My younger sister graduated high school on Friday. Something about spending three hours in your old high school gym looking out over a sea of caps and gowns stirs up your memories. Weird, I know.
I couldn’t really remember much about my actual graduation, what it felt like to sit for three-plus hours, to stand at the podium and give a speech, to do all that posing and picture-taking and what not. It’s blurry. It’s been awhile.
But I do remember a lot about that summer, about what came next.
It was probably the worst summer of my life.
I had a summer job – a day-camp counselor at the local YMCA – but I worked five days a week with really weird hours. I worked the “extended hours” of the camp, getting to work every morning before seven a.m. and punching out at 11, but coming back in at 3:00 and staying until the last kid left at 5:30 or 6:00. I was also first in line as a substitute for the normal, day-time camp counselors, which meant an extra 70 bucks, but that also meant working for twelve hours straight wrangling small children in and out of school buses and counting on my mom to drop me off a packed lunch before we left for the day.
But there was some fun stuff, too. My boyfriend of over two years was home from college and for the second summer we joined the cast of the community theater musical. We’d had a lot of fun the summer before playing biblical husband and wife in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I was fresh off my stunning performance as Ethel Toffelmeier in The Music Man, and we would be reunited with many of our summer theater friends in Li’l Abner. But this also meant rehearsals two or three times a week. I would run in late, my camp lanyard still around my neck and hit the stage for two or three hours and skipping out on late-night socializing in favor of sleeping like the dead.
Things were okay until July. I got my wisdom teeth out and it really knocked me out. I suppose I’m not one of those people who can bounce back quickly after oral surgery: I spent a few days laid up on the couch, a few more hopped up on painkillers, and I couldn’t eat much of anything for over a week. Returning to my long hours of work coincided with play rehearsals ramping up, which was even harder to manage with a diet of ibuprofens and applesauce. I went over to my boyfriend’s house after rehearsal one night, tired and starving, and scrounged his cupboards for anything soft enough to eat. I found a dented old can of soup that looked decent…. and then spent all night sick to my stomach with what I’m guessing was food poisoning. I was out of work/rehearsal for the rest of the week.
But behind all this physical exertion and malady, there were two other things going on that summer. First, I was leaving for college in the fall. I was buying a computer, getting my roommate assignments, buying shower caddies and extra-long sheets and feeling sad and stressed about leaving my friends and family.
Second, my boyfriend was breaking up with me, in that slow and painful way that seems to happen to me a lot… that kind of extended, emotionally painful tug-of-war where neither of you are happy with the current status quo but the person who is pulling away (him) can’t muster the balls to actually confront the person they used to love so much (me). While I was working and going to bed early and convalescing and stressing out of about college, he was making new friends with our theater crew and letting another girl woo him away. I had the unpleasant task of actually ending the relationship, even though I was the one essentially being left behind.
So after an exceedingly awkward and tear-filled week of nightly rehearsals, performances, and cast parties spent in the presence of my ex, his new squeeze, and a cadre of friends in favor of their inevitable union, July spat me out into August.
And that’s when things started to get really weird. I was going to start college in the Fall with my boyfriend in the dorm next door, and then I wasn’t. I had a crazy, exhausting job, and then it ended. I had nights filled with theater friends and parties and movies on my boyfriend’s couch, and then I didn’t.
After a month like July, though? I wasn’t unhappy. The girl he chose over me wasn’t exactly a popular lady among the cast: a few of my new friends sided with me, one of whom I ended up dating for a bit. He was smart – going to Kenyon College on a full scholarship – and funny and lived in a house in the country with his brother and sister instead of his parents. We listened to Dave Matthews and Original Broadway Cast recordings and went to Cedar Point together. I was fresh out of a long relationship, ballsy, and wasn’t afraid of doing things wrong. I also wasn’t afraid to tell him that I wasn’t up for an Ohio-Central Michigan long distance relationship.
We were barefoot in the corner of my front lawn at night, standing under the pine trees. He told me he was falling in love with me. I said, “You’re leaving for college in three days.” He didn’t call me after that.
I remember visiting my best friend at the tanning salon where she worked and giving her a framed photo collage as a “going away” present.
I remember her hitching a ride with my ex-boyfriend the next weekend to visit me at my dorm and being so happy to see her.
When I sat in that stinking hot high school auditorium and waited while my 354 other classmates walked across the stage, I couldn’t have predicted any of that summer. I couldn’t have told you that I would learn to love college, that I would be okay with B’s sometimes instead of A’s, that I would be okay by myself.
I couldn’t have told you, sitting in my white cap and gown, that in the next six months I would have had my heart broken then left for college, alone, where I learned how to dance at bars, how to drink, how to kiss boys I didn’t know… that that all of those things would have had to happen for me to fall in love again.
That I would, indeed, fall in love again, before Christmas.
That eight years later, I would be living an almost unrecognizable but quite lovely life.
My sister graduated high school, and in three months she will move to Ann Arbor. She will be attending the University of Michigan’s nursing school. She wants to get her BSN and then work toward being a Certified Nurse Midwife.
I don’t think I’d wish “that summer” on anyone, but I hope that by September, she is feeling ballsy. Feeling ready. Feeling like there is something out there for her in the rest of the world, because there is.
It might be crazy, exhausting, painful, unexpected, and the absolute last thing you thought you wanted…
… but something good is out there, waiting.