I paused before I walked into the gymnasium. The sun had flipped its switch on today, and the warm May afternoon had put a spring in my step. The bouquet of flowers I held inhaled the sunshine. I did, too.
My eyes adjusted to the dim as I stepped inside. I kept my gaze on my dad’s dark blue Ford hat bobbing above me, then looked down at my little brother Ryan next to me. They were my anchors. I didn’t want to get swept into the tidal wave of people.
At 10-years-old, I had never been to a college before, let alone a commencement. Today, Saginaw Valley State University was a sight to see. Like the sun outside, the volume inside was turned up and on. The hallways were a hive as people buzzed with excitement.
Everything was big here. Big and red.
The ceilings. The stage. The curtains. The carnations. This university took their colors seriously, and the alternating splashes of red and white felt positively peppermint. My mom’s cap and gown were black, though. Shiny. Special.
While raising two kids, working full-time and helping guide the construction on our new home, my mom earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing. My dad, my brother and I would watch her graduate with honors today.
That is, if we could find a seat.
Our trio walked into the barrel of the tidal wave. People crashed around me on all sides. They held flowers and cameras and camcorders. They shouted “Over here!” and “Karen, look!” and “Where’s the bathroom?”
Lines of empty seats filled the floor for the hundreds of graduates that would soon enter the arena. Rows and rows of people’s people wrapped above and around the seats like the edges of a seashell.
“Where do we go?” I asked my dad. I adjusted the flowers in my arms, the cellophane wrapper rubbing against me. The petals’ scent filled my nostrils.
“Stay close,” Dad said, his eyes scanning the bleachers. “We need to find a seat here real quick.” He started walking toward a set of stairs. I followed his black Nikes.
Ryan and I followed behind him like ducklings. We weren’t late, but we weren’t exactly early. I hadn’t seen my mom yet. She arrived ahead of us to meet with classmates and get instructions for the ceremony.
I felt unsettled without my mom by our sides. Like a table missing a leg, or a clock missing its face, we technically worked, but everything felt off.
We looked up and down the rows of bleachers. Faces stared back at us, all someones to somebodies but simply strangers to me.
Dad craned his neck, his eyes climbing higher and higher, searching for empty seats.
“Ah, there, come on you guys,” he said as he took a step on the metal stair in front of us. My brother and I followed suit, my eyes glued to my Keds as we stepped up, up and away from the floor. Finally, Dad stopped in front of a small section of seats tucked in the farthest right corner of the highest row. The nosebleeds.
We squeezed our way next to others stacked like sardines. I felt like I could touch the ceiling.
Soon after we sat down, the commencement began. After welcomes and pleasantries, a formal man in a formal robe with a formal voice started calling names in a microphone. It all felt exciting until it wasn’t.
In the beginning, everyone clapped. The earliest graduates received the loudest of applauses, everyone drunk on pomp and circumstance. I joined in at first, my fingers red and itchy from the friction as I applauded Linda Keuvac and Karen Osworth and Brian Epstein and whoever, whoever, whoever. Finally, I gave up, too.
By the time it got to my mom’s row, people’s passion for applause had depleted. But it didn’t matter when the man with his formal voice finally said the name. The name we were here to hear. JEANNE. MARIE. HENRY.
On cue, my dad, my brother and I stood up and clapped as hard as we could clap. I realized how quiet we sounded. How easily the noise faded from our seats into the open air. I thought, “There’s no way she can hear us. There’s no way she can see us.”
But maybe that wasn’t the point.
“Why don’t people clap for Mom?” I asked Dad after we watched my mom get her diploma and walk off stage.
“Because they don’t know her,” he answered.
While my mom was just another name to everyone else in that room, she was the entire reason we were there. In the sea of people, we made small waves for the one who mattered most to us. And an ocean isn’t an ocean without waves.
Mom shed salty tears when we reunited outside on SVSU’s lawn after the ceremony was over. We gave her hugs and flowers. We showed her that she has people that are proud of her.
We are blessed when we have people that make waves for us.
They are our home team.
When something happens—good, bad, something, anything—they’re the first faces that flash across our minds. They’re the ones we want to tell, want to text, want to call… because it just feels better, or funnier, or easier, or more real when they know, and it doesn’t quite count until they know. Because they get it. They get you.
Our home team looks for our names in the dance recital program, the school play, the concert line-up. They pick us up at the airport.
They hug us at the finish line. They carry the couch, the boxes, the table, the chairs, into the new house. They’re the hands that light our birthday candles.
The number we call when we need to vent, or worry out loud, or cry, or laugh.
They’re our people. Again and again and again. Not just on Valentine’s Day, or on a birthday, or graduation. They’re there for the court dates and chemo treatments. The job losses and the game wins. The wedding reception and the funeral showing.
They don’t just know us. They understand us.
They aren’t just here for us. They show up for us.
They answer the call. They read the text. They walk through the door.
When the boxer of life hits us with a left jab to the right cheek—and it will because it’s a brawler like that—it’s easy to drown in the disappointment. A situation can sink us in an ocean of sadness…or frustration…or anger…or confusion.
So we call. We vent. Our people help us through it because they aren’t going to let us sink. While situations can be an anchor that keeps us stuck, our people are the lighthouses guiding us home.
Home isn’t home without a team to share in it all. And maybe that’s the whole point. Not to stare at the scoreboard, but to look around at the ones who are who wearing the same jersey.
Situations are hard. But people are tough. And thank God for our people.
Hands are meant to be held.
Phones are meant to ring.
Oceans are meant to have waves.
Life is meant to be shared.