The feeling of accomplishment is beautiful. It takes us to a place that once seemed so far away. a place where no one expected us to go, or even dream of going. When we finally get there, however, it’s often a different experience altogether.
The people who doubted us become silent and those who stuck with us shout our praises from the rooftops. Our crowd then gets divided into two groups. We start to see who was truly by our side all along, but what happens when we’ve done everything we set out to do?
Where do we go when we’ve reached the top of the mountain in front of us? Most importantly, who’s still going to be there when we make our next move?
It was December 2009. My second graduation from Penn State Altoona had finally arrived. It wasn’t what I originally planned for. Nor was it what some people expected me to go through with, especially after my caseworker forced me to drop out two years earlier.
I wanted to forget my first gradation even took place, but I reminded myself it happened this way for a reason. Or else I wouldn’t have had the opportunities the campus afforded me to grow, try new things and find out who I was.
The moment stolen from me was about to come full circle – as was everything else that made this day so emotional. It was stronger than the sense of knowing I could move on with my life. It was even bigger than knowing I now had free reign to truly start my career. This was about the notion of looking out into the audience and seeing an empty seat.
I never forgot I lost my grandfather the year before my high school graduation. I didn’t forget how tightly my family held me when I came home from school to find out he had suffered a massive heart attack. I thought about him every day as I was jumping through every hoop to get where I wanted to be in life. Now, he wasn’t here to see where I ended up. Or to see I was on my way to becoming “the best writer in the world”, as he always said I’d be – even before I had garnered any success.
I looked up to see my family in the crowd as I waited to be introduced with the rest of my graduating class. My Nana, who had had knee surgery, was in considerable pain but smiled from ear-to-ear. I saw her glance up at the lights to reassure me I didn’t make it this far on my own. At that moment, every memory I ever had came rushing back so quickly and vividly.
There were other things that happened along the way, which I kept relatively quiet about. Things such as getting fitted for a new wheelchair every five years or celebrating my 21st birthday at Red Lobster with a strawberry margarita. I somehow deemed these moments as typical and normal. They always stuck out in my memory, but I didn’t think they needed to be singled out. They were special because they reminded of me a short time in my life when everything – or almost everything, was simple.
They’re still meaningful because I can vividly remember how they made me feel. The immediate impact of my grandfather’s death, however, carried a weight that has never gotten easier to bear. That, combined with the butterflies in my stomach, made graduating college this second time around even more bittersweet than it already was.
I was about to close a very important chapter in my life – perhaps one in which I never would’ve had the chance to write if I hadn’t done what I did. I knew in my heart this part of my story couldn’t have unfolded any other way. I had to question a lot of things. Most importantly, however, I had to prove to my cerebral palsy wasn’t the center of my universe.
I wanted to accomplish as much as I could on my own terms. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, but two fancy pieces of paper from my college didn’t validate it. My determination did.
Material things are great. They might fill a void and make you happy, but they don’t equal success. They’re not always going to be there for you, either. Only the people who matter will stay true. That should be reason enough to rise to the occasion – not when we’re asked to do so, but especially when no one expects it.
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