This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
[dropcap]N[/dropcap]aturally, I’m in a sentimental mood. My youngest child just graduated from college, and my family tends toward mush on these occasions, just as yours probably does. The conventions were duly observed; he looked and seemed ridiculously grown up and also trailed along all the echoes of his childhood self.
We observed the formalities; we laughed, we cried, we got soaking wet (it was a rainy commencement). His older sister offered, as a fond benediction, “This may seem like a backhanded compliment, but you’ve gotten so much more out of college than I ever thought you would.”
And I carried with me, through the commencement, a very strong sense of missing my mother, who died in 2014. Every so often, when I couldn’t resist, I would invoke her, usually by saying, she would have been so proud.
It’s not that I would have wanted her standing there in the rain with us. If she were still alive, my mother would now be pushing 90, and I assume that she would have had the good sense to enjoy the occasion from the warmth and dryness of her own home. But when you lose the people you love, you mark the loss over and over in the celebrations they don’t get to celebrate, in the moments they don’t get to reflect back.
So my son was graduating, and I wanted my mother. I wanted to be not only the proud parent, but also the loving — and loved — daughter.
Sixteen years ago, after my father died very suddenly, I started learning about the way that every happy milestone can also constitute a chance to miss and mourn. Like so many other life lessons, this one turned out to be something I hadn’t learned, and couldn’t learn, based only on the accumulated experience of all the billions of people who had gone before, not to mention the poetry and pontifications they had left behind to guide me.
That doesn’t seem to be how we learn the real lessons. Just as you don’t know what it will feel like to love a child until you’ve been the person with the child, so you don’t know what it’s like to lose a parent until you’ve been the person without the mother or the father — even though there are vast archives of the literature of love and loss to draw on.
There is also the literature of graduations. I was imprinted, early on, by the description of a New England high school graduation in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” the 1903 novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin that tells the story of Rebecca Rowena Randall, an imaginative child sent away from her poverty-stricken family (on poor old Sunnybrook Farm) to be educated and given advantages by her two somewhat severe maiden aunts in small-town Maine.
I read and reread the book when I was quite young (battered paperback, white cover, lavender trim, picture of a dark-haired girl in white pinafore). Like many girls, I was a real glutton for stories of young women turned out into a somewhat unwelcoming world. And I was apparently imprinted with Rebecca’s seminary graduation scene, as she rode to the ceremony on a haywagon with the girls in her class, resplendent in her white cheesecloth dress, on a sunny day in a small New England town. I say imprinted because the lines describing the scene come to my mind at any commencement, however inappropriate (6-foot-tall male graduates from urban college in 21st century, on a rainy day, say).
Wiggin wrote that the student essays and recitations at the commencement were “precisely like all others that have been since the world began.” She went on to say, “We yawn desperately at the essays, but our hearts go out to the essayists, all the same, for ‘the vision splendid’ is shining in their eyes, and there is no fear of ‘th’ inevitable yoke’ that the years are so surely bringing them.”
(Writing in an era when memorization played a bigger role in education, Wiggin probably assumed that her readers would recognize those quotes from Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood.” My mother, born in 1927 and educated in the Brooklyn public schools, was big on learning poetry by heart, but her tastes ran more to Whittier and Poe.)
Commencement, and I wanted my mother. I wanted my father as well, but we lost him before my children’s graduations began, so I am more accustomed to his absence. I picture him at my own medical school graduation, another singularly wet commencement, with a sodden tent that sagged ever closer to the seated parents in their graduation finery.
My parents were exactly as old that year as I am right now, watching my own child graduate. Commencement ceremonies put you in your generational place. If your child is graduating, why then, you must be one of the parents. Is this how my parents felt, when I was graduating? Yes, probably, they were absorbed in their own work and their own lives, proud of their children, and perhaps occasionally struck with wonder to find themselves as old as they had already become.
And were they thinking of their own parents, and did their parents feel as close and yet as far away as mine do, right now? My parents had both traveled far from the patterns of their immigrant parents; they were the first generation of their families to go to college, and their graduations were momentous for that reason. They both went on to become college professors, living lives their own parents could not have imagined.
For my mother, college graduation also represented a victory over her parents, who had wanted her to take a commercial course in high school and then get a secretarial job; against their wishes, she moved out, took a job as a live-in babysitter, and attended Brooklyn College. Into her 80s, she was still capable of working up some anger about their belief that education was unnecessary for a woman.
If she were around, she would probably have told my son that story, one more time, in honor of his graduation. And then she would have remembered her own father at that Brooklyn College graduation; he hadn’t wanted her to go, but he was very, very proud.
–Perri Klass, M.D.