Last year I started writing a blog post shortly after graduation reflecting on what the event had been like, but before I got very far into the writing, life took over and hijacked any time I thought I might have had, so it never got done. Now here it is a year later, another graduation has just come and gone, and it is time to try again. Perhaps I will succeed this time. If I do, I apologize that this will probably end up being long. Here goes…
Last May, 2009, Alasdair and I both graduated from Westminster, he with a Master of Divinity and I with a Master of Arts in Religion. It was an emotional day. Some time in the week leading up to graduation I reckoned with the fact that although I was looking forward to graduating, I was also somewhat dreading the ceremony itself.
That was not at all surprising, given the history of the few graduations that had preceded it.
In 2006 I had driven Al to graduation and helped to figure out how to get things set up so that he could keep his leg elevated as inconspicuously as possible during the ceremony, since he had a blood clot in his leg. (He had also just learned that the cancer had spread to his brain.) Five days earlier we hadn’t thought he would be able to make it to graduation at all, so he was pleased as punch to be there, even in terrible pain, and to read the names of the graduates as Academic Dean and to give them a solemn charge. Everybody knew that that would be Al’s last graduation, and I sat in the back with Sheri Welch and bawled, knowing that a day would come when Alasdair and I would cross that stage and Al would not be there to see it.
In 2007 I went to graduation, and Al’s absence was palpable, not only to me but to everyone present. He was mentioned, and quoted, and missed. I felt wrung out by the time it was done, but it was good to have been there.
In 2008 graduation was held at a different church. In fact, it was the same church where Al’s memorial service was held. I REALLY didn’t have time to go, since both Eowyn and Alden were going to formal dances that night and I was involved in getting ready, picking up dates, taking myriad pictures in multiple locations, etc. But I went anyway, very briefly, because I knew that if the first time I was back in that building after Al’s service was for Alasdair’s and my graduation, I’d never make it through.
But in 2009 the ceremony was back at the church in Souderton where it was held in 2006 and 2007. Because of that, it felt as if the 2009 ceremony came right on the heels of ’06 and ’07—Al’s last and then the first one without him. There was so much emotional baggage I was carrying into it, that it’s not surprising that I was dreading it.
As the time approached, I found that I wasn’t really thinking much about the upcoming day. I assumed that was just because I was SO busy. But after a talk Eowyn and I had, I realized that more than that was going on. You see, if I downplayed the significance of graduation in my own mind, then maybe it wouldn’t matter so much that Al wasn’t there. If it was not a big deal, then I might feel less pain getting through it. I was subconsciously shielding my heart from something I knew was going to hurt a lot. Self-protective instinct kicking in.
But as Alasdair and I drove together to the rehearsal the day before, we talked about grief and other emotions, and the importance of processing our emotions in faith and how learning to do that well “comes with practice,” in a way. He had some great insights that were very helpful to me (you might eventually read them in the CCEF Journal of Biblical Counseling, or whatever its current online equivalent is called) and that enabled me to let go of the self-protective stance I had taken and to face graduation differently. I could say, “Yes, it’s going to be a tough day. And yes, there will be lots of sadness and grief throughout it. But instead of distancing myself from fully feeling the joys of it so as to protect myself from fully feeling the grief of it, I will choose rather to face it head-on. I will march into the auditorium with my heart open to whatever comes. I will fully embrace all the great happiness and sense of accomplishment of finishing the race I began, and I will fully embrace the sadness of Al not being there to see it.” (Nor my mom, who had talked about hoping to come south for graduation but who died a month before it.)
I had the sleeve of my academic gown well stocked with tissues.
As graduates, we filed in behind the faculty, so I did not have to be in the auditorium when they entered. That was merciful. I managed to keep my composure off and on through the first part of the ceremony, but then things got tougher.
Degrees are awarded by category from the highest to the lowest, starting with the PhD’s. Alasdair’s MDiv is higher than my MAR, so he received his degree before I did. (We’ve gotten some good mileage out of that fact these past few years.) It is tradition at WTS graduations that although all applause is to be held until the last candidate in a given category has crossed the stage, when a graduate receives his or her diploma, any of their family members or friends in the audience may stand to honor them (and to be able to get better pictures). So I stood for Alasdair, very aware that the family, including Lauren’s parents from Massachusetts and Al’s brother, niece and nephew from Florida, were also standing somewhere behind me and that Al was NOT there on stage standing for and beaming proudly at his son. But then I looked again, and saw that Doug Green, and Mike Kelly, and a couple others of Al’s colleagues on stage WERE standing for Alasdair in Al’s place. Not surprisingly, I lost it.
I had a little time to pull myself together before it was time for the MAR’s to line up. Just before my name was called, I took a deep breath and set my eyes not to cry. But when I started across, a number of Al’s colleagues on the faculty stood up, and I could barely breathe. It meant so much to me. Even in the very moment it registered to me that they were standing for several different reasons. One was that they are my good friends whom I have known for a long time and with whom I have walked through some hard things. Another is that in a way I represented Al to them, and they were standing to honor the memory of a fallen comrade. And the third is that they also represented Al to me, and since their brother-in-arms was not able to be there to stand for his own family, they were standing in his place, in solidarity both with Al and with me. At that point I lost the battle against tears.
