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An Open Letter to My Graduating Daughter: I’m Sorry, but It Won’t Always Be Better Tomorrow

Dear Jilleann:

I’m sorry you walked in on me crying tonight. But I had just watched a video documenting the “drive-up graduation” of a friend’s daughter from today, and I sat in disbelief thinking this is not the celebration you’ve earned.

It is literally the night before one of the most important days of your life to date. And yet it absolutely sucks. No spotlights and walking in procession before thousands of embarrassing cheering parents, no Pomp and Circumstance that begins with goose bumps but eventually fades into “OH MY GOD WILL IT EVER END,” no throngs of friends throwing their caps up in unison as yours is lost in a sea of flat blue mortarboards and silky tassels.

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I was crying over what won’t happen tomorrow. I was crying over the sterility of the experience, the solitude, the fucking face masks we’ll be wearing and the fucking six feet apart we’ll be observing.

Pardon my sweariness. JK LOL nevermind, you’re used to it by now.

But you? You’re awesome. You are your typically happy self tonight, half-watching a mind-numbing show on Netflix with only one Air Pod in while scrolling through TikTok, and when we talked about my silly tears, you quickly pointed out the silver lining: “But aren’t I lucky?” you laughed, adding that at least you finished your diploma requirements early and didn’t have to endure what your friends did — those dreaded Zoom classes for the last three months.

But you know what? You’re so wrong. Because you’re not lucky. You’re SPECTACULAR.

You focused on your goal, buckled down and finished high school a semester early.

You left for a semester but came back home to Reno early in the midst of a global pandemic to help me with your little sister, to find a job that will help you save money for college while forfeiting time with friends in order to stay quarantined and keep us all healthy.

You have overcome unspeakable and seemingly insurmountable obstacles from the past, focusing on a future that will be characterized by helping countless people.

All because you’re one of the best, brightest, strongest people I know.

So on this, the literal eve of your graduation, I’m doing something similar to what I did for your brother years ago. I’m writing a letter to you that contradicts some of the conventional quotes you MIGHT have heard during the ceremony you should have tomorrow — in favor of some honest insights offered from the bottom of my heart.

I love you, Jill, and I’m so grateful. Grateful for your spirit, grateful for your beautiful soul, and grateful that we don’t have to endure endless graduation orations filled with trite quotations that say the absolute wrong thing.

Ha, there it is: That glorious silver lining.

So here you go. Please, Jill, don’t believe the following:

“Normality is a paved road: It is comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow.”
~ Vincent Van Gogh

First of all: Never ever ever accept words of wisdom from a dude who severed his own ear in a fit of rage while in a meaningless fight with his roommate. I mean, that’s just common sense.

But here’s where his quote leaves me a bit annoyed: “Normal” is a much-maligned word these days, but given our past, I kinda think we’d both ADORE a wee bit of “normality,” am I right? Honestly though, sometimes — though granted, not always — we can all appreciate a relaxing walk on a paved road. What I want you to consider is that “normal” is a relative term that means different things to different people. And if I know you (and almost 18 years after literally pushing you out of my body — have I mentioned without anesthesia? — I think I can say I do), I’d assume you’re perfectly capable of planting your own funky flowers right alongside that scenic and normal paved road. The takeaway: Create your own path, plant those peonies (or better yet, hope they just appear out of nowhere like they did in our own backyard), and find your perfect middle ground that is partially paved but still somewhat bumpy and uncomfortable.

And perhaps more than anything else: Don’t listen to tortured but talented artists who clearly aren’t caring for their own mental health.

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
~ Epictetus

Um, excuse me, but who is this dude to definitively say what does and doesn’t matter? Because I would whole-heartedly suggest that what happens to us DOES matter. How we react to what happens to us ALSO matters. Much like that of the tormented mono-eared artistic genius above, I feel like this quote is offered by someone who is carelessly dismissing a basic truth. You, my dear daughter, have proven this truth time and again, both showing your resilience through the shit that does happen, but also flipping a giant bird at those events and redefining yourself in the face of them. You get to be both a combination of the things that happen, as well as how you choose to react. Don’t let anyone — even dudes who sound like they should be important because they just have one name — tell you otherwise.

“Be truthful, gentle, and fearless.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi

Truthful and gentle, sure — I’m on board for both of those.

But fearless? NOPE.

Have fear, Jill. Fear can be a very powerful thing. Plus, 9 out of 10 dentists agree that people with no fear are more likely to sever their own ears (see quote 1, above).

Fear — or better yet, our reaction to the things in life that inspire fear in us — is instrumental in revealing our true mettle, in helping us overcome, in putting us in touch with our very simplest instincts. I want you to appreciate your fears, but I also want you to more often than not tackle those fears in smart, intentional, thoughtful ways. Don’t let fear derail you or control you, but do look at fear as a gut check about your own larger truths.

Your fears are telling you something powerful. Listen.

