Congratulations from Dad
Graduation was bittersweet without my late father, I was praying for some sign of his presence.
By Maris L. Franco
I graduated from college in the spring of 2004. It took me five years, not the four I had hoped for, but, as I always told myself, what’s important is that I did it. I had spent the last five years of my life going to school, working, and studying hard.
Throughout that time, my father was one of my biggest supporters. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be up at 3 a.m., poring over the history of Latin America or quantitative methods, when he came home from work. I can still clearly remember his light rap on the door. “Yes?” I’d reply, feigning annoyance. Then, around the corner of the door frame, two huge brown eyes would appear. “Summa” was all he would say, walking away after flashing his trademark wink. Summa, or “soooma,” as my heavily accented Greek father would pronounce the word, was our private joke.
I’d turned out to be an exceptional student, and semester after semester, I would bring home A’s. My father, once valedictorian of his village school back home, had no hope of disguising his pride. “You keep this up and you know you will graduate summa cum laude,” he would say. To which I would always reply, “I can’t guarantee A’s. I can just do my best. You’re pressuring me!”
Of course, he only meant to be supportive, and I knew it. But somehow, pretending that he was the source of my pressure to maintain a perfect GPA gave me a bit of relief. He knew that I truly liked his confidence in me, and so year after year, despite all of my halfhearted complaints, he’d say, “I am always proud of you — A’s, B’s, C’s — but just imagine … soooma!” Helpless in the face of his love and enthusiasm, all I could do was giggle.
One morning in the summer of 2003, my father had a sudden heart attack and died of congestive heart failure. I never got to say goodbye, but the last thing I said to him was “Good night. I love you.” Many changes took place in my family during that time — too many to recount here — but I continued my studies, determined to graduate in May.
As the day of my graduation ceremony arrived, I was flooded with mixed emotions. This was the first of many big accomplishments that I would not be able to share with my father. Suddenly, my mind raced with images of the future — my first real job, my wedding day, my firstborn child — and I realized that I didn’t want any of it. Unable to share my joy with him, what I wanted more than anything was not to graduate, but to make life stand still, so that the time since I had last seen him could not grow greater. I feared that my recollection of him would grow stale and hazy with age. I loved my father so dearly, and I simply could not imagine living so much of my life without him in it.
The president of my university called my name as I stepped on stage: “Maris Franco, summa cum laude.” This was the most bittersweet moment of my life, and something tells me that it always will be. As I walked across the platform to accept my degree, I turned to smile at my mother and sisters cheering for me in the audience. I could feel the tears begin to well up, but thankfully I was able to choke them back, reminding myself to be grateful for all that I still had.
That night, as I struggled with the balance between joy and sorrow over my big day, I stepped outside on my balcony to say a prayer. I hadn’t planned on doing so, but I found myself praying, “God, please tell my father how much I love him. Thank you for giving me 23 years with him.”
Finally, before I went inside, I asked one more thing: “Please, God, give me a sign. I just want to know that he is OK.”
About five minutes later, I remembered something I had left on the balcony. As I walked back outside, I could not believe what I saw! There, floating under the roof, was a shiny blue balloon. I looked around the apartment complex, but there was no one in view and no sign of a party or get-together.
There seemed no way for the balloon to have gotten lodged out there. It was not a windy evening, and, what’s more, the angle of the roof on that balcony made it seem impossible for a balloon to float in from any direction. I turned the balloon and read the front: “Congratulations Grad.” Beneath the words there was a small yellow star with two large eyes offering a loving wink. With that, the proverbial floodgates finally gave way to the pressure, and I was overtaken by the same emotions that I had so desperately choked back.
It was at that moment that I stopped doubting my father’s continued presence in my life. I now know that he is with me, still taking pride in my accomplishments, rejoicing in my joys, and loving me unconditionally. At that moment, I realized that in matters of love and loss, if we hold firmly to love, then the latter never truly exists. I still have that balloon. CD
This story was exerpted from the new book series, Thin Threads: Real Stories of Life Changing Moments, still accepting story submissions. For more information visit thinthreads.com.