My Sister’s Graduation

Lisa - Bainbridge Island, Washington
Entered on May 16, 2008

I never understood what was important about graduations. I didn’t attend all my own ceremonies, nor did I see the need to ask others to plop down $400 for airfare to endure lengthy speeches and lists of ‘thank you’s’. But today, my younger sister is graduating from College as a Radiological Technologist, and I am flying to Santa Cruz because she wants me there.

Growing up Mikkel struggled in academics. At the time, I didn’t understand that it was more difficult for her. She had dyslexia. Then she was diagnosed with leukemia and had to struggle with her life.

She had chemotherapy, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant. One day when she was in-between hospital visits we took a walk. She loved to be outside. She would hug the trees. Hug me. I asked her what was the hardest part? She answered it was the awareness of how much pain the body would go through in order to survive. She had become afraid of this deep-rooted drive and terrified of the unlived pain she still had to endure.

Several months later, we were again between hospital visits. Her energy was good these days and she was ready to have fun. As we stood in the bathroom together, she casually gave herself her fluids for the day injecting them into a three-inch tube taped on her chest above her heart. Then, she asked for my help to paint her exposed arms, legs and bald head green. A friend of hers, who hadn’t seen her since the onset of leukemia, was flying in that evening. He had asked how she was feeling. “A little green,” she had replied. She wore flip-flops for the full affect. She spotted him at baggage claim and inched slowly toward him. I wasn’t at the airport, so I can only imagine the scene where people are trying to pretend that seeing a green, bald person at baggage claim is no big deal, glancing surreptitiously as often as possible, while at the same time keeping their distance. Now post 9-11, I suppose she would be approached by U.S. Marshals, but this was back in 1988.

Today, my mother, brother, and sister-in-law have come to see Mikkel as she stands up on the stage with the other 25 students. I am proud of her. At the beginning of the first semester, she had called our mother in tears, sure she had just failed her first test. But she made it. The Director of the department is handing out awards now. He announces he has seven ‘Honorary Mention Awards’. On the last ‘Honorary Mention Award’, he highlights an outstanding presentation made by this student. I recall Mikkel working hard on a research project. Several of the students turn toward Mikkel. I too think it might be my sister. The Director announces someone else. I wonder if my disappointment shows. Then, he announces one last award, the ‘High Honors Award’. This time it is for Mikkel. My brother wipes a tear from the corner of his eye as my sister goes up to the podium. My sister used to be type A blood. Now she is type B. Its my brother’s blood. She graduates with High Honors.

It feels like a miracle to have witnessed what medical science and research can change. And of course, I have changed my opinion about graduations. No miracle, but still significant. The richness of these rituals comes when we have a context to put them into. In my youth I was immortal, as were all my friends, my family and the Earth. When the realization sinks to a visceral level, that’s when the tears come, from the realization of our vulnerability, and from the awareness of the immense love we feel. And I believe that this awareness is what drives us to create the possibility of a miracle.