In the frenzy leading up to the big day, I was told breathlessly, barely 12 hours before the event that I had to get a lei and maracas.
“A Lei? Maracas?” Had high school graduations changed that much or was this some American tradition I wasn’t aware of? Where the heck does one buy a lei or maracas?
“Everyone gets a Lei!” she said. “You can get them at Safeway. And you need maracas so that you can make lots of noise when I go up on stage.”
“Oh,” I said stupidly. I was priding myself on the fact that almost twelve years widowed, this graduation thing was going to be a breeze. He’d be proud, I kept thinking. It won’t be a sad affair. I remembered the newly widowed me thinking about this day, feeling crushed by the far-in-the-future event, unable to fathom how I would ever get through it. I was almost giddy thinking how great it was all going to be. How happy and proud I was of my girl.
I found myself at the grocery store looking at a pile of picked-over white and purple orchid leis wrapped in plastic with “Manager’s Special” stickers on them. They were wilted and a little brown around the edges, but I was desperate. “Do you have maracas?” I asked the grocery store florist. She looked at me as if I had three heads. “Maracas? No. You could try Bartells …”
After an equally bewildered looking clerk at the pharmacy told me they had no maracas, I gave up. She would have to be content with my four-finger whistle.
There was a last minute dress-buying excursion and a dash to the airport to pick up Jim who had been away for a week buying a seaplane (that’s another blog post). I had spent the week in anticipation, missing him, excited to see him. He had changed his flight last minute to be able to attend the graduation with us and I couldn’t have been more grateful. After a quick change, we were off to dinner at our favorite Greek comfort food restaurant. It’s where we’ve spent many of our occasions, the owner also a widower and a good friend. Olivia had spent a summer working there and thus had chosen it.
After dinner, we filed into the stadium, glad to arrive early and find a seat in the sun. The crowd around us gathered, rowdy, carrying balloons that blocked our view and clutching elaborate bouquets, wearing high heels and dragging young kids who kicked our backs through the bleacher seats. A group squeezed in beside us, almost usurping what little room we had on the wooden bench. They were loud and boisterous and the strains of Pomp and Circumstance that accompanied the procession of white and purple clad grads, could barely be heard over their hoots and whistles and screams at their grad.
My brevity began to slip. We saw her walking and tried to wave, but it took a series of text messages before she could. She turned and waved glad to have found us. The speeches began and I was relieved by the relative quiet. I moved closer to Jim, glad for his presence. This was going to be fine.
One of the speakers said to the grads, “I want you to turn around and thank your moms and dads, because they had a lot to do with you being here today.” She turned and smiled and waved, and my chest clenched, emotions surging. She was grown up. She looked so beautiful. She was going to be leaving soon. He wasn’t here to see it. I blinked away a tear, determined not to go there. The moment passed. Just a moment. I was safe.
When she got to the stage and they called her name, my four finger whistle, Jim’s dollar bill whistle and Carter’s hoot all died amidst the noise of our raucous neighbors. As she walked off the stage she whooped and her arm flew into the air in victory. She had done it. We had done it. Another gulp and swallow. I pushed the thought away. The rest of the event I managed to get through gulp-less.
The crowd filed out of the stadium to follow the grads to Seattle’s giant fountain where we were to meet up. In front of me walked a man with a grey tweed suit, its tails flapping in the wind. Another gulp caught me hard this time. I remembered Arron the night of Olivia’s kindergarten recital. Late, running in his grey suit, tails flying, shirt undone, shoes clacking on the marble floors of the school’s halls.
What would he have said? How would he have felt in this moment? Tears sprang. I swallowed them away. We had hugs and pictures and left her for the green bus that would take her to an all night odyssey of teen-aged fun. Driving home, my head throbbed with thwarted tears.
In the car, we talked about the kids that didn’t graduate, as had been mentioned in one of the speeches. Carter seemed incredulous at the idea of not graduating. Once home, he came to me, hugged me hard, upset. For a moment, I thought it might be for the same reason I was struggling, but then I remembered the conversation. I assured him he would graduate in four years. I could hear the mom in my voice, turning it into a learning moment. “As long as you do all your homework and stay organized and get involved…” No good mom would miss such an opportunity.
I poured a glass of wine while Jim disappeared into the other room. I was grateful for the momentary reprieve which he no doubt sensed I needed. I was unsure how to reconcile my moment of grief with my happy reunion with him. I unthwarted the tears, the silent kind. I let the emotions wash over me, knowing that they would eventually dissipate.
I let the dog out and Jim asked how I was. I didn’t know how to answer. Happy. Sad. Proud. I thought of a decoupage – a magazine image of sadness shellacked over with thick layers of pride in my kid, happiness that we had made it to this moment. Jim had texted upon Olivia’s final day of school “Congratulations. You deserve as much congratulations as anyone lady. You made it!” It had been the first time it occurred to me that a graduation was a combined effort. I thought of all the drama and angst we’d been through together getting to this point. Her and I together. I wished Arron could have been a part of that.
Later I lay snuggled in Jim’s arms, having spent a week without him, aware of how strange it all was, the sadness and happiness of the day mixed with the gratitude that I was right where I was supposed to be.
Dang it, where are the maracas when you need them?
Special thanks to Abigail Carter, author of “The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow’s Transformation”  for allowing Hello Grief to republish this article.