At 7:06 am, on the morning of my graduation is 2013, I had a terrifying realization: every single progressive thing I have done, everything to “build” this person I manufactured and sold as the Kaelyn Malkoski — via my college résume, which I sent to colleges across the country, and every decision or move my parents had made regarding my education — culminated in this very day.
Everything I had worked for my entire life was in order for me to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree. This day was finally here.
Naturally, I freaked the f*ck out.
What was next? Is my life over? What do I do with my hands?
I looked at myself in the mirror. I saw a girl who had barely slept two hours the night before, a girl with an alcohol-induced swollen face wearing a knee-length T-shirt with a 3-foot wiener dog’s face on the front.
Holy sh*t. World, I am not ready for you.
I checked my cell phone, only to discover my most recent Internet searches as of 4:38 am:
carolina in my mind
commencment start time
can you freeze time.
what happens if you sleep through grAD
Then, I found my best friend of four years lying in my bathtub, chugging water and crying.
She had already vomited on the deck outside this morning.
There’s no way we were graduating college, and we should not be allowed to do so.
I had neither a plan nor incentive to ever leave my current state of euphoric being.
I loved the magical bubble I lived in; Chapel Hill was the epitome of carefree.
It was a place where I knew everything about everyone, a place where my biggest decision each day was whether to get a guacamole BLT from Merritt’s or a greasy chicken cheddar biscuit from Time Out for lunch.
I loved my friends — my crazy, weird friends — but most of all, I loved myself. I loved who I was in this happy place. I never wanted to leave.
So, at 7:13 am, instead of confronting reality, I went downstairs to join the rest of my roommates, who were already ripping shots of Jim Beam and gyrating to Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” on repeat. Like I said, my friends are crazy and weird. Like, really weird.
Collectively, we had an obsession — borderline fetish, pretty much — for wearing headpieces, masks and wigs just for the hell of it.
Obviously, Halloween was a given, but we’d also wear Big Bird and Cookie Monster headpieces just to get fro-yo, make pancakes for dinner or drive through South campus and wave to the people at bus stops.
We thought dumb sh*t like this was funny.
This being true, it was no surprise on graduation morning when I walked into the kitchen I found my friends mid-shot and wearing the classics: the horse head, Scooby-Doo, a green pixie bob, a rainbow Afro, Cookie Monster and Papa Smurf.
Sure, we were going to graduate, but we were going to do it like this.
We were a bit tipsy when the hodgepodge of family members started to arrive at 8:30 am to walk to the commencement ceremony.
Many of them (the grandparents, especially) were confused as to why we were in half-costume on graduation day, but I knew my parents were secretly proud.
I know this because my parents are also weird, like me (they did make me, after all).
My mom looked at me, surveying my choice of graduation attire, and said, “Only you. Only you.” And then, “I love you.”
We made our way to the stadium and sat through what might be the world’s most irrelevant commencement speech.
Besides the speech, I had other issues with our commencement ceremony. For example, why it was at 9 am in the football stadium under the scorching hot sun was beyond me.
We all had pit stains in our floor-length gowns, and I’m pretty sure my best friend got up more than once to puke.
I had started crying before any of the speakers came to the platform and well before the UNC Clef Hangers sang their rendition of James Taylor’s “Carolina in my Mind.”
Although I initially regretted wearing the Big Bird headpiece because I was sweating like a bitch, I was ultimately quite thankful I had it as a makeshift Kleenex box.
The rest of graduation day is a big, messy blur of awkward family photos, tears, running out of the journalism school’s graduation ceremony because I was going to vomit everywhere, tears, brunch, hugging old people, more tears and Mom’s big, fat lesson on happiness.
Although at the moment it made me cry (and it still sometimes does, to this very day), I want to share it with you.
It came right after dinner, when the alcohol and friends-induced euphoria had started to wear off, and I had a split second to just think.
This is it. It’s really over.
And then it hit me. I started crying, uncontrollably, in a way I hadn’t done since the day I moved to Chapel Hill on August 14, 2009.
I ran down the street, unable to stop running and highly capable of throwing myself in front of the nearest P2P transit bus.
(Rumor has it, you got free tuition if it hit you while you were a student. What would I get now that I’ve graduated? A redo?)
My mom caught up to me and shook me. “Stop. You’ve got to stop. Listen to me.”
Nothing she could’ve said to me at that moment would’ve made this blaring concept of life — of the real world — okay.
I started running again. When she finally got me, she pushed me down into a bench.
"Listen!" she said. "I get it. You’re happy. I’ve never seen you this happy before. But, this happiness will come again.
You can’t try to make it. You can’t be waiting for it. But I promise you, you will feel this way again in your life."
Her words didn’t make me feel better; they actually made me cry more.
They didn’t fix the raw pain I felt, which consumed every part of my body.
And they most certainly didn’t remove the scarlet letter of “college graduate” I will forever wear. But they’ve gotta be true, right?
I felt so alone, so scared and so certainly sure I would never be this happy ever again. I was moving to Los Angeles that August — literally as far from Chapel Hill as I possibly could move — and knew a total of three people in the 500-mile region.
All of my friends were moving to “easy” post-grad spots: Charlotte, New York City and DC. My family lived in Chicago.
I had pretended I was excited I was the black sheep of my friends, going out West and pursuing a dream.
But all I felt was my throat closing in and the onset of a panic attack. What the hell am I doing?
Maybe I had something to prove to myself. I didn’t know what I was doing next, but I did know that on graduation night I never, ever wanted to leave.
After my mom walked me back to my house (the only place that, at that time, had ever felt truly like home), I walked upstairs and went to the bathroom, stopping once again to look at myself in the same mirror I had stood in front of 12 hours ago.
My eyes were still swollen, and I still looked confused. I put the Big Bird headpiece back on and reevaluated myself. Again, I thought, Holy sh*t.
World, I am not ready for you. But then, looking at my 22-year-old self on the first day of the rest of her life, some internal switch flipped. Maybe the world is not ready for me.
I still struggle with who — the world or me — holds that power card. But fast forward two years and, like my mother told me, happiness happens. It really does.
It’s different, that’s for sure. It’s not the carefree, naïve, “ignorance is bliss,” all-consuming happiness we all experience in college.
It’s more about choice (insert “the world is my oyster” cliché here).
But, happiness happens. And it’s usually the smaller stuff: seeing a project through at work from start to finish, sharing a special moment with your boyfriend or girlfriend.
Finally unplugging from the world at the end of a long day and spending real, quality time with family.
I promise you, those moments get better and better as we grow older and realize just how precious our time is.
Because that’s just the thing: Time doesn’t wait for anyone. Now that our four years of havoc, freedom and academia at its purest are over, there isn’t anything we can do about it.
We can’t try to relive it, and we most certainly can’t go back. Fortunately though, Chapel Hill, or any of your college towns, isn’t going anywhere.
But, we are. The only thing to do now, after graduation, is look forward and be ever absorbent sponges in this crazy world.
Embrace the little spurts — and marathon sprints — of happy. Because it isn't over. It's just beginning.