Emma-Lee-Monet and Kendall, my 2-year-old twins, were perched on each of my knees, still sobbing and sucking the oxygen in that they’d lost while screaming a few minutes before. Dammit, it took too long to get here to just wait for it to come in the mail, I justified to myself, wiping the perspiration off my forehead. Still, you’d think for the “60th Graduating Class of HFCC” they could at least put up some industrial-sized fans by an open airway!
The makeshift gymnasium, still under construction, was masked as a graduation venue for the day. Not only was it not air-conditioned, it was not properly ventilated and reeked of a stifling mixture of Old Spice and B.O. My mother was somewhere up in the stands, flanked by my 11-year-old son, Shawn, and my 10-year-old daughter, Anjelica. Mom was recovering from her semi-annual nervous breakdown. Keep an eye on Grandma! I had warned the kids.
I could still hear her chiding me: “Takin’ the hard way down the path to my career goals was not the way I wanted mine to do it.” I closed my eyes letting out a deep sigh. I squeezed my toddlers a little tighter and brushed their foreheads with a kiss. “Mommy’s turn is next,” I whispered.
The lady sitting next to me, with the Dutch Boy haircut that met her tortoise-rimmed glasses, stared ahead. “Well, I neva’ …” she kept muttering. Clearly she was not happy that we were already packed in like sardines and that the ceremony had just been interrupted because my twins were screaming bloody murder. My two little ducklings, sucking feverishly on pacifiers, were cramming in practically on top of her, with damp Emma’s Shirley Temple curls obstructing her view of the speaker.
On my other side, my Kendall-knee side, a gentleman was enduring the same punishment but sat stiffly and silently, showing no reaction when the twin’s yelping halted the ceremony. I guess he realized there was no way any of us could have heard our names announced over the glass-shattering wailing, anyway. At least he refrained from making rude comments about my parenting style.
“Sorry about my kids — they couldn’t contain it anymore,” I whispered to him, offering him my gratitude. He gave me no eye contact and simply nodded in complacency.
“Tina L. Perkins-Smith.”
Hearing the speaker, I scooped up a chubby, sun-dressed toddler in each arm and trundled to the stage. “Thank you, sir,” I said, struggling to grasp the leather-covered album with a hand that was pinned to my side by Kendall’s leg.
The professor, dressed in red and gold academic robes, reached around to my arm cradling Emma and pretended to shake my hand. “I see you got your hands full.” He smiled and helped me off the stage.
Looking out over the crowd of fellow graduates, I decided there was no use in trying to re-join them. I had what I came for — plus, 30 pounds of baby was sliding down each hip and about to hit the floor. I found my pre-teens in the crowd.
“Shawn, Anjel, where the heck is grandma?”
“I dunno!” they replied in unison.
“Okay, well, let’s go,” I sighed. “She’ll show up sooner or later…”
My mother and her meltdowns were more work than raising four children by myself after my husband went to jail for going A.W.L. while in the Navy. How does one run away from duty on a ship in the middle of the ocean? I wondered, as we trudged toward the exit. Anyways, it doesn’t matter. He’s long gone, and I’m better off on my own.
Outside, the kids pulled snacks from the diaper bag and sat on a bench. I climbed up and stood on its edge, squinting through the bright May sun and searching the sea of people for my mother’s neon yellow dress. Still nothing.
I glanced down at my coveted blue leather album — now coated with sweat, baby slobber, and chewed bits of graham cracker. Relieved, I finally took a moment to open it.
… EMPTY?! All that commotion and hoopla for an empty piece of nothing?
It dawned on me a moment later that the real-deal degree would arrive in a few days. But it didn’t matter: A whole gymnasium full of irritated, sweaty people all knew that degree was mine.
Three days later, it came in the mail. I pulled the diploma out of the yellow letter-sized envelope. It was an expensive piece of parchment paper, about half the size of a sheet of looseleaf, with embossed, fancy writing and a raised golden seal and all the official signatures.
Of course, that little sheet of paper doesn’t mention everything that happened in the time leading up to its fancily inscribed date: The years living in that crummy, almost-condemned flat overlooking the train tracks; studying between Shawn’s flute lessons and Anjel’s ballet recitals while weaning one-year-old twins off my tired, sagging breasts. It doesn’t testify to the time my apple-red Ford Fiesta, filled with screaming, hungry kids, broke down on the side of a busy highway. It couldn’t attest to the three babysitters who quit in two years because they couldn’t survive the hour-long surround-sound crying each time I had to leave my babies.
Those stories weren’t written on this little piece of parchment, but I knew it was proof — to me and everyone who doubted me — that I could succeed no matter what. A smile stretched wide across my face. I’ve accomplished something in my ass-backwards life, I thought, and nobody can take that away from me.