My niece, Becky graduated from college.
She did so amid all the pomp and circumstance befitting the newly lettered.
In true Catholic tradition, Becky is also my God daughter. She looks like me, acts like me and will no doubt make the same mistakes I made.
This pains me.
How do I prevent that from happening? Can I tell a head strong, 25 year old woman of a certain privilege NOT to do something? Could anyone have done the same to me 22 years ago? Would I have listened?
No and neither would Becky.
My niece will now have to maneuver her way from the safe confines of campus lecture halls to a more sinister classroom—life.
There are pitfalls and disappointments and gnawing arrears of faith—and all of it will literally be pass/fail.
How will she do? Only time will tell, but I think she’s off to a good start. Her innocence was given a lavish send off.
Becky’s parents consist of my sister, Karol and her husband. They feted her with a party Saturday night. There was live music..a great Creedence cover band from Austin…complete with it’s own go-go dancers. There was great Texas Bar-B-Q, a large video screen which played a pictorial of Becky’s life and there was an open bar. I sat by said bar most of the night, drinking bohemian beer and my eyes rarely left the big screen.
It was odd watching my niece grow up, once again–right before my eyes. It was impossible not to get emotional.
I looked up and Becky was a baby. Three frames later, she was a toddler. Seconds flew by and she was in High School. I looked away briefly and took take a sip of my drink and looked up, just in time to see her in her cap and gown. In reality it seems that Becky had also grown up just that fast.
The only thing missing was “Sunrise/Sunset” playing in the background.
I don’t have children–that was never in the cards for me. So, on on those occasions I felt maternal, I made sure that my nieces and nephews were the recipients of any and all feelings. When I lived in San Antonio, I helped raise them to a degree, but I wasn’t always there to put Band-Aids on their boo-boos. I wasn’t there to see them off on their first dates. There’s a reason for that…I’m not their mother. I could never be and would never want to be.
My sister is their mother and she does an excellent job loving them, nurturing them and being there for the good…for the bad and for the indifferent.
I admire my sister Karol a great deal. She has more strength and courage than I could ever have. Sure, I’ve probably done more in my life, but Karol has had more experiences.
She changed diapers. Endured three am feedings, colicky nights and itchy Chicken Pox laden dawns. She took care of sniffles, skinned knees. Soccer practice. Football games. The rigors of Junior High and yes, boy and girlfriend problems.
She placed her role as wife and a mother first and never resented it. She sacrificed much because she answered the natural call to marry and procreate. But oh, what she got in return!
Her husband is a very successful attorney now, but that wasn’t always the case. When Virgil was a struggling law student, she made a home out of a trailer. She’s known lean times. In the midst of it all, she kept her family together. She did her best with limited means. I remember her creative budgeting during those days.
Karol is also selfless. She was always selfless. The people she loved always came first. She did everything she could for the survival of her family. Her extended family, too. She was always generous. She made her family unit work. I remember on more than on occasion, she made a meal for four out of an old carrot, a shriveled potato and two hamburger patties.
I think that’s what they mean when they talk about “the magic of motherhood”. Sometimes, being a mom and a magician go hand in hand.
This is further evidenced on those occasions when there wasn’t enough money for anything other than just staying at home. She entertained her young children with sheer wit and imagination.
For Karol, loving came easy.
I went to college, got my degree and worked in TV and radio all of my life. I’ve traveled all over for to attend fabulous events to get interviews with celebrities. I’ve signed autographs; I’ve done stand-up at the Improv. I even sang back-up for Eddie Money in concert before five thousand fans.
I’ve been on TV, in major market radio and I’ve more awards than I can count. I’ve written stories and had them written about me. My career came first. Marriage and family were placed on the back burner.
Karol didn’t. Her marriage and family always meant everything to her. She stayed home and raised her children and consequently, she’ll know a love I never will.
She gave birth to four smart, beautiful children. But sadly, she lost her oldest child seven years ago.
Karol has somehow found the strength to continue waking up day after day in the face of such an incredible loss. When Holly died in that horrible traffic accident on Valentine’s Day in 1999, the pain was excruciating.
Could I have dealt with so much grief, under such conditions? Losing a child? My baby?? I don’t think so. All the education in the world would never have prepared me for that.
As women, we give birth and then nurture our children. See them through life….we walk them down the aisle.
But Karol had to do the unthinkable. Her life with Holly ended as she walked her daughter’s coffin to the grave.
Right after Holly died, I heard a great deal about how parents aren’t supposed to bury their children. All I know is that world felt backwards during those days.
Hours after she found out her daughter had been killed, Karol walked into Holly’s closet and somehow remained strong enough to choose an outfit in which her daughter would be buried. I don’t know how she did that. How can any mother say goodbye to their child much less be asked to dress their baby for the very last time?
But Karol did and she made her selection amid so many memories of Holly’s short 19-years on this Earth. Drill team uniforms, a prom dress…shoes…favorite jeans. Clothing that still contained her essence. Karol stood there with a shirt pressed against her face, crying and smelling Holly, breathing her in. The moment was incredibly bittersweet. Karol was grateful for the time spent with her daughter, yet agonized by the realization of all the years of which she would be robbed.
Holly’s clothes are still in her closet. Nothing has been touched in her room. There are still stuffed animals on the bed. Homecoming corsages are on a bulletin board; petrified Mums that are still intact. There are books, magazines and even a few toys remain on the shelves.
Her room is a nothing short of a shrine commemorating who and what Holly was. Seeing this very real, very mixed metaphor of her youth and her blossoming maturity, co-existing with the reality that this beautiful woman is dead, is still overwhelming. These things are all gut wrenching reminders of a life cut too short.
My heart ached for my sister then. I couldn’t imagine her pain. But throughout that heartbreaking period, she conducted herself with such dignity and grace. I wept for Holly, yet Karol–in all her grief, was magnanimous enough to comfort me.
She was the epitome of strength in the face of sadness.
Holly, she’s often said, had graced her life. What Karol doesn’t realize is how much she graced Holly’s life. Holly was a beautiful, kind young woman because of Karol.
In fact, she has no idea how much she’s graced all of our lives.
From my sister, I learned that fortitude and strength can’t be taught in a classroom. It’s not earned in a TV rating’s point. Karol taught me so much…by example.
In spite of everything I am, I am humbled in her presence. Karol is who I aspire to be.
This past Saturday, I watched her soulful green eyes fill with tears as Becky walked across the stage to receive her diploma. My sister cried unabashedly with raw, heartfelt emotion. She was proud of her daughter who was forced into the role of oldest child by a horribly cruel twist of fate.
Becky graduated from college. She has done well, in spite of the fact that much had been placed on her shoulders. I applauded her for her accomplishment, but on that afternoon, I also applauded my sister for her generosity, her kind spirit and her courage.
It seemed fitting that graduation took place on Mother’s Day weekend. It was, in many ways, something of an homage to Karol. That was the main reason why I cried. But Karol was crying for different reasons. Hers were happy tears.
She’d earned that right.