Watching my daughter graduate during a pandemic

Ms Ranjani Rao with her daughter Aparna.
Ms Ranjani Rao with her daughter Aparna. PHOTO: RANJANI RAO

It was supposed to be a momentous year. I was planning to throw a party. A graduation party. Friends, flowers, photos. Smiles, speeches, tears.

A memorable day when I would watch my daughter walk across the stage, surrounded by her peers, basking in the cheers of their families. A communal celebration. A coming of age. A time to fly. A time to sigh.

From the time she was four, I had imagined this milestone moment of her college graduation. Almost 20 years ago, I had heard a commentary by American poet, philosopher and radio commentator Baxter Black about his graduating daughter on National Public Radio.

It began with a question. "Did you ever stop and think to yourself - this will be the last time?"

It was a brief monologue, simple and moving, in the way heartfelt words often are. I thought about his words for days, trying to remember the order of those short sentences, trying to grasp the emotions they conveyed. Years later, Google helped me trace the transcript.

I printed the words on an off-white sheet of paper with a green trellis design, inserted it into a plastic sheet protector and tucked it into a cardboard box.

The box travelled from the United States to India, then to Singapore, when my family moved here six years ago.

My job was to keep the paper safe until her graduation day. The idea was to hand the sheet to her; to ponder, to keep, to discard, just like all the words I had uttered over the years. That was the plan.

To paraphrase the late singer-songwriter John Lennon, Covid-19 is what happens when you are busy making other plans.

Instead of being hailed as the class of 2020, my daughter's graduating cohort will forever be referred to as the Covid-19 class.

Without a public ceremony for graduation, there will be no visible marker of an event to signify an end and a beginning. For me, the end of the years of direct parenting; for her, a beginning that would require her to fly away with strong wings and a smile.

The disappointment of not having a large in-person ceremony was not just hers. I was hoping to vicariously relive the memory of my graduation that took place more than two decades ago. To temper my disappointment, I revisited commencement speeches that form an important part of the American graduation experience.

Encapsulating the distilled wisdom of the lived experience of writers, entrepreneurs and people of substance, each speech is a mini self-help book of sorts, a concentrated shot of a carefully fermented brew that can cause a palpable buzz if swallowed swiftly.

Many popular speeches become books that can be handed out as graduation gifts containing words of advice to young people stepping into a world of possibilities.

But what advice can you give this cohort of millennial youth who feel cheated of their moment in the spotlight?

They were denied the chance to post envy-inducing photos of a champagne-popping, hat-tossing, party-hopping day on Instagram.

More importantly, they were denied the chance to savour the last in-person class, the last in-class examination, the last time of simply hanging out around campus and the last chance to say goodbye.

In an ideal world, my daughter would have heard inspiring words from influential people. All she can do now is hang out with family members with whom she has been stuck at home for months.

While I cannot provide her the chance to march across a stage, victorious in a cap and gown, the one thing I can do is dispense pearls of wisdom.

After all, I have lived an interesting life. But, as she helpfully points out, I have been giving "lectures" forever. Instead of applause, my monologues are usually met with eye-rolling.

Even though I grudgingly agree, I am tempted to install some final pieces of programming code into her before she flies away: "Uncertainty is inevitable. Doing something is more important than getting it right every time. Take all advice with a pinch of salt."

But in this Covid-19 world, I look back on my years of parenting and consider the futility of the insistence on helmets and seat belts, at the constant attempt to ease my child's path and smooth the bumps, and wonder if anything I have said can prepare her for a world that has literally turned on a dime.

Words, however, are not empty platitudes. They carry with them the weight of a person's experience and their value is proportional to your trust and respect for the person involved.

There is much I want to say, but this is the time for action, not words.

I once again read Black's musings and notice for the first time that, like me, he has more questions than answers.

All I can do is mutely nod in response to his final question: "Where did she go, this little girl of mine?"

• Ranjani Rao is a pharmaceutical scientist from Mumbai, India. She spent many years in the United States before moving to Singapore six years ago with her family. Her eldest daughter, Aparna, is graduating from Singapore Management University and is going to the United States to study public policy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2020, with the headline Watching my daughter graduate during a pandemic. Subscribe