I have long appreciated my membership in the “Notre Dame family,” but it wasn’t until very recently that I finally discovered my favorite ND family tradition! (Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with the football team) ….it only took me twenty-three years as an ND fan and four years as an ND student to figure out what it is and to understand why I care about it so deeply.
Just days before I’ll drive away from this great university for the last time as an undergraduate, I realize why returning to South Bend, Indiana will always feel like coming home. I will always feel at “Home Under the Dome” because this is where I grew up. The classmates who became my sisters and brothers shaped me. The professors who became my parents raised me. This is the place that molded my nature and houses the teachers who consciously crafted my character and preachers who carefully created my conscience. I was formed by the challenges and compassion I faced at Our Lady’s institution.
Notre Dame made me who I am because it taught me “We are ND,” and therefore: I am ND. Due to the enthusiasm with which I embrace my ND identity, I will be proud as a peacock to join my friends marching into the stadium flaunting a “Stole of Gratitude” at Commencement. By wearing this shiny shroud, I will be excited to show everyone I see how overwhelmingly thankful I am to enter a club of ND alumni. I am thrilled to be tagged with this lifelong label and live henceforth in this community of charity and camaraderie. And because I am beyond thankful for that honor, I am also grateful beyond belief for all the acts of compassion, big and small, that allowed me to walk with the Class of 2017 this May.
I have grown to appreciate just what it means to be a member of the ND family, and although I have often bemoaned the inconvenient location of its campus, for the past four years I have considered the space surrounding Our Lady’s throne my homeland. What my growing appreciation for tradition has taught me is that these rituals allow one to carry that “home” in their heart, no matter where they travel or reside, and to hold that “family” in their arms, no matter how few and far between their interactions. These are lessons I can carry with me and keep within my possession forever, parting gifts for which I am eternally and entirely thankful!
If the immensity of the gratitude I feel for what this school has done for me could be represented by the weight of the “Stole of Gratitude” I don on Sunday, I am as sure as I am of the predictability of gravitational force that it would be too heavy for me to carry on my shoulders across the stage. However, if for a moment I indulge my fantastical thought and imagine wearing a garment that truly embodied the magnitude of my gratitude, I quickly realize the problem. I recognize it would be hard for anyone to know whether my gratitude was too great or my legs were too weak. If I fell on my face in front of the dean presenting my diploma, no one would know for sure whether it was because my heart was too full or my cross was too heavy. That is the danger in trusting that the truth can be known by what our eyes see and our brains assume. My life is characterized by realities invisible to those who don’t take the time to see more than meets the eye, and therefore, I feel compelled to take this unique opportunity to quickly offer what I consider a crucial message, but humbly acknowledge to be espousing so assuredly and eagerly out of self-interest:
This celebration does not mark the defeat of my chronic illness. You will be deceived if you perceive my high spirits as a sign of health. You will be mistaken if you consider dancing the night away in the barn after Baccalaureate Mass as proof that I am “better.” Silly are you for interpreting my smile as I strut across the stage on Sunday as a signal to the end of my suffering.
I am an Invisi-Lily, so you will not be able to see the hurt in my muscles, the ache in my joints, or the pain in my nerves. Nothing on my face will show you that my family and I spent more days in the past month thinking I was going to die than trusting I would make it to tomorrow. My hugs won’t make you aware of unexpected hospitalizations this spring as a result of a bout of encephalitis and a surge of reactive autoimmunity. My laughter won’t share the secret of spending Easter week in Bryn Mawr hospital or exam week in Stanford hospital. My cap won’t tell you the tale of my recent health crises that warranted four trips to the emergency room in two weeks. My gown won’t show you the story of countless sleepless nights as a result of autoimmunity, infection, and stress gone awry.
However, please don’t assume I wish you could see that sadness on my face or hear that heartache through my laughter. I am thankful my internal dysfunction can be hidden. I appreciate the ability to “fake it” as skillfully as I do because it allows for more care-free FUN! This capability, the chance to let my hair down and momentarily forget my struggle, is only made possible through the help of my family and friends. Therefore, I do not want them (or anyone I encounter) to be forced to confront painful thoughts at a time when celebration is in order or to face devastating dysfunction when festivity is the priority.
And yet, it is because I am blessed to graduate from the University of Notre Dame that you will be able to see what I want you to see most: my gratitude. Around my neck you will see a stole that shows you my heart. The piece of cloth draped over my chest provides the opportunity for everyone who sees me to peer into my heavy heart—a heart overflowing with gratitude.
When you congratulate me and I thank you, please accept that as:
- appreciation for acknowledging my achievement,
- thanks for taking a moment to respect my resilience—but,
- most importantly, please see the sincerity and seriousness of my gratitude.
This Sunday, and hopefully forever more, I stand behind my sentiment: my gratitude is as grave a reality as gravity.
So, for those I don’t see this weekend, thank you for the times you helped me defy gravity.
Your grateful frieND,