It was the worst of times, it was the best of times ......
With apologies to Mr. Dickens, I couldn't help but recall these words as I attended my son's graduation events this weekend. After a mere five years and a bit of a roller coaster ride to maturity, he graduated from Duke University with a bachelor's degree in English and a certificate in Documentary Studies.
Yes, just like his mother and father, our son definitely was not born for math and science, but rather to love the creativity and the broad perspective that only a liberal arts degree could afford. And, ending on a very happy note, he will be moving to New York City later this summer for a paid internship with Entertainment Weekly. Unlike his mother and father, he actually will start out his work life doing exactly what he had hoped to do!
Various aunts and uncles came to visit to celebrate the weekend with us. I had already done pre-stressing that everyone would find parking and that they would find the right venue for his departmental ceremony. I also fretted over all the details of getting our 90-year-old mother in and out of cars, up and down sidewalks, and of course to mealtimes that suited her schedule. I kept the cell lines burning as I called my son to remind him of the times he needed to line up for Baccalaureate and graduation, what he should wear, where he should meet us, when he should plan his own house party, and all the other micromanaging he has come to know and love throughout his life.
He tolerated me remarkably well, if only for this last important weekend. After this, I will once again fade away into the nether-land of "no response" to emails, texts, or phone calls. Thank goodness graduation weekend was also Mother's Day weekend. Someone up there loves us after all.
Saturday afternoon brought the Baccalaureate service in the magnificent Duke Chapel. My sister-in-law and I attended, and reveled in the majesty of the surroundings, the somberness of the occasion, and the thrill of hearing the choir echo through the Gothic chambers.
But we couldn't have been more surprised and inspired by the words of the Dean of Duke Chapel, Dr. Samuel Wells. With his mellifluous English accent and dramatic presentation, he simply stunned the crowd with his theme, "you must be mad." And he built his message around my favorite movie of all time, bar none, "The English Patient." It was all about the urge to find solutions in a world gone mad, hoping to exert our human control over events and outcomes, but forgetting the most important quality of all: Providing nothing more than love to those who need it most. No solutions, no activities, no obsession to go out and do something. Just love.
The graduating seniors in the Chapel were mesmerized, and we knew we had been in the presence of greatness in that moment. I had a pocketbook full of damp Kleenex to prove it. As good fortune would have it, this was actually Dr. Wells' last speech at Duke, as he is returning to England to become the Vicar of St. Mark's Church in London. And as even greater good fortune would have it, my son and I had watched "The English Patient" together over the Christmas break -- he for the first time, and me for ..... well, perhaps the tenth time. He loved it as much as I always had. And how astonishing that we were able to share this incredibly special interpretation of that film in the context of his Commencement address.
On Sunday, we attended the graduation ceremony in Wallace Wade Stadium on a beautiful spring morning, hours before the rain came. I searched the crowd of seniors marching in to find my son, but resorted to texting him to find out where he was (thinking he might not have made it out of bed!). He was there in all his glory, as we saw Emmylou Harris, among others, receive an Honorary Degree from Duke.
Fareed Zakaria gave the commencement address. He encouraged the students to trust their instincts to do the right thing for who they are as they enter a world that has many obstacles to their success. He also encouraged them to hug their mothers on this most special of days, and thank them for their sacrifices in getting them to where they are now! Of course, resounding applause followed from the stands. At the end, the caps flew in the air, the faculty marched out, the students mingled with each other perhaps for one last time, and all dispersed to their individual department ceremonies for the final events of the day.
My son's English diploma service took place in Reynolds Theatre at the Bryan Student Center. It was amazing to me how few students actually majored in English! When I graduated from UNC back in the stone ages, half the student body seemed to major in some form of English or Liberal Arts!
We proudly watched as our son marched across the stage, and I examined his diploma to make sure it indeed was authentic. We took tons of pictures of family and finally left Duke for a celebratory lunch.
Afterwards, the family took off in every direction. My son headed back to his apartment in Durham, to prepare for a parents’ barbecue his housemates were arranging that evening. I drove home in a light rain, with pride and poignancy, sadness and solace, all competing for my heart.
Another transition, another milestone accomplished. Our son was but a child when he left for Duke five years ago. He is now a young man who is excited about what comes next, and optimistic that life will go well for him! To say that I could have envisioned all of this after the many bumps and stumbles along the way, for him and me, I would have to answer, in the words of Dr. Wells, "you must be mad."
Thank you, Duke, and thank you, Son, for all the memories of your college experience. It was the greatest Mother's Day gift imaginable.
Laura Stillman, sales manager at WRAL-TV, watched her only child graduate this weekend.