Happy Graduation to all of the young men in this community! Whether it be grad school, college, high school, middle school, elementary school, or even kindergarten–graduation is a major milestone in Duchenne. (Take a minute to acknowledge the graduates in your life on our Facebook page!)
It has been awhile since I have attended commencement exercises, high school, college, or graduate school. This year I had quite a different experience, attending three: The University of Florida – Gainesville, Mother of Mercy High School in Cincinnati, and Canton High School in Boston.
In May, I was an invited speaker at the convocation for University of Florida School of Public Health – young professionals about to step out on a new path. This journey started as a comedy of errors, missing flights, missing connecting flights, then arriving in the nick of time, checking my computer for notes, and seeing that infamous blue screen, a subliminal message that I was on my own. It feels pretty intimidating to stand on the podium facing wonderful, capable, amazing young people, offering advice about health care. My advice? The secret of healthcare is CARING for the patient as an individual, the most important individual in the world, listening to the patient and responding thoughtfully, carefully to his/her needs.
Later that same week I was asked to give the commencement address for my high school. Months back I had received a request from the president of the high school. I laughed out loud, remembering my high school days, figuring she asked the wrong person. We spoke, she confirmed that she had not made a mistake, and I agreed to speak. I thought a lot about what to say, what to tell them about my own high school experience. That night, wearing a cap and gown for the first time in many years, I processed in with the teachers, principal, president, and trustees of the high school. Graduation was in the gym with the podium facing the audience, not the graduating students. Awards were given, the president and valedictorian spoke. Then it was up to me. Walking up to the podium, I thought about how I might speak directly to these young women. I lifted the microphone off the stand and turned to face them. I explained it had been awhile since high school, that, in fact, I was not a model student, not even a good student. In 1960, women had few choices. In our high school, there were two tracks: Secretarial or College Preparatory. I was scheduled for College Preparatory. There are so many factors that contribute to education in high school and I had my own set of issues. At 5ft. 10 in., I was perhaps the tallest in the class, maybe in the entire school. I desperately wanted to be ‘cool’, to ‘fit in’ and I desperately wished I had an older sister to teach me the ropes.
Freshman year, my biology teacher, Sister Joseph, suggested if I really read the text, I might get good grades instead of average. Sophomore year, I was not interested in conjugating Latin verbs. Junior year, I hired a boy to teach me how to kiss. It was quite innocent at the time, a business deal without much thought. Today, I would recommend a better deal, some examples perhaps and for sure, references! That year, the principal recommended I take a typing class because I was disruptive to study hall. Senior year, Ms. Barrett (we called her –grin and Barrett) assigned us to write a poem. Not so interested in writing poems, I copied one from a book in the library. With an innocent look, I handed the paper in. The following day, Ms. Barrett called me up to her desk and looking out from under her black rimmed glasses, she said “interesting that you and Joyce Kilmer wrote the same poem.” I did spend a lot of time in the library, reading what I considered ‘the good stuff’, every book on the ‘young adult’ section and carefully planning my social strategy.
It wasn’t until college that I found the need to read a textbook. I typically found textbooks boring until my anatomy /physiology professor compared her course to literature – to Tolstoy in fact, citing Anna Karenina, book one, chapter one: “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In one moment, this young PhD had all of us thinking about cells, cell structure, and cell demise. If I remember one moment in college, this was the one.
To these young graduates, I suggested sometimes we make plans and find that those plans do not fit into opportunities, that there are times when opportunities arrive buried in pain, that peeling back the layers of who we are and what lies in our path, may well lead us on amazing journey. Pearl S. Buck said: “There is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness.” I have found myself wondering from time to time if perhaps our eyes need to be washed by our tears once in awhile, so we can see life with a clearer vision. It is about the ‘going and the doing’, a wise friend said to me.
I ended up asking the graduates about their big idea, what was in their head that might make a difference to them, to someone they loved, or to the world. I asked what they might want people to remember 47 years later as they stand on this podium. And I ended with Dr. Seuss, because who in the world could say things better? “Today is your day, your mountain awaits you, now get on your way”.
Last Thursday, I attended a high school graduation of a dear friend’s son. I have gotten to know her over the last 13 years – first meeting a few days after the word Duchenne entered her world. She could barely talk, worried that her son would not live long enough to graduate. I promised he would, that I would attend, and we would celebrate together. Now, 13 years later, I sat in the audience, watching this young man with his peers. What’s wonderful about graduation is, it’s a step forward as he now heads to college. It was an amazing celebration. I sat next to his brother Kevin during the ceremony, occasionally commenting, trying to hold back tears. As we walked out, Kevin said how much he wished his brother could be sitting on the bleachers, rather than in a chair. He asked me, “How many tomorrows?”
All graduations are bittersweet moments, of leaving one phase in life and starting something new. Kahlil Gibran wrote: “And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentime filled with your tears. “
How true. The things we celebrate are often accompanied by tears.
How many tomorrows? Fingers crossed and pray …a lifetime.