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Kirsten Lillegard holds a master’s degree in English / Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She recently completed two fiction workshops at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop summer program. She has published essays and book reviews in the Chicago Tribune “Books” section, and she is currently finishing a novel, Dreams Before Waking, about an eighteen-year-old boy who becomes involved in the world of professional wrestling.
From WTP Vol. IX #5
Mid-July, college visit number seven or eight, I’m not sure. This is Vanderbilt, expensive and statusy but with a splash of southern earthiness and charm. Parents and kids are sitting in rows, fidgeting, whispering. My oldest is beside me and we are too road-weary to say anything. It feels better to sit in silence, the sun pouring in from arched windows, the bushes outside motionless, blanketed into submission by the humid heat.
An admissions officer appears at the front, and he begins the session by asking prospective students to share their name, hometown, and what they wanted to be when they were five. When it is my daughter’s turn, she stands and says she wanted to be a pirate. And suddenly I am not here but back in Iowa in a kitchen we no longer inhabit, watching her through the window. She’s standing in the backyard, touching the handle of a wooden sword tied to her waist, her translucent blue eyes, fearful and expectant, fixed on a spot before her.
After the session we are led on a tour across campus, over lawns simmering in afternoon heat, past magnolias and hackberries and sugar maples shading lush beds of monkey grass. If I could, I would curl up under one of these trees and drift off, but we are walking faster, with so much ground to cover. We stop at an intersection of sidewalks. A drop of sweat slides down my spine. The guide is talking about the number of majors and degree programs, and the fact that Vanderbilt students are the sixth happiest in the country or world or something, I can’t recall. The details of these college visits are washing together in my brain, creating a slurry of facts about dorm life and financial aid and academic calendars, semester versus trimester. I’m too overwhelmed to parse it out. My daughter can go wherever, I’ve decided. But she is determined to make the right choice. As a young person, she believes in the concept of right choices, and I do too, I guess, though I’m increasingly aware that so much of life comes from a place ungoverned by choice. It just happens. One minute a child is five, playing in the backyard, tendrils of hair fusing to her temples, and the next minute she is seventeen and standing beside you, over you, contemplating a school six hundred miles from home.
April. We are back in Nashville for another look at Vanderbilt. We eat dinner in a restaurant on West End Avenue and then walk toward campus for what we believe is a 9 P.M. appointment with a professor of philosophy. I don’t know why we think a professor would want to meet us so late in the evening, why neither of us considers the possibility that we’ve made a mistake (we have: the meeting is for 9 A.M. the next day). It’s as though the months of school visits and applications and deliberations have eroded our common sense, and we have fallen into a state of perpetual confusion, a place where late-night meetings with faculty seem plausible.
We turn onto a walk leading to campus, passing through an entrance in an iron fence overtaken by thick leafy hedges. The noise and harsh orange lighting of West End Avenue disappear, and we are submersed in a quiet dark. An unusually tall dogwood looms ahead, holding its breath, and when we walk by, it shudders, releasing a flurry of blossoms. I am suddenly very tired, so it’s almost a relief when we climb the steps to a castle-like building and find the door locked. We have no choice but to give up and slip back, drop into a hotel bed and surrender to the sweet illogic of dreams.
Reality rushes back the next morning. We eat quickly and race through Nashville’s intricate web of freeway, park near campus, and walk quickly to the castle building, almost getting there on time. When the professor sees us, he pulls some things off the chairs, using his own chair to move about, his feet in tennis shoes pedaling him around. His silver hair has arranged itself, and he speaks with a lyrical southern accent. When my daughter sits opposite him, he rears back wide-eyed, as if she isn’t what he was expecting. Perhaps this is how he reacts to everyone who visits. His office is darkened by walls of exposed brick and a scarcity of windows, just a few small ones near the ceiling, and I can see how it would take on a dungeon-like atmosphere, how any visitor would be a surprise, someone you would pull back from, squint at, rescuer or executioner. But he recovers from this momentary alarm, and a pleasant conversation ensues. Students can combine philosophy with other disciplines, he explains. They can create their own majors. Which seems promising, this openness, but it’s frustrating to my daughter, who is searching for something hard and fixed, a fact that will give her a reason to say yes or no to this place.
Eventually the conversation lags, and she looks down at the legal pad on her lap, scanning her list of questions.
“Why should I choose Vanderbilt over the University of Iowa?” she says.
The professor leans into his chair arm and stares at the ceiling for some time. Then he comes back, squinting as if he’s about to reveal something profound.
“It’s not as flat here,” he says. “And we don’t have snow. Not much, anyway.”
Iowa is not flat, I think, and you do have snow, in the form of dogwood blossoms. But I don’t say this because it would sound strange, and I like the guy. I agree with his tacit assertion, that the choice between Iowa and Vanderbilt may just as well be about topography and climate as anything else. But my daughter frowns, looks down at her notebook, searching again for the question that will make everything clear, the one that will reveal the truth about what school she should attend and what major she should pursue and what, exactly, she should do with her life. She never arrives at this clarity, even later as we are driving home, flying north on Interstate 57. Months of searching and applying and deliberating and she still can’t decide.