“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today,
life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.”
~ Maya Angelou

Dear, sweet Maya Angelou: You speak such truths, and yet this one falls short. Jill, I need you to know that when people tell you “tomorrow will be better,” sometimes they’re full of shit. No offense, Maya (may you rest in peace). I have heard this expression more often than I can even count, and each time, I thought to myself, “Huh. Not entirely true, but thanks.” Tomorrow isn’t always better. That isn’t a guarantee. Just because the sun sets and then rises again, things aren’t miraculously better. We often have to do the very hard work to make things better, which means we can endure days and days and days of seemingly endless crap. Will it get better? Sure. Will it always happen tomorrow? Not so much.

(And before I get called out: Of course I understand the spirit of the symbol of “tomorrow,” but I am honestly so tired of the hollow “tomorrow” empty promise. We need to stop promising tomorrow with its 8- to 24-hour timeline, and instead offer an “eventually.” Because that, I can stand behind.)

“Be a pineapple: Stand tall, wear a crown and be sweet on the inside.”
~ Author unknown

Fuck pineapples. They’re super prickly and unwieldy on the outside, half of the thing is uselessly decorative, and if you eat too much, you’ll end up with blisters on your tongue.

(PS Did you know: That irritation is caused by a combination of enzymes in pineapples called bromelian, which break down proteins and essentially attack your tongue, cheeks and lips on contact. I mean, pineapples literally attack you! And so I say it again: Fuck pineapples.)

Instead, sweet daughter, I invite you to consider a far superior fruit: Be a lemon. Not only does one squeezed lemon provide 51 percent of your daily Vitamin C needs, but it’s also useful in cooking, in cleaning and in making your garbage disposal smell refreshingly cool and clean. And you can use the whole damn thing, inside and out! The takeaway: Be versatile, keep a little bit of that tart and sassy edge — and never underestimate the allure of a magically lemony garbage disposal.

Ok, now that we’ve eviscerated the trite quotes, here’s a bit of real-world advice from me to you:

  1. Choose optimism. Life sometimes kicks us in the ass, but (as I know I’ve always annoyed you by saying), I do believe we must choose to be happy. I also choose to assume that others are coming from a place of good intentions — and I hope you will, too.
  2. Always pack more outfits than you’ll need when you go on a trip, because a girl needs choices.
  3. Share – whether that means your gifts, this earth or your own finite resources. What started as a lesson you learned from your annoying (but always well-intentioned) big brother and your first friend Macey in Miss Ginna’s class at Sierra Vista, still holds true today. You HAVE to share. You have so much to offer, and with everything in limited supply these days, sharing is an underrated concept. Please allow others to enjoy the things you have to offer, and share them abundantly.
  4. I have two words for you: Dry shampoo. Find the one that works best on your hair, because it will solve a multitude of problems — from waking up late after a night out with friends and realizing you have a final at 8 a.m., to forgetting you made a last-minute date with a dude you really like and instead went to the gym.
  5. Listen to your gut, but understand that even guts can be dead wrong. And please, forgive your gut when it lets you down, because it didn’t know any better.
  6. Sing often. Life can be lonely, and sometimes there’s no better company than your own loud-and-proud voice as you ride in your car with the windows down singing at the top of your lungs, or as you dance alone in your dorm as you’re getting ready for a new day of school. We need to be reminded of the power of our own voice every now and then, and signing is a tangible way to do just that.
  7. Fall in love with YOU, over and over again. You have a voice, a spirit, a personality that is loveable and awesome and so uniquely crazy-beautiful. But keep in mind that the inherent you-ness that is you will change, and sometimes, you will change a lot. As you start down this new path toward your future, first toward your nursing degree and eventually a career as a doctor, I want you to take time to truly get to know yourself and embrace the many iterations of “you” that you will be.
  8. Acknowledge the fucked-up-ness of our world, but don’t lose sight of its overwhelming beauty. And if you feel too sad or lost or lonely or frustrated, call your mom, and I’ll tell you something funny (which will most likely involve a corny pun, because that’s what you love most in life).

And finally, I’m leaving you with a quote that may seem trite, but actually makes abundant sense:

“You can’t go back and change the beginning,
but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
~ C.S. Lewis.

The format of graduation sucks this year, but while we can’t change it, what I know you’ll do is use it as a springboard into the amazingly kick-ass life you have earned and so deserve.

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Photo by Sally Casas, Modern Muse Photography

Congratulations, Jilleann. Please know that I couldn’t be any prouder of my stunning, talented, smart and totally awe-inspiring girl.

I love you with all of my heart and soul,

Mom

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About Mikalee Byerman

Mikalee Byerman
Voted "Best Creative Writer" in 2018 by readers of the Reno News & Review, Mikalee Byerman will henceforth be talking about this distinction ad nauseam because it's the first and only popularity contest this former buck-toothed nerd has ever won in her life. She is a humor essayist whose highly controversial blog, Me 2.0, has been featured on the Huffington Post and TIME Magazine's websites. Her writing also has appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, Southwest Spirit Magazine and Alaska Airlines Magazine. Her debut book — 100 Things to Do in Reno Before You Die — was published last year by Reedy Press. During the day, she is VP of Strategy for the Estipona Group. Oh, and her name rhymes with "prickly fireman," though FYI, she's neither prickly nor a fireman.

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