10 minute read)
I sat in my seat at the Schar Center on the campus of Elon University in North Carolina and wept as 2023 graduate Candace Rhodes sang these lyrics from the beautiful song by Andra Day:
“You’re broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry go round
And you can’t fight the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains
And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again
And I’ll rise up
High like the waves
I’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again”
The words alone move me, then add the soul stirring melody and I cannot stop the goosebumps and emotion washing over me. I had never heard the song before now. The young woman on stage had every person in the packed arena captivated, all eyes and ears on her. The graduates, the faculty, the families, friends…my son’s community for the last four years of his life all gathered together to celebrate the commencement of the class of 2023. Luke is my youngest child of four, and our final one to graduate from college. This hit me the night before we drove down to North Carolina, two days prior to weeping in the Schar Center overlooking the sea of maroon graduation caps.
The past few weeks I have been in a frenzy of property prepping, selling, moving, closing and goat prepping, retrieving, and welcoming. I have been busy. All the while I used every spare minute to build and edit the graduation movie (a family tradition). My last one. Some advice I have for parents of multiple children, “What traditions you begin with your first child, be prepared to continue with each of his younger siblings.”
For this Mamabear of four, our traditions involved easy enough tasks as grabbing the Red You Are Special Plate for the one being celebrated to months of collecting and arranging special book keepsakes. One tradition that involved time was the book I made for each before the their start to high school, which was filled with well wishes and inspiring quotes from family members and far away friends. I started this one because we were living across the country from all of our family and friends and could not gather to mark the send off to high school. Living in communities without deep roots, our children treasured these “well wish books” as they moved into the high school scene.
Upon completion of high school, each child was gifted a photo album covering kindergarten through senior year. This took time in the eleventh hour because I was not one of those moms who kept updating the album year after year. Instead, around March (three months before graduation) I would start sifting through all the boxes of photos and the digital files stored on a hard drive. Each time I chided myself for my lack of organization and not beginning sooner. Even though there was “completion stress” involved, there was also so much reflection and observation of growth taking place. I loved going down memory lane. Our kids grow up too fast. I could really observe their changes page after page: missing a front tooth, braces, glasses, mustaches, beards, growing taller than me (which all four are). Trimmings from cropped pictures and stickers littered my office floor as I looked upon my finished work. The tradition of the school album was another box checked.
Then a few short years later there was the iMovie to make. The movie always started the same with my hands slowly thumbing through their high school graduation album, set to a familiar song (this last one for Luke was Johnny Cash’s I’ve Been Everywhere Man). From there I used my low tech prowess to add titles, transitions, and Ken Burns cropping of photos from their lifetime. I went into the archives of our home videos from when the kids were little playing dress ups, dancing in the living room, on the soccer field, or singing on stage in school Christmas programs. I could not figure out how to rip from DVDs so I held up my smart phone and captured the video clips I wanted to use. When the light hit the screen a certain way, my reflection with the smartphone in my hand can be seen. My kids love that part. But I did it! Technologically-challenged and all, I produced four 60 minute movies in the past decade. The movies also included video clips of family and friends congratulating the graduate. The movies are truly a labor of love. Even with the frustrating moments of my slow computer showing me the color wheel for a very long time, or the whole screen going dark, I feel so much gratification that the family traditions that I started have now been completed.
I am no super mom. My writing exposes many of the areas in parenthood where I fell short or learned some hard lessons. We all have ways of expressing our love as parents. For me, I value reflection of the past. This may be why I love to write. My time and energy poured into these projects is me saying, “We love you. We love who you are and the journey you have taken to get here.” I am giving my children the album or movie that looks back through their experiences, growth over time, and resilience through challenges. It is possible that years may pass before they fully appreciate these archives. At our family graduation celebrations they look through the albums and watch the movies, with tears and laughter.
As I sit there in my seat between my husband and my son-in-law, wiping the tears streaming down my cheeks, I am flooded with emotion. “And I rise up…” sings the young woman on stage, “I’ll do it a thousand times again.” Words could not be more truer than that. Our lives are full of obstacles that knock us down, small or large. I can see the top of my son’s square cap far across the arena. Images of the arduous journey he has been on to get to this moment flash through my mind. Again and again he has had to rise up. We all have had to. But while I am listening to the song at his graduation I am thinking about Luke, his challenges he has faced and the challenges that lay before him. I am so proud of him. I believe he will soar in his next chapter of life.
Elon University has a tradition of handing incoming freshman an acorn, then at graduation giving each student an oak sapling. I love this so much. Acorns need the right environment to grow into a sapling. They need the right amount of soil, light, and moisture. Once they become a sapling (a process that can take around four years), and are planted, they can grow into a mighty oak tree. Plant life sometimes needs to overcome harsh conditions of drought or deluge. The class of 2023 is the last class at Elon that had been impacted by COVID. These students went home for their spring break during their freshman year and did not return until the fall. Their classes were virtual and then met under masks for most of their sophomore year. Junior year went back and forth with this as the virus was monitored in the school population. The students of my son’s graduating class, as well as students all over the world, had to learn to be “ready and resilient.” This phrase was used at Elon in many communications. How fitting it was for the organizers of commencement to feature the song, “Rise up.” The supportive inclusive atmosphere in the arena was palpable. Elon University was just the right place for our son to make his way from an acorn to a sapling.
If you have not heard this song, whatever you do next, look it up and listen to it. We all have moments where we are “tired and broken down.” I felt like that one week ago and wrote about it on my blog. Perhaps, the freshness of my tears of frustration from the prior week were what made this song resonate so deeply with me. Or maybe it was the photographic journey of my son’s life I recently took while creating his graduation movie. The future is yet to be determined, but one thing is guaranteed. There will be hard days, so rise up. Then rejoice and be grateful.