So you’re graduating! What’s next?

Oddly enough, as I’m driving to a Christmas Party, this thought pops in my head, and tears start rolling down my cheeks. It’s been a few months since I cried. But Maria would have been there. There is no way I would be graduating with my Ph.D. and she WOULDN’T be there. One of our last conversations was about how I needed to put on my ‘big girl panties.’ Maria would have been there.

The truth is I don’t know what is next. I thought I had it all figured out, but I’ve come to realize that life doesn’t work that way. It’s much more complicated than that. What I do know is that I need room to breathe for a while.

Graduate School came at a cost for me. I have worked full time for the entire experience and it was exhausting. I realize plenty of people do this, with families, but it’s not how I ever wanted, envisioned, or hoped to do it. The last year of writing is how I imagine running Badwater (for those uninitiated, it’s a long ass race through the desert that climbs a mountain at the end). It was grueling, I was tired of my committee (my crew), they were tired of me, and it was no longer really a run, but a slow, torturous shuffle to the finish line.

Like Badwater, finishing my Ph.D. left me feeling exhausted, but also confused. I suddenly had time on my hands and while I was emotionally drained, my mind was still too busy to come down. It was a real struggle for the last two months. I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want to see people. I avoided running races and chose to only meet one particular friend for runs because he understood where my head was at and my need for space (thank you Walt). My husband was my saving grace in all of this.

As I am getting ready to graduate this weekend, one thought keeps popping back into my head. Maria would have been there. I am glad that I dedicated my dissertation to her. While such a small, and innocuous thing- her name will always be out there as part of that experience and I think it helps me grieve a little.

But she would have been there. And even now, writing this, I can’t help but cry for the loss of my dear one. In all this time I have worried that I would forget her. Her image is fading for sure, all I have are a few pictures to look at. I am finding that is less important than the things I have learned from her. One can always wish for more time, but I am eternally grateful I was given any with her.

I have learned one thing in all of this. And that is the fact that I have spent the better part of 30+ years doing what others have expected of me and I have let that dictate my decisions in life. I don’t want to do that anymore.

The one thing everyone says about Maria is her love of life. But I think it was more than that. Maria knew who she was as a person and she was unapologetic about it. She would drive me nuts sometimes because I couldn’t always understand her, but Maria was Maria. I am sure she had her own self-doubts, but the woman knew how to take charge of her own life and lived it authentically-whether that made others happy or not.

I think this is something I can learn from her. I am OK with the fact that I don’t know “what’s next?” That answer is real. I am excited to see how life plays out over the next few months because I am sure it will hold surprises for me. I know that I don’t want to do what others expect, or believe I should do. I know I want to live authentically the way that Maria always did.

I miss her. Sometimes I can’t think too much about her, and maybe that sounds harsh, but if I do, all I feel is the Maria sized hole in my heart and soul. Other times I find myself trying to remember every detail that I possibly can, remember every joke from college, every hug we shared. It’s in these moments that I try to keep pieces of her close to me. It is these moments that I try to remember what she taught me in how she lived her life.

Sunday will be hard. Maria would have been there. I miss my dear friend.

She would have been there. That’s all.