This past Thursday was commencement day in my hometown. It’s a day full of pomp and fanfares and tradition, always tradition. Fair Harvard’s sons and daughters throng to these festival rites, and so long as the weather cooperates, it’s a day that is reliably and predictably delightful. Lucky for this year’s degree recipients, last Thursday dawned cool and cloudless and primed for a celebration.
I confess, yet again, I love it all. I will forever be inventing excuses to wander through the crush of folks headed for their seats, on the Thursday morning after Memorial Day. This year, like so many before, I woke up to the parades of graduates and the knots of traffic around Harvard Square, the twang of bagpipes, the tweet of a fife. Always, the honorees in caps and gowns form rag-tag lines, each juggling sunglasses and cell phones and water bottles and Starbucks cups. Most wear the black robes of newly minted bachelors’ and masters’ degrees, the only variation in their uniforms coming in the form of a splash of crimson for the masters’ hoods, and a hint of a previous degree designated by a dash of color on the inner hood, a spot of Princeton orange or a whisper of Dartmouth green, perhaps. Meanwhile, the doctoral degree recipients are the true peacocks of this day, festooned as they are in their crimson robes, a tint that spills over to something just this side of fuchsia. It could not be more exuberant, that PhD pink.
As for the proud family members, there’s always some of everything: grandmas in sensible shoes and big hats, little brothers in seersucker suits and clip-on ties, Hawaiians sporting gorgeous orchid crowns and leis, families from around the world, dressed in native garb, in hues and headdresses that make me feel like a drab little sparrow. Always, there are the vendors hawking helium-filled mylar balloons and last-minute flowers, from single roses wrapped in cellophane to exuberant mixed bouquets. And always, a few clever souls take the year-end college newspapers and turn them into SPF 75 top-knot protectors .
And every year, there is something wonderful and wonderfully unexpected from the honorary degrees. Last year, it was famed tenor Placido Domingo serenading Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. This year, Aretha Franklin got the respect she deserves and sang the bejesus out of the national anthem. It was, by all accounts, a very good day to be a citizen of this little corner of the world that I get to call home.
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Curiously, I had completely forgotten that it was exactly one year ago, also on Harvard’s commencement day, that I finished up my radiation treatment and got a certificate to mark that auspicious event. Time flies, it most assuredly it does. Years pass in a trice. I’ve put twelve months between me and the crap that comes with the lousy mammogram. One year of getting back to normal, or more accurately, to figuring out what my new normal may be.
Endings and beginnings, commencements and finish lines. They are all made of the same fabric, these starts and stops and starts again. Adjust the hat, resume the journey, turn the page, call it a day, begin all over again. I’ve been here before; we all have. This seems to be the only constant: the fact that in this life, nothing stays still. It all just keeps moving on to the next thing, the next phase. Get complacent, think you’ve got it all figured out, and sure as rain, something in your life is about to shift.
Last spring, my commencement day job was to show up and be zapped, one last time. There is something incredibly easy about that piece, when all that is required of you is to make it to your appointments on time. These days, the path to my health is far less anxiety provoking (nothing oncologically scary, huzzah!!) and, simultaneously, far less clearly defined. A medical dream team, it turns out, does not magically coalesce around one’s random middle-aged joint pains. The good news about ailments that are pesky but not malignant, is that you get time to think things through, to take matters into your own hands. Talk it up, do your homework, go out and see what the world of healing has to offer, and from there, figure out what to do to get back to something approaching whole.
Meanwhile, what helps now, what has always made me feel more healthy, more useful, has been to get up and be busy, doing something. Needless to say, this little renovation project of ours has given me ample projects that required lifting, loading up, moving on and out. The day came, finally, when we officially vacated our house and handed the keys to the contractor. The critical items have been disconnected—the downstairs plumbing, the gas line to the stove, the lights and fans and speakers and suchlike are all unhitched, left dangling. The demolition was about to begin.
After I’d waded through the festival rites down the street, I wandered home, to see if there was anything left for me to attend to. It was nearly impossible to believe that I’d done it all—boxed everything up and sent everything packing, to storage units near and far, to Good Will or out to the sidewalk with a “Free Stuff” sign attached. Nope, there was nothing left to clean up, Mrs. Tittlemouse-style—except for one project outside, one last yard waste collection effort, all around our back porch and driveway. If I didn’t do it right then, before the construction dumpster showed up, I’d be faced next fall with a whole season of maple tree droppings—the first little buds, the later-stage dangly yellow flowerets, the inevitable deluge of twirly sticky helicopter seed pods—all mushed into every crevice of my back porch, turning to every inch of our driveway.
So, I made one last clean sweep. And I commenced the end of Year One and the start of what comes next by clearing the decks, on all sorts of fronts. It seemed appropriate.