We celebrate in light of loss

As they graduate, are they releasing their ties in celebration or seeking to hold onto
them in a moment of loss? Photo: Ashbury College

by John Richardson

Every June at the conclusion of Ashbury College’s closing ceremony, the graduating students are invited by the head of school to toss their uniform ties into the air to mark the end of the year. Parents who manage to snap a photograph at the right instant are rewarded with a surreal image of young, smiling, upturned faces, open hands, and over a hundred green and burgundy ties unfurling skywards.

As a long-time teacher at Ashbury, I have always seen this ritual as an uncomplicated, whimsical moment of ecstatic release. The students have an evening of revelry ahead of them followed by summers away from the classroom and bright, post-secondary beginnings. I think back to my own high school graduation and remember how, at this moment, the promise of adult life shimmered.

Watching the ties unfurl against the clear, blue summer sky this year, however, I saw things differently and I began to question what it means to “celebrate.”

I travelled to Winchester in the south of England in April to celebrate my niece’s wedding. My mother died that morning in a hospital at the other end of the country. Soon after I returned home to Ottawa, my mother-in-law, Mary, transitioned into palliative care at the Lord Lansdowne retirement residence. A couple of days later, we celebrated my son’s university graduation. I also attended the Ashbury graduation. The following day Mary died, with family by her side, during the time my boys and I had left her room to celebrate Father’s Day with a meal they had prepared for me at home. The following week, we held Mary’s funeral and celebration of life in Blessed Sacrament Church, the same place her birth and marriage had been celebrated decades earlier.

As Christmas approaches, I think about the birthday parties, wedding anniversaries, Canada Days, Christmas Days and graduations that have unspooled like pearls on a string and seemed like they would go on forever.

Looking through my iPhoto, photographs of these special days flit by as swiftly as my fingers swipe across the laptop trackpad. I see balloons, streamers, party hats and the “happy birthday” sign we keep in a box on the shelf of the coat closet. I see stacks of sandwiches and basin-sized bowls piled high with potato chips. I see my wife’s lovingly made, meticulously rendered Star Wars, military aircraft and soccer-themed birthday cakes.

There I am with more hair and a glossy skin tone I don’t remember losing. There are my boys, younger and smaller, safe and confident within the home whose outline encompassed their entire world. And there are the grandmothers: my mum, my wife’s mum. Sometimes they are captured passing out slices of birthday cake to eager young guests. Sometimes they pose more formally as if for a Victorian daguerreotype, their smiles suggesting that they, like us, believed that these moments of happily chaotic family bliss would stretch out forever.

I see now that celebrations are complex transactions in which we commemorate both the event itself and its passing. Each one is singular. The particular confluence of occasion, day and people is unique and transient. Probe the moment itself and even it breaks down. A child runs off crying. Tempers flare over a slice of chocolate cake dropped icing-side- down on the carpet. The cat chokes on a strand of ribbon and everyone starts shouting. At what precise moment can the celebration be said to occur?

Looking at the photograph of the Ashbury school closing ceremony today, I can’t tell whether the ties are heading up towards the sky or down to the ground. Is this a moment of ecstatic release or are the open hands seeking to hold onto a time that has already slipped away? Are the students letting go of, or reaching for, the ties that have carried them through childhood and adolescence?

Perhaps the hands of the young women and men, the students I have taught and whose achievements I have celebrated along the way, are both releasing and beseeching. Like all of us, they want to let go almost as much as they want to hold on.

I realize that, paradoxically, we celebrate in light of loss.

Teacher and author Dr. John M. Richardson is head of English at Ashbury College and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Education.

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