My dad loved graduations. He was a fan of pomp and circumstance; of tradition, formality, achievement, success and rites of passage.
It broke my heart that he wasn’t there last week when my youngest daughter graduated from high school.
He would have worn a suit and tie (probably his signature bow-tie) no matter how warm it was. He would have sat, listening attentively, taking in all the details of the ceremony.
When the names of the graduates were read, my dad would have beamed with prime for each and every one of them. When a name like Brandon James Montgomery III was called, he would have commented, “Now, that’s a good strong name”.
If someone around us stood up and cheered for their kid, my dad would have cheered alongside them, as if they were old friends.
Nothing made him happier than attending his kids’ or grandkids’ graduations.
When my eldest son graduated from college, my dad climbed thousands of steps in a huge stadium, pretending not to be in agonizing pain from his knee, never once complaining. When we finally arrived at our seats, he let out a little sigh of relief and then focused on every word in the ceremony, many of which he quoted back to us the next day.
Four years later, he walked with a cane slowly and deliberately from the parking lot to the center of campus for my second son’s graduation from a small liberal arts college on the East Coast. My dad stood for the national anthem, singing along with fierce patriotism.
When my daughter’s college graduation was cancelled in June 2020, I ached for my dad, for what he would miss, as much as I did for her. I didn’t want him to be deprived of any meaningful life events. It felt like we were robbed, like so many others, of seeing my daughter walk across the stage in her blue cap and gown and receive a diploma along with the confidence to go out into the world and become a productive member of society.
At the time, I couldn’t help wondering if my dad would make it to the next graduation in the family.
He did not.
My heart was both broken and full as my baby girl walked onto her school’s football field to Pomp and Circumstance and became the 6th and final grandchild to graduate high school.
I wanted to hear my dad cheer for her when her name was called. I wanted him to swell with pride watching her receive her diploma.
I also wanted him to look over at me and smile, assuring me I had done a good job raising her.
The check out person at Trader Joe’s reminded me of something important the day before. When she saw my cart overflowing with groceries, a sweet thoughtful woman around my age asked me what we were celebrating. I told her, and as she placed the filled bags in the cart, she looked me in the eye and said “congratulations for graduating a graduate.”
I felt myself getting a bit choked up and misty eyed. “Thanks” I said, a bit embarrassed by my own reaction.
I didn’t know that that was what I needed to hear.
If I couldn’t hear it from my dad, it might as well be from a Trader Joe’s employee.
We all need to hear that we’ve done well; that our work has paid off and that our years of anxiety and worry were worth it. All of us who have raised or helped raise children know that it’s not always a smooth ride. There are bumps, insecurities, disappointments, doubts and even some regrets. And these milestone events are important reminders of where we started and where we’ve arrived.
While I don’t remember my actual high school (did I even go?) or college graduation, I will never forget the trips I took with my dad following those graduations.
As one of four kids, I didn’t have much alone time with either my mom or dad so it felt pretty damn special when my dad drove me to college half way across the country, my black trunk tied somewhat precariously to the roof of the Chevrolet and four years later, when he drove me to law school in Washington DC where I would live in a run-down apt in a less than ideal neighborhood until we were burglarized on the first night we were there.
I don’t remember what we talked about on either of the trips but I know I felt safe and trusted him to get us where we needed to go without anything resembling a GPS.
My dad was not big on small talk so I imagine there was a lot of silence during the drive. We probably listened to the radio; switching from AM music to news and Yankee games.
I can still smell the cigar he smoked the whole time.
I wish now I had thought to interact more with him; to use that precious time to learn more about his life; his dreams, his fears, his early in life experiences.
Those days with him, driving in silence, reading maps, sharing meals, even without long, meaningful conversations, meant more to me than almost any other experience in my youth.
He was with me.
He was present.
He was participating in my rite of passage.
He was witnessing me cross a critical threshold in my life.
I hope he knew how much I valued and respected him.
He graduated the graduate.
And he did it with such humility and wisdom; allowing me to be independent, make my own mistakes as well as decisions, but always being there when I needed him.
So, for all who have supported others in their growth and development, you are appreciated.
Your dedication, patience, sacrifice and love were exactly what was needed.
Of all the advice that graduates are receiving from parents, teachers, speakers and TikTok influencers, the most important may be the simplest.
Be a good friend.
Support someone in need.
Encourage someone when they’ve lost their confidence.
Be of service.
Giving of ourselves will always cure what ails us individually and collectively.
The author George Eliot concurs:
“If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went-
Then you may count that day well spent.”
I am following that advice as I launch my fourth child, being there for her and trusting her to make wise choices.
The work of graduating a graduate is not for the faint of heart.
But as George Eliot wrote, when we give of ourself, care about someone else, a day, a month, a year, a lifetime, will be well spent.
As was my dad’s.
With love and light,