Here was our fitting closure to two months in the land of our birth: Weddington High School’s graduation ceremony. 400 kids in caps and gowns, in carefully spaced chairs on the football field as families filled the stair step metal stands on both sides. A cloudy morning, a balloon arch, moms clutching flower bouquets and congratulatory posters, grandmothers getting golf card rides from the parking lot, dads with cameras, the sound system set to cheery march tunes, the colour guard in their uniforms holding flags. This public high school has a ridiculously intense academic focus, with honours and college being the rule not the exception. It also did a superb job of including my nephew with Down syndrome, who at 21 was ageing out of his small special-needs class that met incorporated into the life of the school. Two young men were going to the Naval Academy and one to the Air Force Academy, and Micah’s colleagues were going to “Project Search”, a hospital-based program for job training. There was a valedictorian, and a class president. Micah won a focus award and was Prom King. Both paths were celebrated. A quintessential American scene.
But the moment that brought this together: the national anthem. A graduating senior with pink hair and silver shoes and a name with cutting edge vowels stood up and climbed the stairs to the podium. Alone, with no accompaniment, she belted out the Star Spangled Banner with a gorgeous voice. And that for me captured the spirit of America. If you listen to our national song, it is not a song about power and glory. It is a song that starts with a question, as morning dawns we aren’t even sure what happened. The context is a night of battle, that did not look survivable. It’s about tenacity in the face of danger and loss; about a tattered flag fluttering in the imminence of death; about ideals we cling to even when the outcome seems uncertain. Though the song references the “hireling and slave” it took another 40 years for those to be legally free. And I think that’s the appeal of our anthem: it’s a nation in process, ideas ahead of reality, a place of struggle. But we stay in it because of hope. The questions and the atmosphere are just as valid for 2021 as they were in 1814. I know nothing about the singer at this school, but I loved the fact that she sparkled her own style and sang her own confidence with none of the extra gold cords and banners of the majority of the graduates. She embodied the future. She and the other graduates are not assured victory without passing through some dark valleys. That is life.
Yes, America can be exasperating. We are far from reaching our ideals. Our hearts grieve to see the atmosphere in politics and the church that our children bear the burden of. Misinformation, fear, self-protection, isolation. People who do not seemed as concerned that 3.5 million people died in the last year-plus of a brutal pandemic as much as they want to resist the public health initiatives that limit their freedoms, be that masks or travel restrictions or gatherings canceled or immunisations required. Legislators that want to control who votes and ignore any accountability for systemic injustice, or inject doubt to weaken our democratic process. Our anthem sings about rockets and bombs, aimed at US. We need to recover that stamina.
But all in all, it’s still a remarkable country. Over half the population now has at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, and it shows. Deaths are plummeting, even nursing homes are now calm. I got to see my Aunt Nina through the slightly open window of her room yesterday, looking rosy cheeked and smiling. High schools are having graduations and families are gathering for meals. In the two months we were here, the leaves filled in the trees from skeletal to abundant on pace with the growth of human connection once again. We hugged without hesitation on our goodbyes, a very different feeling than our helloes.
These two months were just as we hoped: solid time with both moms, with all kids. More outdoor adventure than we could have dreamed of. Good food and sparkling tables. Quiet mornings reading on the porch. Though my Uncle Harold sadly died at his home at age 94 last week, we were grateful to have been able to stop and visit him just a week or so before that. He was my dad’s last surviving brother, and I feel the loss of that connection deeply. Still these months were a pause that we hope gives us a second wind for a third wave. Africa has 18% of the world’s population an 1% of the COVID vaccines. Back to the rockets' red glare of uncertain days and nights, hospitals with no oxygen. We land Saturday and the President is expected to announce new restrictions on Sunday. Like everyone else, we are weary of pivoting plans, of not knowing what the next week holds, of writing and monitoring protocols to mitigate harm, of stumbling through new territory. But the vaccines give us a breathing space, and the memories of rock climbing and pizza making and polar plunges in the Buckhannon river will carry us far.
See you on the other side.