The gown my mother hands my father is cardinal red.
"He insisted that it had to be this color," she says, rolling her eyes, "because he's a fellow." Red denotes not just my father's doctoral degree but his board certification in a sub-specialty, cardiology. My mother sighs. "Look at him; now he doesn't want to put it on because he knows he'll stand out."
And she's right. As the rest of the hooders begin to unfold their garments, my father hesitates, glancing self-consciously around. Perhaps he's second-guessing his insistence on the "proper" colors for his rank. There are, without question, numerous other fellows in this crowd, but they've all opted to keep the information to themselves. Each doctor will be on stage for mere minutes, half obscured by the graduates they will hood. Why the need to make such a particular visual statement? Pride, yes. But in the case of my father, it feels misdirected. While I can't know for certain what his motivations were when he ordered his robes, I suspect self-importance guided the choice more than the desire to wear his best, so to speak, out of respect for my sister.
I pity him a little, as his insecurity flickers into view. He couldn't help himself, I want to say to my mother, not sure if it's meant to excuse his hubris or condemn it. Neither seems appropriate, so once again, I pull out my camera. Even if I can't sort out the color of my thoughts, I can save the image of the moment to muse on later.
Rewind six months. I am elbow deep in boxes of photos and memorabilia at my parents' house, not sure what I'm there to find, but the clock on my thesis is ticking. The idea of graduation -- mine or anyone else's -- is far from my thoughts.
My mother and I have been talking since late summer about the whirlwind weeks of my parents' courtship. Four, to be precise. They'd started dating in the final month of my father's senior year of college at a Canadian university, after which he started medical school in the U.S., on a campus nine hundred miles away. My mother still had a semester to finish and hadn't planned on moving to another country.
But my parents wanted to remain a couple, she said -- the story of which I'm intrigued by, tempted to write. They'd already started talking about marriage by the end of those four weeks. So they courted by airmail for the entire four years that my father was studying to become a doctor.
In his home office, surrounded by stacks of unread medical journals and copies of call schedules, I finger the edges of a photo taken on the day of my father's medical school graduation. His school, unlike my sister's, does not have a special robe color for degree candidates, so he stands on the lawn that flanks the university chapel, in black and green like the faculty. He is alone in the picture, hands clasped in front, mortarboard as square to the top of his head as his gaze is to the camera.
"Who took the photo?" I ask.
"A classmate," my mother says. It was too expensive for her to fly down for the festivities, she explains a little sadly. "No one from his family went either -- too far to travel from Hong Kong." This latter excuse, we both know, is only half true; my father's parents rarely made much of personal achievements. These were to be expected rather than praised or celebrated, as he'd learned early on in his childhood.
We are quiet for a moment. The story that follows is familiar now to both of us: how my father left for Canada immediately after the degree ceremony, driving all night to get back for their wedding, which was to take place within days. It's misleading, then, this portrait's pomp and circumstance, its staid, unhurried pose. That someone managed to capture it -- my father was likely on his way to his already packed car when his friend offered to take the shot -- was fortuitous and may have been the only moment, however brief, in which someone else shared in his achievement the way a family might have.
It is this image that I suddenly remember in the concert hall foyer, as my father finally lets the folds of cardinal red fall open, and I wonder if he is thinking of that day some thirty years ago, footnoted so fleetingly on film. As he fumbles with the sleeves, the zipper, the hook, his face remains unreadable, his eyes focused solely on the task at hand. Because he has been raised to be this way -- practical, unsentimental -- he will not let on, even if this garment reminds him of the chapel and the lawn and the few seconds' pause before the click of the camera's shutter.
Perhaps my mother remembers the photo too as we reach automatically to help him smooth and straighten. The hood, lined in his alma mater's colors, flops and dangles like a superfluous appendage -- "Hold on! Don't walk off yet!" we tell him as we try to get it to hang at least somewhat centered down his back. When we are finished, my father examines our work and chuckles for the first time that morning, at himself. In spite of the curious looks he's beginning to draw -- "They think he's the university president," my other sister whispers -- he looks pleased.
My father and Almost Dr. Sis see each other for the first time that day from across the concert hall. Or maybe only he sees her. In the images we collect from that hour, my father stands against the right-hand wall leading to the stage while my sister stands on the opposite side. The room is too large to capture them both in the same frame. In my father's picture, though, he is clearly looking toward his daughter, whose own eyes are aimed at the line of deans whose hands she will soon shake.
I do not remember thinking much in this moment, though so much thought has gone before it -- my questions about what I would feel, watching my sister and father partake in this long-running ritual, the symbolic induction into an exclusive circle, both professional and familial. All I know is that I have a job, to record the moment as it unfolds. (The video capabilities of my phone are limited, but it is the best we have.) Though I won't realize it until afterward, I'm relieved to have this duty, to be able to focus on the task so that any other thoughts -- and the emotions they might carry -- do not become overwhelming.
We know they will announce my sister's name, followed by the name of her hooder, but hers has barely been broadcast when we, too excited by the first-time use of the word doctor as her official title, cannot keep ourselves from hooting like fans at a sporting event. My father's name is completely lost in the roar.
A wisp of guilt blooms within my chest -- I would have liked to capture my father's honors here too. I know then that in spite of his ego, I still care that he has missed so much in his life: not just the presence of family -- his and ours -- but the affection that comes with it, something he has been so used to living without. You are important too, I want to tell him, for each moment he ever privately doubted this -- and felt the need to compensate for it.
It takes my sister some time to cross the stage, so we are calm when she finally reaches my father, who stands with hands folded just as he did on the day of his own graduation, serious and proper. She passes her green velvet hood to him, turning to face the audience as the deans have instructed each graduate ahead of time, then bends at the knees slightly, as if curtsying, so my father can place the hood over her head from behind. Even so, he knocks her cap slightly askew. She grins as she straightens it, and -- is it possible? -- seems to look directly at us as we wave. I wonder if my father can see us too.
There is no time to find out; they must exit the stage to make room for other graduates. Quickly, my sister turns to hug my father, her enormous diploma in its cover between them. And then, to my surprise, instead of offering his usual one-handed pat on the back, my father raises both arms, almost as if opening a pair of wings. He folds them around her, pulling her close, draping her in the scarlet of his own mantle, oblivious to the leather folder poking them both in the ribs.
The moment lasts only a few seconds. But his smile, when he finally lets my sister go, is just as broad as hers.
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