Cold, bitter wind howls through the valley, obscuring the outlying mountains with a thick haze of grey dust and rain. We huddle together in the large tent, thankful for cover and focused on staying warm as our hair whips around our faces. Our cheeks are cold, our noses red. The tent’s white walls flap crisply in the gusts. Hail pelts the grass. We struggle to hear the person standing at the tent’s doorway, the sage who determines our path for the day: a high school student robed in white. This is graduation.
I’d been sick all week, rendered useless by a sore throat that prevented me from sleeping and brought me to the brink of tearful hysteria in a doctor’s office on the Friday afternoon prior to graduation. On Friday night, I ingested a quantity of medication sufficient to incapacitate a horse. I slept for the first time in days. On Saturday, I still couldn’t talk, my throat raw, but at least I felt enough like a human being to attend the graduation ceremony and show support to several of the students I’ve come to love in the intervening years: among them, a wildlife photographer, a psychologist, an artist, a bioengineer, a physician, a filmmaker, a pediatric nurse, and the next Anderson Cooper.
I expected to cry at graduation, though I didn’t (much). I expected the usual post-graduation catharsis, the palliative knowledge that these students now face one of the most exciting chapters of their lives. The catharsis has yet to appear. I expected my bleak mood to subside, but it lingers. A week has passed since graduation, and still I feel low desperation clattering around in the cage of my heart. Traditional medicine isn’t helping, so I’ve been working on alchemy of my own – making tinctures and salves in the kitchen with oranges.
The heady seduction of an orange: kneading and working the unmistakable waft of essential oil from the crenelated peel; undoing the peel and stripping the pith from each curvaceous segment; using fingers and thumbs to split the sphere into halves, pulling the segments away one at a time; savoring the sweet pop from each bite, the juice squirting from the pulp. My children share my fondness for oranges in more innocent terms; I scarcely finish the process of peeling when they appear at my elbows, their hands outstretched in anticipation. I like to slice oranges into wheels, translucent and varied as stained glass. I like it most to share an orange with an unsuspecting friend. The gesture is always well received. After all, oranges have evolved to be shared. Easily transportable, hygienically enclosed, filled with individualized pulp “packs” to soothe those wary of germs, the orange can be enjoyed on the beach, at a park or picnic, on the train or on the hills. It represents fragrant, ubiquitous communion.
Oranges are so inextricably grafted to my tree of memories that one fruit can’t be picked without shaking down many others – pouring orange juice as a girl and fainting on the kitchen floor (chicken pox); eating Dreamsicles when I had a sore throat; administering orange ibuprofen suspensions and lukewarm baths during my son’s fevers; watching my friend, Casey, outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as she lost herself in reverie over a slice of candied orangette from Teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland. I’ve read that the medical industry employs pectin derived from oranges and other citrus fruits as a thickening agent. In this sense, oranges are vehicles for healing. I believe it. As a composite, oranges transmit the optimism of healing and companionship, the hope that things will improve over time, and the wish that somewhere, sometime, everything will be all right.
My father recalls flying overseas with my brother and sister when they were little children. Someone – a flight attendant with a penchant for mischief, perhaps – gave my brother, Nathan, a cup of orange soda. Nathan spent the remaining hours finding inventive uses for the fruit served to him on flight. Though this event happened years before I was born, the mental image is Classic Nathan. I envision his impish face: shining blue eyes beneath a fringe of dusty brown bangs, a striped four-year-old blur cackling as he lobs oranges down the center aisle. Bonsai!
Orange soda has not yielded such dramatic effects in my life, though its radioactive hue is as emblematic of summer to me as the first ear of the season’s sweet corn. Normally a color reserved for use in roadwork, orange bursts from the freezers and chill chests of summer. My children use Summer Orange Dye No. 1 to stain their lips, chasing each other around the backyard: “I am the orange monster! I will gobble you up!” It’s a color I intrinsically link with hot summer days, sitting on the back steps outside the kitchen, gnawing on crystalline popsicles and wiping drips from my children’s chins.
I’ve diagnosed my ailment. I suffer from toxic orange mood disorder, an illness that prevents its victims from finding closure and ultimately leads to deep depression in tenderhearted individuals with a history of dwelling on the past. How did I allow myself to let so many students start to feel like children of my own? How is it possible to feel so simultaneously proud and sucker-punched? How many days will elapse before this wretched feeling passes? I want to set popsicles afloat on some imaginary river, let fiery little rafts of caution drift and meander toward this latest group of graduates: Know yourself! Life’s too short – live every minute! Don’t waste your time with haters!
Summer is here and graduation is over, and I am stuck on these back steps, peering down the driveway at the specter of a girl in a shimmering white robe, receding into the distance with soft steps, laughter tinkling in the air, the orange tassel of matriculation waving another bittersweet farewell.