A Bystander to Joy

For this graduate, a virtual commencement will honor both past and future family generations.

Allen Darrah
May 04, 2020

In April’s The Atlantic, playwright and essayist Sarah Ruhl wrote about the funeral for her father-in-law, attended remotely in the time of COVID-19 via Zoom. She spoke of rituals and being a “bystander to grief.” What especially resonated was the notion that “ritual conjures the invisible.” The only place, Ruhl said, we can practice ritual now is from home while in exile. The invisible, though, is lost.

I believe every family line has had, or will have, a sacrifice generation. My parents, fourth-generation Irish Americans, have Midwestern, blue-collar roots. My mother grew up on a farm in rural Missouri and went into food service after high school. Mom is now a cafeteria worker at a local school district. With no retirement to speak of, she says she’ll work until she dies. My dad held several jobs, from roofer to bricklayer, working days, evenings, overnights and weekends. At the height of his career, he was a proud lithographer and printer, until the 1990s when the digital revolution put an end to that line of work. Later, my parents took out a second mortgage on their house to open a barbeque restaurant the week the 2008 financial crisis started. That lasted a few years until they filed for bankruptcy. Dad is now a janitor for a local school district. With no retirement to speak of, he also says he’ll work until he dies. I take their sacrifices to heart.

I am the transition generation. I lead the technology teams for a large national law firm. I was at work when I received the acceptance email for the Executive Masters of Science in Technology Management program at the School of Professional Studies. I sat at my desk and wept, sobbing into my hands as I thought of my dad working overnights, of my mom working double shifts. When I stepped onto campus the night before my program started in September of 2018, it was cold, quiet, rainy and almost empty. But I soaked in the sensation, the sense of history, the “invisible” of those who had come before me.

I was looking forward to flying my parents to New York for the first time. Not only to visit, but also to witness their son graduate from one of the world’s top universities, from an elite and rigorous program. I was excited to share my love of an adopted home, a city where I hoped to move to elevate my career to new heights. My degree is for my family, for those to come, but the commencement ceremony, the ritual, was for my parents. It will now be virtual. I understand it. I accept it. But I am heartsore, knowing we will miss the conjuration of the invisible.