In my senior year of high school I failed the calculus final and wasn’t permitted to graduate.
My mother and I went to the Math Department’s chairman on what was supposed to be my graduation day to plead my case, but the truth is that I had no case.
I couldn’t grasp the basics of calculus and I think I had subconsciously decided early on that I would never understand this stuff—with the predictable results.
(Illustration by Min Gi Ha)
My math teacher seemed surprised that I was blowing off the graduation exercises—it’s only a ceremony, he said—but I didn’t want any part of it.
So my mother and I left, walking down DeKalb Avenue to get the subway back to Bay Ridge while hundreds of my fellow seniors were heading up the street to get their diplomas.
It surreal, going against that wave of humanity, and it felt like it would never end.
Somewhere along the way we ran into one of my classmates, Wendell, a really nice guy, who had also flunked math, but who had elected to go through with the charade. We wished each other well and I never saw him again.
We eventually got home, I went to summer school, and finally got that diploma.
I’ve been going through a pretty rough patch in my life and I recently recalled that morning back in 1975 when my mother literally walked right by my side during one of the worst days of my young life.
While bombing out in senior year is something I’d love to forget, at least that awful experience left me with a beautiful memory of my mother’s love for me.
I’m trying to use that image of her walking beside me as a counter to some of these terrible memories I’ve been inflicting upon myself lately, where I recall all the times I argued with my mother, all the times I hurt her feelings, lost my temper or just acted plain stupid.
It’s like a nonstop horror movie.
The Meaning of Contentment
I know what’s going on here: my twisted psyche is responding to my current troubles by dredging up the dismal past. It’s all in my head, but just because you can name the demon that torments you doesn’t mean you exorcise it.
I’ve recently started going to confession again and last week I decided this would be a good way of getting these feelings out.
It may be just a ceremony to some people, but it’s taken a renewed importance in my life.
Therapy, mediation, and journaling are all excellent tools, but I wanted to take my troubles to a higher level.
So I went back to Our Lady of Angels Church, knelt down in the confessional and told the priest about the terrible things I had done to my mother.
“And she’s gone now so I can’t do anything to make up for it,” I said.
“It’s different when we get to Heaven,” the priest said. “We see the big picture and all the little things that troubled us down here on earth have no meaning up there.”
My mind and my emotions took off in opposite directions. My logical side was annoyed—is this guy seriously peddling a grade school version of Heaven with the puffy clouds and harp-strumming angels?
Oh, come on, pal, I may act like a child but I’m old enough to know better.
But at the same exact time I pictured my mother in such a lovely, peaceful place, so fitting after all the suffering she endured toward the end of her life, and the thought brought tears as to my eyes.
The priest absolved me of my sins, wished me well with my current problems and sent me off without even giving me penance. But I still had to pull over to the nearest pew to pray and cry some more.
I know my mother has forgiven me for every idiotic thing I’ve ever done, but getting absolution is a chance for me to move forward and deal with the present.
I may not have the big picture yet, but my vision is expanding and on a good day I can see my mother high up in Heaven, deep in my heart, and forever at my side.