Susan Baller-Shepard: Wild and Precious Lives: Godspeed, Graduates!


When our oldest was in pre-school, we moved out to the country, and with all this space, he begged us to get an elephant. 

"I'm taking good care of Froggy!" our earnest child would say, because care of an African clawed frog and care of an African elephant were synonymous to him, and after all, now we had the room. He was heartbroken we would not, could not, get him an elephant. 

We tried reasoning with him, telling him about the vast quantities that elephants eat, and eliminate, telling him about being in a tent on the Maasai Mara, and hearing an elephant with his trunk pull down huge tree branches overhead, scraping the branches across our tent roof. 

"We have trees! Elephants eat hay!" he'd respond, encouraged by our stories. 

"We can't contain such a magnificent animal, honey, it wouldn't be fair. They need room. They need others, he'd be so lonely."

"But I would love him!" our son would plead, as if love is enough to contain something so large. 

This continued for months on end. He begged. We begged off. Eventually he grew up, realized it wouldn't work. He got older, wiser, started riding the big yellow school bus, got his license, and now, this week, his high school diploma.

Last night, sitting at the school's talent show, I realized how often we've sat there, in that school, in that place. I'm not a natural spectator, I don't attend sporting events unless my kids are participating. I'd far rather be playing a sport than watching one.

But last night, one of my son's friends hugged me and thanked me for being there. Indeed, watching a talent show can be a mixed bag, kids can do misguided things, they can assume things about their talent, then when stressed, they can't quite hit those notes, can't quite deliver. They can perform and be mocked for years. I didn't want that for anyone. Last night I prayed for each teenager singing or playing or performing. 

My son and his friend performed, "Smells like Teen Spirit," as we sat expectantly in the mustard yellow plastic chairs. Taking on Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl? Really? Yet it felt pitch perfect, " we are now, entertain us." Our house for weeks reverberating with Nirvana; drums and electric guitar making the walls shake.

The Bible encourages us to "be still," to "watch" and to "wait." All things love requires. I realize as graduation looms for my son and my nephew (my sister's son, a baby I got to watch take his first breath), that this season of watching them is nearly over. This week we'll sit on wobbly bleachers crammed in with countless families and "it'll be like a sauna, in there" says my younger son, playing off the Progressive commercial.

This day, once far off in the distance, is here now.

When I sit at the bedside of those who are dying, it's similar. This life they lived, that they thought would go on forever, doesn't. That day once far off in the distance, is here now. Present. It's time to move on.

In thinking of these graduates, I turn to Jeremiah, as I often do. "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope" (Jeremiah 29:11). Like I turned to Jeremiah as a teenager and read,

But the Lord said to me,

"Do not say, 'I am only a youth';

for you shall go to all to whom I send you,

and you shall speak whatever I command you.

Do not be afraid of them,

for I am with you to deliver you,"

says the Lord.

Or, to Psalm 121, "The Lord is your keeper. ... The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore."


I wish Alex, Cullen, Ben, Austin and Parker and T.J., and all those out there graduating, I wish them Godspeed. Wherever life takes them. All that watching: sports, bands, school events. All that calendar marking, arriving, sitting, waiting, watching, commiserating. And they grow up. They plan their lives without us, that future life, where we won't know what time they get in, nor what they were doing and with whom. This, I believe, is as it should be.

Sitting in Tanzania, in a Range Rover in the Ngorongoro Crater, months before I became pregnant with my oldest, a bull elephant charged our vehicle. The Range Rover's tires were stuck in a rut, and the ranger we were with was grinding through the gears as the elephant had his ears wide and alert, charging us, warning us: Back off! The charge and stance not unlike a now-taller, now-stronger teenage boy, same stance, same message: Back off!

The ranger found the gear, rocked the Range Rover, and we got out of the rut and out of the elephant's way. We were glad, my husband, the ranger and I. The elephant was enormous, I wasn't sure what would happen.

Near Oldupai Gorge, with its 3.6 million year old human (hominid) footprint, Ngorongoro Crater is a caldera, rich with wildlife. For most creatures, there is migration into and out of the crater. Yet, the young male elephants leave, and don't return until they are old. One day, on a day that starts like any other day, when they are old enough, when the time is right, they simply walk out. This, I believe, is as it should be.

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?"

-- Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems

Taken with permission from