I posted a lot of photos to Instagram on May 4, 2013. It was a big day, after all–maybe the biggest day of my life, besides the one I was born or the one when I found out how much Jesus loves me or the one when I first tasted coffee. Those were all big, good days. But this one was different, because I graduated college.
I posted a lot of photos to Instagram because I was proud. I was proud because I’m a first generation student, the first one in my family to graduate college. And I was proud because college is a hard thing, a thing that demands that you get out of bed so many times when all you really want to do is sleep (in this way, I feel that going to college is akin to having a baby. Seems like a solid theory, right?)
So I posted a lot of photos, photos popping with smiles, each one shouting, “I”M HAPPY!” And I was happy–so, so happy. But later I scrolled back through my Instagram feed, and I realized that some of the other emotions got lost in the happy, that the filters on those photos blurred the truth that they represented. HAPPY is a terrific element of photos, but I needed to remember that they showed off more, that they weren’t just snapshots of a happy moment, but of a life that has its happy and its joyful and its honestly hard and its toast-hits-the-floor-jelly-side-down moments. It’s hard to believe everyone else has those toast moments when no one Instagrams them, am I right? That’s where the words come in.
I like this photo. I like it quite a bit. I like it because, for one thing, we look super happy, which we were. The joy that seems so evident is real–you can’t make that up. But we were also exhausted, which perhaps you cannot see, but I can. The day had been unimaginably long already at this point, and we’d all just done this great big thing, but we didn’t feel any different, only tired and a little bit hungry and amped up on adrenaline. We’re all sort of bumbling around, unsure of how to feel or what to do, and we find each other and hold on, looking into the cameras again and again until our cheeks burn.
We find each other because it’s what we do–we find each other because we’ve learned to do that, but the picture doesn’t tell about the process, about how we’ve fought for the relationships that look so sunshiney here. We’ve spent four years loving each other, and I can tell you those four years saw snappy comebacks and broken hearts and grumpy mornings. I can tell you that I’ve looked each of these people in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry,” and also, “I forgive you.” I can tell you that they have taught me what it’s like to have a friend and to be a friend, that when I have felt certain there was no reason for them to give me another chance, they always did. I can tell you that when they call me, I answer, and when they need me, I go, and when I see one of them coming toward me, I get excited because things are better when they’re around. It’s a photo of six tired, happy kids, holding onto one another, unsure of most things but that. It sure did get a lot of likes on Instagram (they like us, kiddos.)
In an unromantic twist, I headed straight to the bathroom as soon as I filed out of the Coliseum. Once I finished (I set my diploma on the floor and decided to Lysol it later), I came out just in time to see my mom disappear around a corner, and my heart began to race, because it was my mom. I shouted, “Mom!” and at least 17 middle-aged women turned to see if I was theirs, but not my mom. I wondered, as I chased after her, if their daughters had ever asked if they could call them, “Mom,” or if the title ever sounded strange when it hit theirs ears. I wondered if those same daughters relished the word like it was dark chocolate, sweet and rich and the real deal. I said it again to her, but she still didn’t hear me, so instead, I touched her shoulder, and when she turned and saw me–when they all did–they came around me in the way a family does. They told me how proud they were and I believed them. We took this picture.
Later, I wondered if the chap who snapped it had any idea that we weren’t a normal family, but rather, one who had shifted and swelled and meshed with one another. I wondered if he’d noticed that I had different eyes than they did, that I had a different story, if any of that showed up on the screen. I wondered if the picture shows that the night before, we’d argued over what appetizers to order for dinner or that my mom had woken up before the sun with me or that there was a time when I believed they couldn’t ever possibly feel like my real family. I wondered if the picture said, “But they do. They are.”
I guess, relatively speaking, that I didn’t post that many photos–maybe four or five. But it was enough for the instagram likes to drain my cell phone battery, and those made me smile–you shared in my joy, my pride, my affinity for photos that make it seem that I graduated college in 1983. And the day–the long, beautiful, perfect, exhausting day–was one to be celebrated, so I was happy to celebrate with all those people who follow my life in photos.
But I needed words. I needed to place paragraphs under these moments, paragraphs to say it’s what you think, and it’s not what you think. I needed to let sentences explain that it’s everything you see, it’s all the sunshine, and it’s more, and it’s less, because it’s shadows, too. I needed to show you these photos and ask you to celebrate them–like them, please–but also, give me a chance to explain. I needed to admit that it was a long, long day, that I came home and stared at the wall in a stupor for a good half hour because I wasn’t sure how to start wrangling my emotions. I needed to show you a picture of me with my favorite people in front of my favorite place and put into letters that I’m scared to leave them, scared because they’re the best thing. I needed to say, also, that I’m excited, excited because I will always believe the best is yet to come, in some way or another. I needed to say all of this, and I needed to show you, too, that we were happy.
It was a big day, after all. Maybe one of the biggest days of my life. Thanks for celebrating with me.