Today I find myself on the cusp of the most important exam of my life. In some ways, it literally feels like I'm standing at the top of a rocky cliff, about to step out. At best, the ground appears beneath me, invisible until I step like in that Indiana Jones movie where he has to have faith that he'll step out and something will be there. I think he tosses some dust, perhaps, to make that faith visible. I don't have that luxury. At worst, I step out and tumble, landing alive, but visibly shaken and dejected at the bottom with nothing but the cliff still there for me to climb just one more time.
Tomorrow is the oral part of my comprehensive exam. While I've passed the written part unanimously, I still have to find the words to articulate my thoughts gracefully to an audience of five, learned, intellectual committee members, each with their own questions and specialities in tact and sharpened, ready for discussion. In my heart, I know they want me to pass. I believe this. But in my mind, I am intensely aware of the fact that any one of them could trip me up unintentionally, causing me to stumble off that cliff instead of find solid grounding.
For weeks, years, really, I have been preparing for this day, this exam. It's the culmination of my academic life. Just mention "comprehensive exams" and typically stern and stubborn forces part ways, make exceptions, extend deadlines, knowingly. I can almost see the sympathy and feel the gentle pats on my hand from faculty members when I tell them, via email, I cannot produce a syllabus for next semester yet because my oral exam is on Monday. "I understand the anxiety that can come from this exam," they say. "Just get it to me when you can," they allot. "Let me know if there's anything we can do to make this easier." They, too, have been here. Their own recollections of the difficulty before me overwhelm them, I imagine, and they wish me luck, tell me not to worry about the syllabus and send no more emails to distract me from the task.
To this, I thank them all. Thank the teachers that have come before them and the ones before that. Thank my husband who has graciously taken on the upkeep of our lives. Who has patiently remained a true partner even when I was lost, before he married me and after. Thank, even, my pets for seeming to know and lying at my feet as warmers or company. Bust, mostly, I thank my parents and siblings who don't quite understand what this means or what it's like. Who have, certainly, felt frustration at the years spent moving from place to place, ever further from home. Who have remained, a constant nucleus of love and regenerative strength. Who have tried to understand the processes and tests, papers and explanations, meaningless to them, of "comprehensive exams" and "dissertation," the weight of the words falling on them, the reality of them still elusive. It is with great patience they have followed me on this path, supporting me without fully knowing what it all means. Joining me in wondering, when my sanity was tested, whether it was really going to be worth it, after all. Whether I'd make it out, in the most literal sense, alive. They have accepted what they could not understand through trusting that I was doing what I needed to do. They believed in this and me with blind faith.
Tomorrow, when it's all over, I will either be walking high above the cliff I've conquered or standing at the bottom, contemplating a new way to reach the top. Either way, I will be a stronger, better version of myself for taking that step with only my good strength and sense to guide me and the support of all those who will stick with me whether I rise or fall. I cannot consider myself anything other than the most blessed person I know.