at their school’s awards day. We have awarded this scholarship for 17 springs now, Brooke and I. And often we see the recipient only for the moment or two on the day honoring seniors. But this young woman’s grandfather knew my husband when they were barely teenagers, and they had reconnected. He wanted us to know that it was his granddaughter who received the award in our daughter’s name, and in that Sunday afternoon visit, he gave us more than the fleeting moment on the stage or a hurried conversation afterward.
True to my grandmother’s example, I found several connections with the young woman and her family: a teacher she and my daughter had shared, mission trips for church, relatives of mine she knew from her church. Then they left for her baccalaureate, held at a local church outside of school hours for those who want to bless the journey within the ceremony of baccalaureate. As she and her family left, I thought of the speeches, the music, the celebratory joy, the send off, and I am so happy for this time in her life and her family’s.