The Old Man and the Commencement

“Is someone sitting next to you?” the voice was polite, proud, and elegant at the same time.

Many people had passed me without a word and the voice jolted me. I looked up from my book.

Although he leaned over a cane, the elderly man carried his frail stature with grace and self-respect. It was only 8:00 a.m. and the sun was still asleep behind the tall pine trees that surround the Greek Theatre, a stone away from the Berkeley Campus. A cool wind blew from the bay, shimmery in the distance, and women and men alike hugged their light jackets closer to their bodies. But the old man in his summer suit and straw hat didn’t seem to mind the early hour and the brisk air.

“No,” I said. “I’m alone.”

“Then,” he said. “I’ll sit next to you.”

I returned to my book while the old man took his seat. This is when I noticed his white cane and his black sunglasses. Soon a middle-aged woman arrived and sat right in front of him. I understood that she was his daughter. She stretched a blanket across the row of seats, and my heart sank at the thought that I was alone to congratulate my child on her graduation day. Her father and her siblings had been there on Berkeley Commencement Day, but on a weekday none of them could attend her graduation from the biology department, and so it had been decided that I would represent our family and come alone. While most students would have several family members present my daughter would only have me. More people – an assortment of ages – joined the old man and his daughter.

As if I had shared my thoughts with him, he asked me, “Is it your daughter or your son who graduates today?”

I had exchanged exactly three words with him, and yet he had rightly guessed that I had a child attending the college.

“My daughter,” I said. “What about you?”

“My grand-daughter. I have ten grandchildren,” he explained. “She is the ninth to graduate from college.” Again his voice carried an equal mix of politeness, pride, and style.

Soon the Greek Theatre filled with families and friends. Music welcomed the professors, clad in their strange-looking robes, and then the undergraduates. I searched for my daughter and spotted her in her black gown and cap, the tassel swaying as she walked to her seat. She caught my eye and waved. After the commencement address and a few speeches, the 500 girls and boys stepped on stage to be acknowledged by their professors.

I was once more reminded of the absence of family when the cheering and hand clapping overcame the professors’ voice when they called the students by their names. A pang of sadness tugged at me. My daughter had friends among the students, but there was no way my voice and bravo could match the enthusiastic crowd.

“What is your daughter’s name?” the old man whispered.

I told him, and he gave me the name of his granddaughter. His daughter turned and smiled.

“She’s fortunate to have such a large family to support her,” I said. And in a daring move, I added, “Can I hire you?”

She smiled a curious smile, but the old man said, “Of course, we will cheer for your daughter.”

“Thank you,” I said.

And this is how fifteen people I had never met before added their cheers to mine when my daughter stepped on stage. I heard the old man’s voice, distinct and clear when he shouted, “Bravo!”

The air was balmy now that we were approaching noon. Caps flew in the air. Parents, friends, and professors gathered around the boys and girls who seemed to float above ground. Words of congratulations filled the Theatre and similar messages crowded people’s phones. A smile was drawn on every face.

Later when I rejoined my daughter in the street, she said, “I knew I had friends at school, but I couldn’t believe how loud they were when I was called on stage.” She glanced at me. “Did you do something?” she asked, tilting her capped head. She knows me pretty well, I must add.

“Oh,” I said. “There was an old man who came for his granddaughter. His entire family was there, too. So we made a deal. They clapped for you. I clapped for her.”

“That was nice,” my daughter said. “Really. Thank you, maman.”

And I realized that in the commotion that followed the closing message, the old man had slipped away before I got a chance to thank him properly.

I came alone, still berkeleybiologya foreigner in this sea of foreign customs and rites, but I left my daughter as if we belonged to a large warm family.

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