We had assembled at Coleman Coliseum on the campus of the University of Alabama to watch our children “walk the line” at summer graduation. The killer tornado that ravaged Tuscaloosa on April 27th, 2011 had also rudely interrupted the academic careers of many of the May graduates, leaving them all dressed up in cap and gown with no place to go.
Now, even though they had received their hard-earned diplomas in the mail a few weeks prior, many of them had returned, along with their fellow summer graduates, to don their regalia and finish in style. Also in attendance: a mess of mamas and papas and memaws and papaws, all of them thirsty for some much-needed closure and a little pomp and circumstance.
When the graduates entered the coliseum, they swept in from all directions like the four winds. On the left and right breast of each black robe was a crimson “A” embroidered in 17th century Gothic font. Their caps were individual works of art, a palette of tassels which swung as they walked, like pendulums marking time. One bore houndstooth–The Bear would have been proud–and others notes of appreciation (Thanks Mom and Dad!) and advertisements (Hire Me!).
Many wore multicolored stoles and cords signifying various honors; all wore gold graduation medallions around the necks, and on their wrists, crimson rubber bracelets which read, “UA Remembers.”
And how could we not? Even months later, the devastation and death still hung heavy over Tuscaloosa. The signs of that god-awful day were everywhere: ubiquitous blue tarps, gnarly limbs and tree trunks twisted into macabre sculptures, naked, concrete slabs where buildings once stood, steel beams–thousands of them–once standing at precisely-engineered ninety degree angles, now dumped in scattershot piles that resembled molten metal.
They say that on one magical night, a long time ago, “Stars Fell on Alabama.”
But on April 27th, the sky fell. And the horizon, now stripped of its cover, was so wide open it seemed like you could see all the way to Birmingham and beyond.
Buildings can be rebuilt from scratch; lost lives cannot. Nobody understood that truth better than the families of the six University of Alabama students killed that day. They rose as each student’s name was called and made their way to the stage to receive their child’s or sibling’s diploma and posthumous honors.
We all looked at each other and asked the same question with our eyes: If that were us, could we do that?
Nobody knew the answer. We sat there, shoulder to shoulder, caught between grief and guilt. We could only watch, bathing their wounds in polite applause–and weep.
Our children walked a line that day, and so did we. It’s a thin line between mourning and celebration, sorrow and joy. It’s sharper than a razor’s edge, and it cuts the soles of our feet until they bleed.
When the time came, we all rose and walked that line together, some leaning one way, some another, a thousand crimson footprints trailing in our wake.