Being that it’s September 1st and all, I should be feeling nostalgic and wishing I were making the three-hour voyage down 95 to Loyola like every other summer’s end. I do feel that a little and I’m sure I will start to feel it more strongly very soon, but I have hardly even noticed that I graduated college given what happened two weeks later. It’s as if I only have a certain amount of sadness and I’ve used it all on my dad, I don’t have the emotional capacity to also be sad about graduating. Of course I miss my friends and the little every-day things I knew I would miss, but those pangs are fairly bearable, even welcomed, compared to the ones I get from missing my dad.
Lots of folks have congratulated me on graduating, and rightfully so, and many have gone as far as saying “At least your dad saw you graduate.” I know this statement is meant to be comforting but no one would ever say that to me if they understood what a truly horrendous day it was. I try to repress thoughts of graduation day altogether because I do not want to remember my dad that way, and because for me it was worse than seeing him in a hospital bed.
On a purely physical level I was completely run down by May 15th. I drank too much at all the end-of-senior-year festivities and I slept seldom if ever, which no amount of makeup could hide. In addition to being physically worn out I was also in a constant state of worry about my dad even making it to the ceremony. I must have called my brother-in-law 20 times that morning to make sure everyone got to the arena okay; he kept saying my parents would be a little late, which I took to mean my dad wasn’t feeling strong enough to come despite everyone’s constant reassuring. I burst into tears so many times amidst the chaos of trying to find where the hell we were supposed to be lining up, and I’m sure my classmates thought I was just starting the waterworks a little early. I wasn’t crying about Loyola at all.
I thought I’d be able to find my parents, sister, brother-in-law and niece with no problem because they’d be sitting in a handicap section, but I gave up after an hour and then struggled to even keep my eyes open throughout the ceremony. I entered into a whole new state of panic when I was trying to find them outside after it was all over. Another graduation was coming in that afternoon so the arena staff was literally pushing us out the door, said arena is in downtown Baltimore, and it was the same weekend as one of the biggest horse races in the world—excellent planning as always, Loyola—so I was sure my dad would be knocked over or something. I finally found them around the corner and up the street a little, and my already aching heart shattered into a thousand hopeless pieces when I saw my dad. On a brilliantly sunny spring day surrounded by thousands of teary-eyed parents and cheerful siblings showering their graduates with hugs and flowers, my dad looked thin, pale, unhappy and truly sick. He could barely utter a “congratulations” before needing to get in a cab back to the hotel.
I spent so much time looking for them that I hardly took any pictures with my friends, hardly even said goodbye to anyone, and hardly cared about any of it. The “celebration” dinner which followed and which my dad could not attend was tainted; I kept thinking “He should be here.” Later that evening I joined other friends’ families’ celebrations and felt like such an intruder. I was miserable and alone amongst happy, tipsy moms and dads and aunts and uncles and cousins, wondering how and why the day my dad had been looking forward to since September—actually, probably long before that—had turned into such a painful, painful 24 hours. I drove home the day after graduation and before I even had time to fully unpack he was in the hospital. Two weeks later he was gone.
Let me make one thing clear: I do not believe my dad ruined my graduation. And I do not believe the trip to Baltimore made his illness worse. He loved me more than anything in the world and he was so proud of me, that much I know. He loved everything about Baltimore, he loved that I went to school at a place like Loyola and was at the top of my class, he loved asking me ten million questions about graduation weekend every time we spoke on the phone right up until a few days before. That was the thing about my dad; he got so sick to the point where he could hardly stand up and put one foot in front of the other, but dammit he was going to see his little girl graduate from college.
So yes, at least my dad saw me graduate. But will he see me move into my first apartment? Will he see me get promoted? Will he see me get married, and later dance with me to our song? Will he even see me come home from work today? No, he won’t. Not the way I wish he would.