The Dean, who reads the names of the graduates but does not shake their hands, shook my hand, and the President, who does shake their hands, gave me a hug. It was quiet in the auditorium, but then someone (later I found out who) started clapping, and then the whole place broke into applause that went on and on while made my long way back to my seat. Again, I think it was people grabbing a chance, maybe a last, lingering opportunity, to clap for Al and for all he had meant to them and to Westminster. And for me too, I know, but also for Al. It was for both of us, and in an odd sort of way, I guess that made it like having him there beside me again. It was precious, and excruciating, and wonderful all at the same time.
I’d more or less shut off the tears by the time the last category of degrees was awarded, but then we sang “For All the Saints,” and I was reduced to a puddle again. I’ve loved that hymn since I first became a Christian as a teenager, but in the context of all that had just happened, it meant more than ever. (If you are not familiar with it, the lyrics are at the end of this post. You’ll see what I mean.) I thought of Al who had lived a life of faith, following Jesus—the Captain he loved so much—and who was now at rest with him. I thought of him seeing the King of Glory now face to face and of the day that’s coming when we’ll join him in the King’s presence.
It was bitterly, sweetly, joyfully, sorrowfully real, and I allowed my tender, hurting/healing heart to fully feel each of those emotions. As a result of my conversation with Alasdair I refrained from putting up shields that would have protected me from the pain but would have forfeited the joys, and I’m glad that I made that choice. I entrusted my heart into the Lord’s strong hands and let the deep, towering waves of both sets of emotions crash over it, and in the end my heart was still safe in God’s palms, cleansed and healthy from the salt water.
So now it is a year later. In many ways it is hard to believe that just a single year has passed. It has been FULL!
I have a granddaughter, Emily, who is just about the best thing that ever happened to anyone. (See http://babyeclaire.blogspot.com for pictures)
Eowyn has gone off to college and loved it so much that she isn’t even coming home this summer; she’s working for the college.
Alden has almost finished the long miserable slog that is junior year, and he and I have started visiting colleges.
Becky’s job with World Harvest Mission currently has her in Greece running a retreat for which she is responsible for all the logistics for a couple hundred people. In August she will be heading off to a one year Fellowship in Maryland.
Alasdair and Lauren (and Emily if I don’t succeed in kidnapping her…) plan to move to VT/NH at the end of June to start a Christian counseling center.
And I have spent the last 11 months teaching Hebrew at WTS, which I LOVE! The year before last I had the privilege of serving as a Teaching Assistant in the Hebrew class for Karyn Traphagen and then for Doug Green, both of whom are awesome teachers as well as wonderful human beings, and I learned so much from them. When I first found out that Karyn would be moving away and that I would be trying to fill her shoes, I was keenly aware that that was going to be a daunting, monumental task, and I worried about it. But then it came out one day in conversation that if she had been a male she would have wanted to be a Navy Seal, and that actually made me relax. I figured that no one expects you to be able to replace a Navy Seal, so the pressure was off and I could just be myself and do my best. Turns out that for me it is pretty close to a dream job, and I am SO grateful for it. I love languages, love teaching, love the students, and love the room for creativity and the challenge of making things as clear as possible. Doesn’t get any better than that. I think Al would be both proud and amused that I am inhabiting his old world and teaching some of his classes.
Life as a single parent and lone runner of a household, especially during the intensive Hebrew terms when we cram a full semester of Hebrew into 4 weeks, is busy and often stressful, and I spend a lot of time feeling hopelessly behind the eight ball. But Alden and I are eating meals, wearing clean clothes and speaking to each other, which I figure is pretty good. Expecting much more than that is probably unrealistic. Occasionally the lawn even gets mowed, although the house never gets cleaned.
Anyway, back to graduation, since that’s what this blog post is supposed to be about. I found out this spring that I would be able to walk with the faculty at graduation and to sit on stage with them, and I was really glad about that. It is too soon for any of my students to be graduating, since I just started teaching last summer, but a few of the students from the class in which I was the TA graduated this year, and it was SO NEAT to watch them receive their diplomas! Now I understand the joy that professors have in seeing their students succeed. My students are like my kids, and I’m so proud of them and happy for them.
The ceremony was much less emotional this year than last. I only cried once during the service. (And once afterward when a woman I had never met before said something kind that went straight to my heart and pressed the “turn on tears” button.) During the ceremony it was once again “For All the Saints” that got me. It made me miss Al, whose professional world I now live in. But it also made me smile through my tears when I pictured the glorious day breaking, the saints rising in bright array and the King of Glory passing on his way. Ahhh, ecstasy. I hear the “distant triumph song” even now.
I’m sure there is tons else to tell, but this is l-o-n-g enough as it is.
May you know the strong, capable and loving hands of the Father holding yours as you walk on whatever path he has set before your feet.
For All The Saints
For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: