I do not know why Commencement speakers bother giving speeches to the graduates.
The graduates are mostly not listening. The Young Adults Formerly Known As Our Children arrive at this day, and at the stage, proud, and celebratory, relieved and optimistic. They are happy to be with each other and – at least until somewhat later in the day, when the adrenaline wears off, and everyone grows tired – with their families. They are deserving and pleased, as they should be, and the focus is on them, which is also, in their opinion, how it should be. Moms know well – because they have to remind themselves daily – this is not narcissism, selfishness, or cultural demise at the hands of the millennials, but simply a reflection of their developmental stage. Anyway, for today, the graduates are good, flying high on the day’s festivities and a victory lap around the arena.
And while the grads are thrilled if it’s a big-name speaker at the podium, someone famous they can brag about having heard, and maybe even snag a selfie with as they cross the stage, it seems to me that they don’t care so much, often don’t listen, and generally can’t remember what is said. They do not so much need a speech.
You know who needs a speech? The moms. Because ho-ly cow.
Some of the moms will look positively radiant at graduation, amazingly well-put-together. Their families do, too; the men and the boys with them arrive on time and in jackets and ties, miraculously without sweat or complaint. Their daughters, dressed as if for a garden party, smile sweetly, and ask frequently how they can help. No seat-saving is demanded of this mom; no frantic “where are you??” texts are sent from her phone. Their graduates drop by to give their mom a hug and thanksforeverything before the ceremony, wearing mortarboards that say “Love you Mom!” and colorful cords of accomplishment over their robes. By the end of the day, we all know their graduates’ names, as they are called, again and again, to the stage for recognition. We will see these moms later in the day, taking a photo for their Christmas card; everyone will line up happily like grown ups and will not complain. They may even have thought to hire a photographer.
This is very nice for them.
These are not the moms I am talking about.
I see all of the moms out there, I would say, if I were the not-famous, not-at-all-selfie-worthy person at the podium. And, I would add, sometimes when people have been through something, they learn to recognize that something in the eyes of other people. They know what to look for. And I know you are expecting me to say, as commencement speakers do, that this day is all about the graduates and their accomplishments, their pasts and their futures and to that I say: whatever. Moms know the truth. We know what we’ve been through just to get here, to get them here. We see it in each other’s eyes because we know what to look for.
We see a mom whose heart has been broken, and is permanently scarred from the years wondering if her kid would ever be invited to a birthday party or have a friend, be seen for more than her struggle or her disability. This mom’s heart has been duct-taped back together, over and over again, which was not the “right” way to fix it; that way would have demanded rest and time to heal. But there wasn’t that time; there was the next day’s work to be done. So she kept adding more duct tape to make that version work, to get on with the tasks at hand. It’s good enough, she says; she makes do.
We see the mom who might have worked out more if she were not always meeting with the teacher, imploring the child, storming heaven. We see the mom who might have slept more if she did not so often lay awake and alone in the middle of the night, praying, worrying, and wondering what would ever become of this bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. Who might have been been more effective at work had she not so often received the text at work that made her put her head down on her desk and sob quietly for a minute, before pulling herself together and going on with her day.
We see the mom who once, early on, arrived eagerly at the high-school-mom-lunches, believing she was meeting her tribe, but who soon grew quiet in a conversation only of successful, accomplished children and their well-coiffed mamas. Who left feeling less-than and ashamed, and then ashamed of being ashamed, and who never went back.
We see the mom who once imagined this auspicious day as one in which she and the child’s father would hold hands and gaze adoringly at their grown-up, graduating child, but who finds herself alone, or sitting next to him in reserved seats and stony silence, or stiff-upper-lipped, sharing the day with her replacement, doing the best she can.
We see a mom who kept a vigilant watch on the school website for all of the Commencement details, so that she could make all of the arrangements and reservations for everyone, so that it would be a nice day. Or a mom who only realized the timeline only too late, when everything was sold out, and was bereft. And who today had to get up at the crack of dawn to drive from the too-far-away hotel, and is not sure where they are going to eat afterwards, and so is having a hard time just enjoying it all, knowing it will work out, letting herself off the hook.
We see the mom whose graduate arrives at the ceremony green around the gills, and too late to meet the family, who processes in missing a tassle or worse yet, a mortarboard, or who has ignored her advice (and his promise) to take the wrinkled polyester robe out of the package ahead of time. A mom who is having to let go of the nice picture she had hoped to get.
We see the mom who sits tight-lipped next to a daughter in matching black lipstick and clothes and hair color, or a son dressed for a day of surfing, or perhaps only sleeping, a mom who says nothing about this, who meets incendiary comments with the breathing that she learned in yoga. Who reminds herself that it is only Being Together that matters, showing up.
We see the mom who knows that, despite appearances, the folder with the school seal on the front which will be handed to her graduate as he strides across the stage, will not actually have a sheepskin inside, because the struggle continues, and there is more work to be done. Who is working hard to choose celebration and hopefulness over disappointment and worry. Who smiles and whispers in his ear when she hugs him that it is just around the corner, to just enjoy the day. Who tells herself the same.
We see the mom who knows that, even in light of all of this, and all of the things known only to her heart, she has brought her child – and herself – to this place. Who holds a lump which is a stifled sob in the back of her throat. Who, when the processional music starts, finds her bottom lip suddenly and inexplicably quivering violently, who wipes big bloppy tears from her cheek quickly, before anyone sees.
Mom, the mom- tribe sees you. And to you we say – not from the podium, perhaps, but from a tribe of people who have been through it and who know what to look for – Congratulations.