Just Another Day

“How does it feel?” Tom asked from beside me at the Big Boy restaurant.   “To finally be a college graduate?  Well, sort of.”

Dawn, Tom and I were out at Big Boy having a post graduation dessert.  Dawn had attended the ceremony with me, along with my sister and parents.  Each graduate was allowed four tickets to attend the ceremony, so large that it was held at the local convention center where rock concerts were held.   My brother might have been the fourth, but what with him having had a major falling out with my mother during the early weeks of her diagnosis, I had ordered him to stay away to keep the proceedings drama free.

The night seemed more anti climactic than anything else.  I sat with my student teaching friends since, unlike in high school, there was no great walk across a stage to receive your diploma.  Each college stood up when their names were called (“School of Education, please rise”) and just like that, each student was pronounced a graduate.  Diplomas would be mailed home within six weeks.

After the ceremony, we’d opted to just come straight home instead of going out to celebrate.  My mother was exhausted by the long walks through the convention hallways, and by the time the graduation was over, she had just enough energy to smile brightly for photos with me in my cap and gown.  She didn’t complain, she didn’t ask to go home, but we could all tell by looking at her that she needed to go home and rest.  So we did.

It had been Dawn’s idea to call Tom and have a little celebratory food before retiring that night.  I tucked my son into his bed, made sure my mother was snug on the sofa, and promised to be home within an hour from grabbing dessert at the local Big Boy.

“It doesn’t feel any different,” I answered him.  “I still have to finish up my classes for a few weeks longer, so it still doesn’t feel like I’m done.  Plus, they just had us stand and sit down.  Honestly, if I’d known it was that simple, I would have just stayed home and we could have all had Chinese food.”

Dawn laughed.  “No, you have to go through the ceremony, even if it is lame.  It’s a rite of passage.”

I was trying to be bright and cheery and grateful that the day I’d waited for so long was finally here.  But I couldn’t get the image of my mother getting ready earlier that evening, blowing dry her hair only to find chunks of it still in her hands when she pulled them away from her head.  Her sad, quiet horror was there on her face all night; I knew she couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I rubbed cream on her back and chest before she put on her dress that night because the fabric was scratchy on the burns from the radiation.

“I guess I thought it would feel different, you know?  I’ve worked for this so long.  I’m actually kind of…disappointed.”

Tom looked at me with a question in his eyes.  “Really?  Why?”

“OK, this is going to sound awful,” I prefaced.  “But as selfish as this sounds, this day was not about me.  It should have been, right?  Normal twenty one year olds would have had a big day, tons of family, maybe even a party, and everyone would have been talking about how proud they were of me.  I’m the first person on either side of my family of my generation to graduate college, and I’m certainly the first one of my siblings to do it.  I feel totally ripped off right about now.”  There, I’d said it.  I was a terrible human being.  I punctuated my rant by taking a chunk of Tom’s hot fudge cake and shoving it into my mouth.

Dawn smiled sympathetically.  “That doesn’t sound awful,” she answered.  “It sounds honest.  You’re probably going to have a lot more of that feeling coming at you in the next few months, because your mom is going to start needing more and more care.  You’re going to be the peanut butter.”

Tom and I answered together, “The peanut butter?”

“Haven’t you heard of the sandwich generation?” Dawn responded.  “People who are taking care of both a child and an aging parent at the same time.  They’re the bread, and you’re the peanut butter.”

“Hmph,” I answered.  “It’s just so unfair.  I am sorry to keep saying that to you guys.  But really.  It is.  You know she started losing her hair.  It’s just so awful,”  I repeated, taking another bite of cake.

Tom pushed his cake in front of me.  “Of course it is.  And you don’t get to talk like this at home in front of your mom because it will hurt her feelings, so you’ve had it bottled in all night.  Don’t be apologizing for letting it out to us.  We get how unfair it is.  I know I’m kind of amazed at how we’ll you’ve held it together so far.  You get to feel a little ripped off tonight.”

I looked across the table to see Dawn nodding in agreement at me.  “Thanks guys,” I answered, eating the cherry off of the top of the cake.  “Thank you.”

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