A Life Lesson Learned from Her Son

She was focused on her son’s college graduation ceremony; he was focused on beginning life as an adult and protecting those he loved.

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Posted in , May 27, 2021

Janet Paige Smith with her son, Laughlin; photo courtesy Janet Paige Smith.

I opened the freezer and shoved in the cake—a sheet cake with my son’s name in red and black frosting—the colors of the University of Georgia, where Laughlin, my youngest, would graduate in May.

Except now there would be no graduation because of the pandemic. I had been looking forward to Laughlin’s graduation. For a lot of reasons.

I’m a UGA grad too. I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony because I was in the midst of wedding preparations and receiving an Army commission as an air defense artillery officer.

“No graduation!” I said, a bit annoyed that my son, finishing coursework at home, didn’t seem bothered.

“I need to focus on my classes and getting a job, Mom,” he said.

Of course. But Laughlin didn’t know what he was missing.

Years later, I still regretted skipping my UGA ceremony. I didn’t even have a proper high school graduation; with so many credits from attending multiple schools as an Army brat, I went from eleventh grade to college.

I’d been planning the festivities for Laughlin since January. I’d put together an invitation list, sent save-the-date e-mails to family members so they could start making travel arrangements and searched for a venue near campus for the party. And, of course, I’d ordered the cake.

Every day the pandemic worsened, I prayed for the people who’d lost their jobs, for the elderly dying in nursing homes, for the sick in hospitals with no loved ones by their side. And I prayed for God to bless me—er, Laughlin—with a graduation.

Deep in my heart, I knew my graduation obsession was out of proportion to what was happening in the world. Still, my thoughts kept returning to my vision of strolling the lush campus as a proud mom, reveling in the crepe myrtles and azaleas, taking family pictures in front of Sanford Stadium.

I checked my e-mail every day for a rescheduled ceremony. Other schools were holding makeup graduations. Why not UGA? But a spike in Covid cases followed a summer lull.

Laughlin’s diploma arrived in a black-and-red tube in the mail. I pulled the cake out of the freezer and served it half-heartedly. Laughlin found a job and moved to Atlanta.

Lord, where’s my graduation?

One fall evening, a student called from the UGA alumni fundraising committee. I was delighted to tell him about Laughlin’s diploma.

“Did your son participate in the graduation ceremony last week?” the young man asked.

“What ceremony?” I exclaimed.

“The one at the stadium,” the student said. “To make up for the cancellation in spring.”

I dialed the office of the dean of student affairs. “Why wasn’t I notified?”

“Mrs. Smith, we sent an announcement to your son’s school e-mail,” said the woman who took my call.

I called up Laughlin. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“Mom, I stopped checking my school e-mail,” Laughlin said. “I’m busy.” He paused. “I did hear about the ceremony. I knew you’d make me go, so I didn’t say anything. Why would I risk my family’s life for a ceremony? You and Dad are in a vulnerable age group. No way would I do that.”

Laughlin’s diploma rested beside the phone. I felt tears in my eyes.

I needed to stop complaining and look at the big picture. My son had finished college and found a job during a time of national crisis. God had answered my graduation prayer. Laughlin had graduated to a new level of maturity. Now he was teaching me.

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