Unadulterated joy. A lightness of spirit, a swelling of warmth in your chest, a lighter beat to your heart, a smile that stretches wider than usual, so wide it actually hurts the corners of your mouth. Enhanced hearing that catches even the smallest nearby sounds and acuity of vision that sharpens every object, brightens the color to almost cinematographic brilliance.
Absence of worry. An almost void in that part of your brain, that part of your soul that clenches first thing in the morning, before you even open your eyes, in that “Oh, my God, no” moment where the worries of the night before push into your consciousness before any other thought is possible, picking up the threads of dismay and weaving them immediately into the dread with which you fell asleep.
I had felt this kind of joy before. I was sure that I had. I just could not remember when. Maybe when I fell in love the first time and realized he loved me too. No, I was too worried that I was not good enough, that he didn’t love me as much as I loved him, that we would drift apart and I would be heart-broken. I was right about that. Certainly, I had felt joy when I graduated from college, the first in my family to do so? No, my thoughts were full of the details of moving home then on to law school. Maybe when I graduated from law school three years later? Not then. The specter of studying for and taking the bar exam loomed in my immediate future.
Surely, I was joyous when I met and fell in love with my husband on the first day of law school and when we married three years later. I think I was close to joy when I walked out of the country club doors and saw him waiting for me under the chuppah, the brilliant sunset reflecting off the foothills of the Adirondacks providing the backdrop for the gathering of our friends and family. I was ecstatic for a few seconds until nerves about bobbling my vows and the strained faces of the rabbi and the priest who had been arguing about Jesus right before the wedding dampened my happiness.
I did not feel joy when my babies were born. You come up out of agonizing pain to the cries of your newborn son or daughter. Your first thought is about your child. How many fingers and toes? Breathing? Apgar scores? Learner’s permit, college tuition, orthodontia, prom dates. Then measles, mumps, chicken pox, autism, leukemia, crib death all crowd into your brain before they even place your infant in your arms. Then you feel momentary relief, but not joy.
Losing my husband at the age of 35 pretty much wiped joy out of my realm of experience for the next two and a half decades. There was happiness, satisfaction, pride, contentment and a vast array of positive emotions in those years. But everything was tinged with his shadow, with the shadow of loss, with the nagging thought of what-might-have-been. And worry about the next loss, danger, tragedy.
Joy found me on Friday night. My daughter, my oldest child, was about to receive her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology. We arrived at the University of Indianapolis at the appointed hour. Standing by my car, she donned her gown, three black velvet stripes on each sleeve of itchy black polyester. Her velveteen hood, of gold, lined in crimson and gray was draped on her arm. On her head was a doctoral tam of black velvet, eight-sided, with a heavy bright gold tassel, jauntily hanging to the side. My gift to her, white gold hoop earrings, encrusted with diamond dust, sparkled on either side of her beautiful, if anxious, face.
“I love you, I’ll see you inside,” she said as she turned toward the area where her fellow graduates were gathered.
“I love you. Good luck.” I waved as I made my way to the gymnasium where the ceremonies would take place.
I found a seat at the end of the third row, left side of the sunken gym. The usher had informed me that graduates would cross the stage from right to left, so I was in position to get a good photograph of her as she walked back to her seat after she was hooded by her dissertation adviser and received her diploma from the University president. I was alone. No one from our far-flung family could attend and her friends were either away or graduating with her.
I waited for the feeling of emptiness that had accompanied me at her high school, college and masters graduations to cast a pall over the evening. I waited for the tears of sorrow that her father was not with me, with us, on this great day that culminated her 26 years of education. I waited for the worry that something would go wrong, that they would make her trade her doctoral tam for the standard-issue mortarboard, that I would not be able to see her enter or cross the stage.
I heard a noise to my right and realized that the graduation procession had entered the building and the graduates were lining up before they walked down the stairs to the rows of white folding chairs that faced the stage. I turned the camera on and looked for my daughter. I found the cluster of gold-hooded men and women (Doctors of Psychology) lined up right behind the turquoise-hooded Doctors of Physical Therapy. My eyes focused in on my daughter’s curling auburn hair topped by the jaunty tam. Her eyes found me (hard to miss in a lime green tunic). Her lovely face lighted up and she waved.
Joy. My spirit soared as I snapped shots of her, my eyes blurred by tears. Then I sat. Waited for the worry, the loneliness, the sadness to intrude on this long-fought for moment. Instead, I felt the comforting presence of my husband, her father, as real as if he sat right next to me, his arm around me. I had not felt his spirit in a long, long time. I could hear his voice in my ear, in my mind, a voice I had not heard in many, many years. Years crowded with worry and fear.
“We did it.” I whispered to him.
“No,” he whispered back. “You did it.”
No. She did it. And we made her. Joy.