Graduation looms on the horizon. For every college student, the idea of graduating college holds a bittersweet flavor, caught between the satisfaction of accomplishment and the sadness of goodbyes. For some, it holds more of one than the other. It is sometimes hard to tell which is stronger. Sometimes, the bitterness wins.
At 21 years old, I’ve been a college student for five years and have been at the University of Michigan for three of them. I took courses at a community college for two years in my childhood state of California before transferring to the University. My mom encouraged me to apply since her and my stepfather’s resident status would transfer to me. One acceptance letter and months later, I was living much closer to my mom and my sister Sydney’s family, which I liked because I could visit them any time I wanted.
I look back on the clueless 18-year-old from the middle of nowhere in Northern California, who was overwhelmed by the University’s size and the sheer number of people during her first few weeks of class. I remember how excited she was to wake up to snow on the ground. That girl could never have imagined that her path would bring her this far or to this particular place. That her senior year would be spent shut away in an apartment off-campus. That by now she would have accomplished and lost so much.
It was only three weeks into this winter semester that I received a phone call from my sister that our mom had passed away. She lived only 25 minutes away from me, but I hadn’t risked hugging her in over a month because of the risk of coronavirus contagion. She lived alone, having separated from my stepfather a couple of years ago. The only hint I got that something was wrong was that she wasn’t responding to my texts. I didn’t know she was gone until almost 24 hours after it happened. She was only 57 years old.
Her funeral was simple. We wore masks and social distanced. We ordered a bouquet of flowers in her favorite color, purple, looking as much like a bouquet of wildflowers she would have picked herself as we could make it. I played her favorite music and put together a long slideshow of photos of her, even though she never liked having her picture taken. We felt we needed some event to celebrate her life, to mark the fact that she was gone even though we couldn’t believe it, couldn’t accept it. Closure was the idea, but we felt and still feel no closure.
I mark every accomplishment now in my mind on a calendar of months since she was alive. My first column in The Michigan Daily this semester was spread out on her coffee table when we went to her house to begin packing her things. She had said she planned to frame it. Since then, I published my first article in a non-student publication and I won a Hopwood Undergraduate Nonfiction Award: the outcome of efforts she witnessed but of which never got to see the rewards. On the one hand, I can’t imagine having done any more or better in my undergraduate career.
But on the other side of that, I thought that I would be taking graduation pictures with her now. She would be telling me how proud of me she was.
I still haven’t taken any graduation pictures.
This chapter has a bitter ending for a lot of people, with not a lot of closure. I know this is not the senior year any of us imagined, distanced from friends and family and normal life. I know the loss that millions of people are experiencing from losing their family members and friends to this deadly pandemic.
I know I did not imagine having to lose my mom so soon nor not being able to say goodbye. I pushed through to graduation because I knew she would want me to. But the bitter, bone-deep ache of loss is much more powerful than any shallow closure I feel from finishing my undergraduate studies. That’s something I’ve been grappling with a lot.
It’s natural to ask, “What if?” What if I had taken a different course that semester, or had done a different program or a different internship? What if this pandemic hadn’t happened and I’d had a normal senior year? What if my mom was still here? These questions have no answers. We’ll never know what might have been.
The word “closure” seems to refer to the concept of a definitive conclusion. With it comes a sense of acceptance. Oh, sweet closure. There is an implication of tying up loose ends, of understanding what happened and why. It’s what happens at the end of fiction books. You turn to the last page, you read the last lines, you see the words “the end” printed on paper. You shut the book and you feel satisfied. Everything happened for a reason and everything had its own meaning.
But whether closure is ever achievable in an ever-changing world where nothing can be controlled or predicted, I don’t know. We work and sometimes we succeed at the goals we set, but do we ever feel that we have reached a conclusion?
Real-life is messy. Real-life doesn’t tie up loose ends, or always offer a chance for goodbye. We don’t know the reason that things happen or what they mean. We have ideas, but no explanations upon which we agree.
My mom brought me into the world and raised me. She taught me to be passionate and to fight for what I care about — the environment, animals, people — and encouraged me to utilize my strengths to those ends, to follow my dreams. She took me traveling and showed me to love the world and all of the adventures it holds. She encouraged me to apply to the University and she’s the reason I studied environmental studies. Her encouragement is why I write. In many ways, her dreams for a better world live on in me.
The truth is, I didn’t come to the University for the graduation ceremony. I came for the years spent hunched uncomfortably over my desk struggling to learn and write and grow. You didn’t love someone just to go to their funeral. You loved them for the impact they made upon you.
At the end of this long, hard year, and standing at the crossroads of pathways into the future, it is okay not to feel closure because this is not the final page. There is too much left to do in this world to feel that way.
Statement Columnist Rachel McKimmy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.