Today is graduation for both college and high school students. We attended a celebration last night, and will attend more tomorrow. Yet today, within our family, we acknowledge that the milestone of this day is what isn’t happening. We are not attending graduation.
The next such milestone in our immediate family will take place in a few years. Sarah enrolled in an extended, co-op based program at Northeastern, which takes longer than 4 years, especially when she spent a semester volunteering in one of the most impoverished cities in the USA (Camden, NJ). She won’t receive a Bachelor’s diploma this year, unlike many of her former high school classmates who attended a traditional 4-year program. Rather her degree is experiential, and lasts longer, weaving clinical time in the working world of nursing and medicine with classroom and lab time, leading to a longer enrollment in the undergraduate program, with more hands-on experience at the end of that time. She’s already worked in oncology at Mass General and will be working in the emergency department at Beth Israel next. Before we know it, in 2017, Sarah will earn her nursing pin, sit for exams, and graduate!
The only commencement that might have happened this spring, didn’t. Jessie’s classmates, who have achieved much in the past several years, are tossing their tassels from one side of the mortarboard to the other today. Go Tigers! We’ve been invited to several parties. And yet, Jessie isn’t physically among them. She didn’t live to savor this milestone.
We fill in the gaps with imagination. With conjecture. I can imagine Jessica in spiky high heels, two heads shorter than everyone else, a wicked peel of laughter, and some visibly defiant way of standing out among all the monochromatic gowns, grinning among friends, teasing her teachers, and looking forward to her plans for challenging and overturning institutions and systems.
I have to pretend, or fantasize, because I don’t know what she’d be like now. I can only guess. She’d probably surprise me, and be unlike anyone I expected.
And yet, Jessie moves among these graduating seniors. One of her friends, Heather, who is a year older, and graduated last year, got a tattoo of a paper crane to imprint their relationship permanently on her body. In other ways, I think Jessie has indelibly marked many of her peers, and our community, from the inside out. She’s present in spirit, if not in person: one of the many people who shaped their lives, who will be carried in living memories and choices and actions by this generation, out into the wider world.
In fact, one classmate, Raina, made origami paper cranes (symbol of Jessie) that her classmates wore today!
Today is euphoric and alarming for most people: the ending of certain experiences, the beginning of others. Or rather, the launch of the liminal time between clear, absolute finishes and startups, when all things are possible, and the only sure thing is the uncertainty that comes during the transformational space of journeying between the point of departure and the place of arrival.
We have lived in a liminal space for a long time. In some ways, one of our daughters already graduated out of this mortal life. She is, I think, a being of light and energy, in a world I cannot fully imagine or comprehend, connected to Creator and Creation in ways that take her out of this realm and into the next life.
I have much to learn from each of my daughters. Commencement might summarize the lessons learned, the memories highlighted, the dreams and plans yet to unfold. I have been taking such inventories for a long time. I am grateful to have a living daughter who continues to show us what it means to walk honestly and fiercely through this world, this mortal life, claiming its blessings in both hands, planting her feet on the path and daring to be here with every heartbeat and breath. I am grateful for the daughter who traveled ahead of all us, and will someday guide us in that place where she now exists. I am amazed, over and over, at the capacity for humans, despite deep grief, to live and thrive, to find new joy, to make meaning, and to shape other milestones.
Last spring I was the graduate. This year, I’m the one who is uncertain about where my path is taking me or the physical and spiritual address of my destination. Yet I have been taught by two daughters how to stare into the possibilities of life, and reach for them, and expect them for myself, too.