For my family, 2020 was to be THE YEAR. 

We’d have one child transitioning from elementary to middle school, one graduating from 8th grade, one graduating from high school, one graduating from college and one from graduate school.

Looking at the schedule for May and June back in January, we joked about hosting just one party for everyone and calling it a day. They could each give speeches and wear robes. We’d hold a feast and put flags out on the yard and draw congratulations all over the driveway.

Still, we looked forward to a year of feasts. We booked plane reservations and hotels, we let grandparents know when things would be taking place. It would be a great year of celebration.  

COVID-19 happened and every plan got rewritten to be virtual. It will be at home. Everything but the basics evaporated, and with it the traditions that had come to define senior year for college and high school and 8th grade. No prom. No awards ceremonies. No cast parties. No play, no state finals in track, no concerts, no farewell ceremony, no 8th grade trip to Hershey’s, and no Confirmation. The whole of May felt like a bad hand in cards.

The accomplishment of finishing a degree felt somehow diminished in the aftershocks of long-distance learning and sheltering in place. One of my children cried because even receiving the degree felt empty. It wasn’t that she wanted to be shallow, it was the loss of what we’d anticipated.  The loss just ached. 

We’d all been trying to give due observance to these milestones, but truth be told, we too felt tapped out by the two months of staying at home. Her tears hit home and reminded me, celebration is a deliberate stopping of what we are doing, to recognize what’s been done and who’s done it. I went back to our original joke about how we’d celebrate and began to encourage those not having a graduation this year, to do something for those who were. We ordered custom signs for each of them and ramped up the plans.  

We planned a meal, made a cake, signed a card but the kicker came out on the driveway, four siblings worked furiously with chalk to proclaim to the world her accomplishment.

My youngest son Paul has Down syndrome. He noticed his older sister’s big bubble letters spelling out C-O-N-G-R-A-T-S! and took a piece of chalk to scratch out his own version of the same sign. Despite being 11, Paul’s writing reminds one of a pre-school or kindergartener’s. It’s shaky and not always accurate, but the message rang clear. Paul’s earnest attempt to write out the message on the driveway did more for everyone’s hearts than anything else. It made the celebration more real than our efforts.  His “CONGRATS” in part because it was more than expected, replaced the missing pomp and circumstance with pride and community. It was a gift.  

It got me thinking, how all celebrations start with planning, with hope, and grow into more than the plans, with those gifts that come from our efforts, and supersede what we do.  Why? Because our initial efforts are a response to the invitation to love, and God always multiplies our response in return for any gifts we offer.   

We feasted as a family and finished with a cake, and while the rain washed away the writing, the “CONGRATS” stayed etched on our hearts for all our graduates; a gift we didn’t expect nor could we have orchestrated, which made for a better memory of graduation 2020 than COVID-19 seemed likely to provide.    

(Sherry Antonetti writes a regular column for the Catholic Standard. She is the author of The Book of Helen, a freelancer and a blogger @Chocolate For Your Brain!)