by Beth Saadati
Told through Jenna’s eyes. Literary license was taken with the point of view.
The details about her graduation day, however, are all true.
I peek through heaven’s portal. Though a lifetime separates me from family and friends, the veil between heaven and earth is thinner than I’d thought.
Classmates and their families enter the arena downtown. It’s where, in kindergarten, I sat in the upper deck beside Mom and laughed, amazed, as we watched the circus perform.
This morning that same arena hosts a ceremony I should be at.
Today I graduate from high school—three and a half years after I took my last breath.
The band I was once part of plays “Don’t Stop Believin’,” while Southside High’s principal leads my grandpa, parents, sister and brother to front-row seats. A moment later Mr. Brooks introduces Mom and Dad to their ROTC escort—an ESCORT—named Brandon. I’ll bet they hadn't expected that.
I love seeing them shown honor. The reason for it is what I hate.
Mom fixes her sight on my empty chair marked by a white bow and the cap and gown I’ll never wear. Then “Pomp and Circumstance” commences, and my classmates file by. I look twice. They’ve changed from 14-year-old teens into young women and men.
As Delia, one of my favorite school friends, walks past, she notices Mom, smiles big, and waves. Thankful, I want to hug her for doing what I no longer can.
Next come the opening comments, the ACT word of the day. Resiliency: being capable of recovering from or adjusting easily to misfortune or change. Dad lowers his head. It hurts to see. Resiliency is what Dad wanted for me. It’s what Mom and he now need.
Afterwards, Southside’s chorus sings “I Was Here.” And I'm reminded again.
Katie, a middle-school friend—does she remember the assigned project we did?—delivers the valedictory address. Another friend, Lilly, gives the salutatory speech.
“To Lauryn and Jenna,” she says, “thank you for loving us. We’re walking the stage with you today.”
Why did I think it didn’t matter if I left? My fellow students haven’t forgotten. I’m still missed.
Mom keeps glancing at my peers in their black gowns adorned with honor cords, medals, and the white International Baccalaureate stole I would have put on. Every few seconds she brushes away tears as she pictures the place where I ought to be.
A couple minutes later Brandon motions to my parents. They follow him around the back of the stage, climb the steps to the platform, and wait. Lauryn’s name is called. Then mine. Mom walks toward Mr. Brooks. With compassion in his eyes, he holds out an honorary diploma that bears my name.
“Thank you,” she whispers. It’s all she can say.
Mom and Dad face the photographer and try to force a grin. A sad, close-lipped smile is the best they can give. Mine, on the other hand, would have lit up the room. If only I could somehow step back in.
As they return to their seats, my classmates begin their procession across the stage. Mom is trembling. Though this time it’s noticeably less, I’ve seen it happen to her twice before—at my funeral and on the night of my death.
Two high school peers whose words had cut to my core stand in line—whose words I now know were lies. The truth is I was pretty. I was intelligent. I had friends who cared.
I was enough.
Mom can’t stop watching as their names are announced. Each one halts twice for a photograph, smiling as if nothing has changed in their world. They pass in front of Mom without meeting her gaze while her lips mouth I choose to forgive. Again. And again. And again.
Finally the alphabet’s end nears—“S” always follows “R”—and one name, mine, is left unsaid.
In a few minutes the assistant superintendent speaks those long-awaited words: “Graduates, you may move your tassels.” My classmates toss their caps and let out a happy shout. And, once more, the band plays its songs.
If I had paraded by in the recessional, I would have sent my parents another smile and given my siblings a victory sign. Instead, I’m left indebted to the high school teachers I most adored. To my youth group leader, Oliver—technically Mr. Wong—who clasps Mom’s hand. To Mr. Paddenburg, who stops to hug her in a tight embrace that says more than any words can. Then Mr. Brooks transfers my tassel to Mom, along with the empty chair’s white rose.
Quietly weaving their way through throngs of jubilant, selfie-snapping folks, my family carries my keepsakes—the honorary diploma, program, tassel, and rose. But it’s what they don’t have that causes me to cry. They’re leaving without their graduate. They’re returning home one family member short.
They’re done journeying through my last three high school years, well-aware of the classes, school dances, AP tests, and social gatherings that I wasn't at. They’ll never know which college I would have attended. What my revised manuscript would have looked like when I published my book. Whom I might have married. Whether I would have birthed a daughter or son.
From this point on, they won’t know what milestones I would have reached. Or when.
Neither will I.
I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted to stop the pain. My life on earth shouldn’t have ended this way.
It’s said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Had I known then what I now do, I’d still be here. Telling and writing stories. Holding the diploma I'd earned. Posting graduation photos to my Facebook page. Celebrating with friends and anticipating life’s next adventure, ready to love and serve, laugh and live.
Instead of missing out on all that should—and would—have been.