The night before Commencement, I had a lot of trouble falling asleep.
I couldn’t figure out why. The worst was behind us-all school projects were complete, final grades entered, the rush of college applications in and decisions (about the next year at least) finalized This was the last step away from childhood for my first born, and he was more than ready to take it.
All of this was probably the reason I couldn’t sleep. OK, I am sure it was.
Because our school is a faith-based organization, the graduation ceremony is held every year at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral downtown. The church is ancient, and every time I enter its walls, the atmosphere takes my breath away. It’s as though every stone and surface is imbued with the faith of the ages. Even during ordinary church services, I often find myself choked up, imagining the thoughts and prayers of the many generations before us. Adding the vision of my son graduating would probably do me in completely.
Friday morning was pearly gray, not raining but soft and more than a little humid. I stood at the church steps waiting for late family members, and spent time talking to a mom friend whose own boy has eaten a lot of waffles at my house. Any kid I feed becomes a little bit like extended family; this one more so because his mother is dear to me. We have spent hours wringing our hands, laughing, and sharing intel while we worked our way through the teen years. Once my parents arrived, I was able to go inside to wait. By this point, the church was packed full.
The sanctuary has soaring ceilings, and old wooden pews separated by deeply carved columns. Each pew has its own little door, as well as velvet kneelers. While we waited, we listened to music played on a Casavant organ. This particular instrument is quite something to behold with mammoth pipes running though the walls and at the back of the church. When it is played, you can feel the notes vibrating in your chest; the organist has to be careful not to play full out. We listened, talking quietly and paging through the program. Just as I checked my watch, precisely at nine, the music stopped abruptly and the whole building went completely silent.
Faintly, from outside, we could hear the sound of bagpipes.
Involuntarily, I closed my eyes. I knew what was happening because last year, I was a volunteer for refreshments, and could see the beginning of the procession from a side wing of the building. I remember peering through the small leaded glass panes to see the double lines students form behind the church to proceed up the sidewalk, then across the courtyard to the door; all with solemn excitement on their faces. Now, in my mind’s eye, I could see my son near the front (“A” names first), with his friends scattered throughout the lines. As I heard the music of the pipes getting closer and closer, I could visualize where they were on the path, and I could feel the joy and excitement rising within me. At some point, I grasped my husbands hand, barely hearing him exclaim at how cold my fingers felt.
Somehow, we were all standing at once, turned to face the huge wooden double doors behind us. The music stopped, more silence, then three loud bangs with a pause. Both doors opened in a rush and a stream of light poured into the dim church; illuminating the center aisle. My mind was whirling and I scarcely noticed the priest who led the way. My eyes immediately searched for the teachers, anticipating them; so many familiar faces. Our school begins at age three and goes up to twelfth grade, and all faculty attends Commencement. This has always touched me deeply. Many of them were also mothers (and fathers) that I have worked with over the years when they were starting their own families. This makes a nice symmetry in my heart and mind. All have tried to help my son grow in some way, all have borne witness to his transition through childhood along with his father and I. Once I saw those who taught him in his very youngest years, I couldn’t help myself. The tears started to roll.
Younger siblings are included in the ceremony, so my twin girls were serving as acolytes. They followed behind the double row of teachers; each robed in white, carrying a thick pillar candle. They both grinned at me, and I could read the looks on their faces,
“I knew mom would lose it.”
Directly behind them, I saw my boy. Although we all rode to church together less than an hour ago, I saw him with fresh eyes; admiring how he looked like “a nice young man” as his grandmother would say. He is a performer, so he often avoids eye contract with me when I am in the audience in order to keep his focus. Today was different. He looked right into my eyes and gave me his sweet, quiet smile. I concentrated on letting my pride shine right back at him, so he would know.
As the last of them filed in to sit in the front pews, I found myself becoming very calm. I noticed that, at some point, the sun was streaming in through the stained glass windows behind the pulpit. This gave the front of the church that unique soft glow that is created with old glass and wood, adding to the beauty of it all.
As I listened to the service and then the speeches, I was peaceful; a rarity for me and my busy mind. I focused on every moment, sealing it into my memory. I found myself grinning as hard as I could when I heard him called to receive his diploma and bible; both emblazoned with his full name. The happy tears started again as I watched the teachers, then the graduating class file out. In the brief pause before we could leave, I knew the teachers were lining up outside on both sides of the walk in order to administer hugs and good wishes to their students one last time.
This was more than just an event in an old church. This was a life passage, fraught with history, meaning, and a lot of love. Like so many of these, it was over in a blink, to become a precious memory forever.