Commencement Day

The speech at my daughter's graduation turned out to be more about my future than hers

"Guess who my commencement speaker is?" my daughter texted the day she found out.

"Who?" I asked. Her university was known for wooing big guns: the Dalai Lama, Anderson Cooper, Ellen.

"Helen Mirren," my daughter said. She'd have preferred SNL's Maya Rudolph–the speaker two years ago–but was still excited, even if the choice was someone closer to her mother's age. I, on the other hand, immediately shared the exciting news across Facebook and Twitter!

At that point, graduation was only two months away. And my daughter didn't have a job and hadn't even looked for one.

"Mom, stop, I'll figure it out," she said whenever I dogged her about things like polishing her résumé, speaking with career counselors or following up on leads I'd given her. I'd sworn never to be a worrywart like my mother, a promise I kept until my children were born. But I eventually shut up after my daughter explained her thinking (she actually had been thinking), then showed me a glowing recommendation letter she'd received.

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At her age, I pretty much walked the straight and narrow: college, law school, marriage, solid jobs, children. My parents—Depression babies—meant well and lived modestly, mainly in order to pay my college tuition. Besides, no one talked about personal fulfillment in the '70s and early '80s.

I was in my 40s before I thought seriously about what I wanted to be when I grew up. By then I had two kids, had quit my law career and started writing. My husband and I had bought a house in Brooklyn, and I'd sensibly stashed cash away for retirement. Then my husband decided to have an affair, and I spent most of the next decade in a panic.

I finally had my teenage rebellion when I was in my 50s, shedding most of what I owned, leaving town and starting over. I hadn't felt so young, hopeful or invincible since, well, my own college graduation. And then my mother died.

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Fear was the underpinning of everything I'd gone through, struggled with, and thought I'd finally conquered. But the old anxieties and doubts boomeranged back. My mother and I had grown closer as we aged, and I'd come to rely on her periodic pep talks about the second career I'd embarked on at midlife. I may have disagreed with her over the years, but she always believed that I was capable of anything I set my mind to.

With my primary cheerleader gone, the writing rejections suddenly crippled me. It was easier to try and micromanage my daughter's future than focus on my own.

In May, I flew to New Orleans and filed into the Superdome early one Saturday morning with thousands of other parents and well-wishers for Tulane University's commencement ceremony. I even snagged a seat in the front row.

I tapped my feet to the jazz band that accompanied the procession. Civil rights activist Diane Nash received an honorary degree. The university president did his thing, making a valiant effort to sound relatable to the kids, but I was itching to hear one of my favorite actresses speak.

Dame Helen finally took the podium. My daughter had texted earlier to say she'd been up since 6 in the morning drinking champagne, then taking a party bus with her friends to graduation. I hoped she was still awake in her seat, and hoped that Helen would recite the magic words to unlock my daughter's career dilemma.

Mirren began her speech with a string of one-liners. "Like a hangover, neither triumph nor disaster lasts forever," she quipped. I wondered if my daughter had eaten something while slugging down champagne. Mom, please, I know how to take care of myself. My daughter and I had been having an imaginary conversation in my head all morning.

Mirren then talked about her five rules for happiness. First rule: Don't rush marriage. Whoops. Been there, done that, too late. Nobody ever told me that and I wish somebody had. Although I probably wouldn't have listened anyway.

Treat people well. Be a feminist. Then a jab about white men and health care. Okay, okay, get to the stuff my daughter hasn't already heard, Helen. Or maybe the whole purpose of star-studded speakers is to appease parents and convince us we've gotten a good return on our investment.

Number four: Don't fear fear. Look it in the eyes, stare it down, barge ahead and then give it a good swift kick in the arse! All at once, Helen was talking to me. I bit the flesh on my lower lip so I wouldn't cry.

Rule number five was a series of do's and don'ts interspersed by a repeated call not to procrastinate, something I'd done for a good deal of my professional life.

At the end of her speech, Mirren showed off a tattoo on her left hand. I missed her explanation while getting lost in my own. I'd gone to a tattoo parlor called Resurrection Ink about three years ago and asked the artist to draw the Star Wars Starbird on my left shoulder. It was a daily reminder of my hard-won struggle to be strong and brave and start a new life. Inside the emblem, I had the tattoo artist add the logo "1LD" which stands for "one less day," a reminder that time was precious—that today is one less day than the day I had before. In other words, to kick fear in the ass. Something I vowed to do right then and there in my stadium seat. And somehow in that same moment, I knew my daughter would also be just fine.

Tags: family