61: Graduation and Liberation

61: Graduation and Liberation

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Graduation and Liberation

Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.

~Mahatma Gandhi

Graduation day is a peculiar one. After spending four years completely immersed in the lives of your friends, you abruptly shift your attention to family and future. For weeks you’ve been in survival mode — papers and finals and late-night pizza and parties — and then suddenly there you are, on the day where you formally and finally exit this world that has been your... everything.

I remember that sunny day in May well. My roommates and I were living off-campus in a building filled with upperclassmen. After spending two years in a dorm room the size of a walk-in closet, this three-room apartment was heaven. 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 our graduation, the apartment was abuzz with preparations — hair, gowns, caps, and families arriving for the traditional brunch before the ceremony. My parents were recently divorced, so the day had been neatly split in two: the more affordable breakfast with Mom and my stepfather, followed by the expensive dinner with my dad and his girlfriend. My younger sister Robin would ride up with my mother to bridge the divide — attending both the celebrations. Everyone would be at the graduation, of course, in separate seating.

My roommate Margie’s parents arrived first, and then Annie’s. Everyone lingered, waiting for my family. Before they left, Margie asked if I wanted to join them. She was in high spirits. Annie’s family stayed on, growing concerned. “Are you sure you don’t want to come to breakfast with us, Kelly?” they pressed. I wasn’t worried at all and practically had to force them out of the apartment. My family had a longer drive than theirs, close to two hours if there was traffic, and I would rather have a rushed breakfast with them than a leisurely one without them.

Just as the apartment emptied, the phone rang. It was my sister Robin on the other end, and she was sobbing. They weren’t running late, they weren’t stuck in traffic, and they hadn’t had an accident. They hadn’t left yet, and they weren’t coming — at all. My mother was drunk.

The apartment grew larger and emptier and quieter, and I grew more alone. How would I face my roommates and their families with this news? I couldn’t inflict this on their day too.

“Why?” I wondered through tears I tried to stave off. “Why today? Why me?”

It made sense to me when my mother drank because her life was lonely and empty with my father working all the time, or when she drank because of troubles in her new marriage, but it didn’t make sense now. I had been her friend, her ally, and her confidante all these years. Why would she be drunk on my graduation day, and so early in the morning at that?

After suggesting my sister quickly call my father to salvage a ride for herself, I hung up the phone and felt a chilled emptiness replace the excitement inside me. I considered lying to my roommates and their families. I considered not going to graduation at all. I considered not existing at all.

I didn’t want to be in this messed up family. I didn’t want this story to be mine. I had grown up in a “good” family where my mom kept the house clean and made cookies for Christmas. She was always there — after school, whenever I called, no matter what I asked for. What kind of graduation gift was this?

I let out a deep exhale of grief, and then sucked in determination. This is MY graduation day, I told myself. This is the day that celebrates my last four years of studying and learning. I am graduating Magna Cum Laude! This is MY day. This is about ME.

I draped my robe and cap over my shoulder and began walking the thirteen city blocks to campus. I continued walking past the college until I got to Cavanaughs on City Line, our hangout. My roommates and I joked that we had purchased their new ceiling with all the dollars we spent there. Opening the heavy door, I moved out of the sun and into the cool, dank darkness. There, even though it was morning and graduation day at that, I found another classmate having a beer. I hopped up on a barstool and joined him. There were even pastries laid out instead of the classic relish tray of hot peppers, horseradish, and spicy mustard. In a booth alongside us, another friend sat with his family. I regained my sense of place, and a bittersweet feeling of belonging. With a beer and a pastry for breakfast, I reclaimed this day as mine and headed to my graduation ceremony.

There’s not much more I remember from that day. Most of my friends were in the Business College so I sat among relative strangers in the college of Arts and Sciences — without having to explain my morning. There’s a photo of me with the sun in my face as I received my diploma. Afterwards, I hugged friends goodbye and we all rejoined our families. My father took me to my favorite upscale Italian place on City Line. Though it seeped from my pores, there was no talk about my mother and what happened that morning, especially in the presence of our future stepmother. My sister and I smiled at each other from across the table with weary eyes and bruised hearts.

My mother’s drinking got worse that summer and instead of joining the “real world,” I left it, backpacking through Europe in the fall while classmates embarked on careers. The following year, I fell in love with the man who became my best friend and partner.

My mother “hit bottom” the week of our wedding and arrived drunk with matted hair. We had two ushers escort her down the aisle. In the face of community pity, I was thankful she made it at all. We both wore the same shoes — hers in cream, mine in white. We had picked them out together. Her dress hung on her emaciated form.

While away on my honeymoon, she went into rehab, and then spent the next ten years sober. She apologized for my graduation and my wedding. I just smiled and told her it was okay. I loved her too much to feel all the anger and betrayal and sadness. I didn’t want to threaten her precious fragility.

My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer during my last trimester and died two weeks following the birth of my son. Her beautiful photo sits beside my computer as I write. Sometimes I yell at her, and sometimes I cry tears of anguish and abandonment. But mostly, I smile, grateful for her and for knowing who I am apart from it all.

My graduation morning stands out as a defining moment in my life’s story. Sharing it now drains what hold it still claims on my heart and spirit, revealing a strength of character and purpose that I’m proud to call my own.

~Kelly Salasin

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