Even by Southern California standards, it’s a spectacular afternoon, cloudless and unruffled, with a midday sun burning pure and bright. Our small entourage sits in a row on the aluminum bleachers. It’s me and my husband, our younger daughter, Eden; and my sister, Michele. We rise as the opening bars of “Pomp and Circumstance” crackle through the loudspeakers at the corners of the football field. The music is so iconic and familiar, it could be the same recording that played in the 1980s when I graduated from high school in the New York suburbs and again when my sister strode across the same grass three years later.
“Remember?” I ask her. But I don’t need to. Of course, she does.
The procession of 170 graduating seniors comes into view in alternating gowns of black and teal. “Maya!” we shout. “Maya!” She can’t hear us, but no matter. We yell until we’re hoarse anyway. We yell for the people who aren’t here, especially the one who didn’t get to shout for us.
The students weave among the rows of folding chairs. Some of them pause to give double thumbs-up to the crowd. It’s total pandemonium in the bleachers now. Families are waving wildly at their graduates, someone’s got a bullhorn, and everyone is lifting cell phones sideways to capture the scene on video. The music ends just as the last students take their chairs. Six hundred people in the bleachers sit back down.
That’s when Michele and I both lose it.
Tears are nothing unusual at a high school graduation. It’s a poignant rite of passage, a threshold ceremony signifying both a beginning and an end. We’re far from the only ones clutching travel packs of tissues. And my family is used to this from me. I was the one at pre-school presentations and grade-school concerts who stood on the room’s perimeter, simultaneously beaming and crying. The happiness, the grief, the longing, the gratitude: All of it tumbling out at once. I used to embarrass my daughters so much, I’d have to promise either to stand in the back or not attend.
Still, this is excessive even for me. And with my sister, it’s times two. By the time the principal is halfway through his opening address, Michele and I are full-on sobbing. Professional accomplishments, home ownership, retirement savings, vacation plans: all of it falls away like an extra, unnecessary skin. How much of that really matters? Just being here feels like a miracle. For thirty-six years, neither of us have taken this for granted.
Neither of our parents made it to this graduation. They didn’t even come close. Our father died eleven years ago after a fierce, brief bout with liver cancer. Our mother died of breast cancer at the age of forty-two. She didn’t live to see any of her children finish high school. I was seventeen when she died, the same age Maya is now (a fact that is not lost on me). Michele was fourteen at the time. Our brother was nine.
My own graduation ceremonies were dismal, poorly attended affairs. The first, from high school, had been a day to endure in a family recently flattened by grief. Four years later, when I graduated from college, my boyfriend was my only guest. My father couldn’t leave my brother alone overnight, and multiple plane tickets to Chicago were out of his financial reach. When I finished graduate school six years later, I didn’t stay in town long enough to collect my degree. The diploma arrived at my P.O. Box in New York City that fall.
Maybe that’s why I made my kids’ graduations into markers of success. I show up at every ceremony with a small but mighty entourage and, for the big ones, a weekend of celebratory events. Do I overdo it? Maybe, but each graduation is a gift I can give them while I’m here. And each one marks a personal achievement for me.
For a long time, a part of me believed I’d also die at forty-two. Visions of my future always came to a hard stop at that line. And then I crossed it, to my enormous surprise. Forty-two was a strange year, but forty-three was even stranger. In a very short span of time, my mother went from being my elder, to being my peer, to being … someone younger than me. How strange was that? Colossally strange. It still is.
Other people on the high school bleachers are starting to stare at me now. They’re probably wondering why my response looks so extreme. But I know there are others among us who understand. Fourteen percent of this crowd, to be exact. That’s the percentage of adults in the U.S. who lost a parent or sibling during childhood or their teens. These people are likely to know I’m not crying because I’m sad. It’s rarely that simple. I’m crying because having been touched by death at an early age teaches you about pain and horror and anguish and beauty and mystery and elemental wisdom long before your peers, and helps you appreciate the exquisite preciousness of life, and it’s all coming together, right now, in one big rush under this blinding California sun.
This life. It’s extraordinary. But to learn this and carry the knowledge for so long, someone I loved had to die too young.
Sometimes this feels like a burden. Sometimes it feels like an awesome responsibility. But most of the time, it feels like a gift.
I reach out and squeeze my sister’s hand. “We did it,” I say.
“We sure did,” she squeezes back.
The principal takes the microphone. It’s time for the commencement.
Hope Edelman is the author of eight nonfiction books, including the bestsellers Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers. This is excerpted from her new book, The Aftergrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss (Penguin Random House UK, 2021)