Fire Life

Grad School and Grasshoppers

By Anne Gagliano

My husband Mike and I are seated in George Mason University (GMU) Performing Arts Auditorium on the Fairfax Campus, outside Washington, DC. We are center stage with an unobstructed view—perfect. The GMU Jazz Ensemble plays professional quality, cheerful music to amuse the crowd while we wait. Families all around us are happily chatting. Laughter and palpable excitement are in the air. But Mike and I sit silently stoic. On this day, this momentous day for which we have fought and clawed and striven for the last 26 years, our feelings clash with those around us. They are experiencing joy; we, on the other hand, are experiencing jet lag, anxiety, and an overwhelming sense of irritation.

The jet lag (which can only be described as bone weary fatigue with a tinge of disorientation) is a result of the grueling journey the day and the week before. Mike had flown from Seattle to Colorado, where he had taught for two days; then he flew to Utah, where I joined him and there we both taught for two more days. Right after teaching, we jumped on a plane and flew seven hours from Utah to Ronald Reagan airport in DC for our son Rick’s law school graduation—which is where we now found ourselves.

Rick does not have his car in DC, so we are beholden to the Metro train system to get around. By the time we had arrived the night before, it was late and it was Friday; the trains were packed, and we had a ridiculous amount of luggage because of our already long journey. I managed to squeeze onto the train, but as Mike made his way in, the door closed on his arm, which was grasping his second suitcase, still on the platform!  A scream began to rise in my throat as I feared Mike’s arm was about to be ripped off, but Rick somehow managed to push himself, his dad, and our fourth suitcase through the closed door just as the train began to move. By the time we’d lugged ourselves and our baggage to Rick’s place, visited a bit, and recovered enough from our near trauma to actually go to bed, it was 2:00 a.m. So on this day, this momentous day, we’d gone from Pacific to Mountain to Eastern Standard Time, and we were, to say the least, blasted. It’s hard to “feel” the moment when all you feel is tired.

The anxiety lurking beneath our fatigue was from another source entirely. Though our son is indeed graduating with a law degree (or a Juris Doctor degree, which we just learned it was called) and he is the first in our family—on both sides—to get this far, he still, at the end of the day, doesn’t have an actual job. He has prospects; a promising externship lined up; and, let’s face it, an impressive education, but he still has to pass the bar, and even then, there are no “guarantees.”  Will it all work out?  In this economy, where job prospects are bleak, will all of the sacrifice, both his and ours (a middle class firefighter family), be worth it?  Have we gambled and thrown the risky dice of grad school, only to lose?  It’s certainly possible; these are the thoughts that plague us as we wait for the ceremony to begin. It’s hard to “feel” the moment when all you feel is anxious for your child’s still uncertain future.

But overriding both the jet lag and the anxiety is the emotion that is truly dampening our spirits—irritation. Irritation with the Met system, which, once again, had threatened to make us late. Irritation with the Uber car (which we had to hire to take us from where the Met ended) that couldn’t find us and ate up even more precious time. And irritation with the fact that my son’s graduation gown was wrinkled. This was not how I had pictured this day to be. And it all stemmed from one unavoidable reality: a lack of control. You’d think after nearly 29 years of Mike being a firefighter and my living with one, we’d be used to chaos, but even now, it sometimes gets to us—especially on important occasions when we’re tired and anxious. In the past, I’d had control over my boys’ graduations. For high school, we went all out; announcements, big family parties, and perfectly ironed gowns. The enormous crowd with 400 graduating seniors and their families filled the high school’s football stadium. When both of our boys graduated from Seattle Pacific University, the crowd was so big it required the use of the Seattle Mariners Safeco Field. This day, too, had been filled with extensive family, an elaborate dinner, and perfectly ironed gowns. But today—the most notable graduation of all—was anything but elaborate. Far from home, it was just Mike and I who waited to cheer for our boy. The crowd was so small as to barely fill this indoor auditorium; and Rick’s gown was wrinkled from the Met ride, as he had to carry it in a bag. Because of the chaos it took to get here and the seeming inconsequence of the whole affair, we sat disgruntled in our seats. It’s hard to “feel” the moment when all you feel is irritation.

But everything suddenly changed when the cheery jazz music stopped and the room grew quiet. Then softly, sweetly, the band began to play the classic nostalgic melody “Pomp and Circumstance” as the law graduates came marching into the auditorium. In that moment, our fatigue faded, our anxiety receded, and our irritability vanished. Tears spilled freely from our eyes and wetted our cheeks. Our spirits soared as we recognized our son, this impressive young man in law graduate attire, who had stayed the course and made it to this day. Yes, the crowd was small, but that’s because few make it this far. He was in that moment–both a man with a bright future and the precious little boy who had once played happily in our home. Sentimental music has that effect; it takes you right back down memory lane. Rick became “Ricky” as his life flashed before me, the child who had once loved grasshoppers, loved them so much that he carried a large plastic one around with him at all times. Ricky, who used to roam the field next to our house catching live grasshoppers and “Greeny Aliens” (his name for katydids) to keep as pets.

Two days later, we are wandering the halls of DC’s incredible Museum of Natural History. We’d been here many times before, as it is one of our favorites. But this day there is something new, a special attraction. It is surrounded by a crowd of little boys and their mothers who are taking pictures. We get closer. An entomologist has a table full of jars, and in the jars are several kinds of rare and exotic bugs from other lands. She is allowing the children (all boys) to hold the bugs. And in her hand sits a giant grasshopper from South America–a real-life replica of Ricky’s childhood toy!  We are astounded. Rick, the law school graduate with a Juris Doctor degree, waits his turn among the little boys. Then he takes the grasshopper in his hand and stares at it with the same awe and wonder he once had as a child. I take his picture.

We cannot control much of what happens in life, but we can control how we react. We can allow ourselves to drown under the weight of uncertainty, succumb to irritations, or give up altogether when the going gets tough. But when we choose to let go of control and appreciate the little surprises—such as seeing grasshoppers that day—something wonderful happens: We receive the gift of hope–hope for the day; hope for the future; and hope that everything will, in one way or another, work out in the long run. We decided, in that moment, to “feel” it.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.