“What if Vanderbilt were just two hours from home?” I ask. “Then what?”
“Then I’d want to go there.”
“So it’s the distance.”
“Yeah, I guess. But—”
She looks out the window at a jagged limestone wall, a hill sliced open to allow passage of the interstate.
“I dunno. If it were close, it would be less like itself. Less exotic.”
And this is the paradox at the heart of her deliberations. She wants something distant, different, wants an adventure, but adventures are scary. And there’s an added pressure, an idea her generation has bought into, that choosing the right college leads to success and happiness, and choosing the wrong one brings about years of misery, as if the trajectory of your life is determined by this one choice.
“You’d do well at either place,” I say. “Go with your gut.”
She nods but reinserts her earbuds, unconvinced. Which is fine. The decision is hers. My job is to offer advice and fake peppiness, as if I’m excited for her. I am excited, but at the same time I don’t want her to leave. Even Iowa City is too far. And this is the paradox at the center of my experience. I must help her do this thing I dread, this severing. I try not to think about what it will be like after she departs, but at times I get a sensation of sinking through water that is at first light green, then blue, then black. I wake in the middle of the night to a suffocating pressure on my chest, the reality: she will be gone in a few months.
As a child, she would spend days outside with her friends Sam and William, the three of them perched on the fence, handing one another a rope tethered to a high limb of the silver maple. One at a time they would hop onto the rope, sail over an ocean, and land on the shore of another world, one offering sword fights and treks over seaside cliffs.
Later in the day she would come inside for a sandwich, which she would eat at the piano while playing some sharp, jaunty tune. She would finish her food and drain her juice, slamming the cup down on the blonde Wurlitzer, and then she would charge back outside. At least that’s the way I remember her, running through the house to the back door, head pitched forward, fists clenched. An actual charge.
Sometimes at the end of these summer days she was too agitated to fall asleep on her own, so I would lie in bed next to her. She would flop back and forth, scratching her mosquito bites. I felt restless myself and anxious for her to be asleep, so I discouraged conversation. But now I wish I could go back to that time and breathe in the scent of her skin, sweat and wind and grass. I wish she could tell me about the land of the dead and the ocean that was our backyard.
Next August. We load her things into the car and pile in, the whole family. My younger daughter is only ten, and she hates long trips. We try to make the journey more inviting by promising new video games and a stay at a hotel with a pool, things she loves, but she is a reluctant traveler. She is afraid that in the chaos, she will be forgotten somewhere. Whenever we are on a trip and are stopping at a rest area to go to the bathroom, she insists I stand directly outside the stall, so that my feet are visible under the door. If she loses sight of me, we might become separated and never find each other again, because in her eyes, the world is that big, and parents are that unreliable. Nothing we say will ease this fear, so it stays with her throughout the trip, upsetting her stomach and her sleep. And her anxiety gets mixed in with the dread all of us are experiencing as we embark.
We are a car stuffed with belongings and vibrating with trepidation, though we do our best to create the veneer of a normal family vacation. We pack a lunch, and we find a park on the way where we stop and eat. Except for a slight mishap with the bike, which at first moves too freely on the back of our car, the drive goes smoothly. By evening we reach my father and stepmother’s place in Northwest Tennessee.
They have a large house dominated by three golden retrievers, who appear at every turn, smiling up at you, their tails slowly wagging, releasing gold threads that float up into the light. Harry is the oldest and my father’s favorite. He is arthritic and deaf and needs help getting up from the floor, and his eyes have clouded over, betraying a new weariness, as if he is being dragged backward and is losing the strength to resist. At times I catch my father gazing at him. “He won’t be with us much longer,” he says.
My father is seventy-nine and has undergone three surgeries in the past year. He has lost several friends and four siblings to death. He is, as he will tell you, increasingly aware of his mortality. At one point in our stay, while I am standing by the sink, looking out the window at a crepe myrtle, and through its fuchsia blossoms to the back pasture saturated in gold, he stands next to me, drops a hand on my shoulder, tugs me into him.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “If anyone gives that girl any trouble, I will drive over to Vanderbilt with a baseball bat and a t-shirt that says, ‘Grandpa with nothing to lose.’”
I imagine my father on such a mission, clutching a bat, trudging up a campus hill in his grimy yardwork jeans, his white beard lifted, gray eyes searching, trying to codify an impression from a second ago while returning to his intention—What was he doing? Nothing to lose. Not because you don’t care, but because life, in its relentless flow of growth and decay, keeps stripping away everything and everyone you love.
Move-in day. We pull our dingy Honda into a line of Volvos and Explorers and Escalades. We wait, windows down, engine off, and we bicker. My younger daughter is complaining, and my husband says, “I know this is hard, saying goodbye.”
“It’s not hard to me,” she retorts.
“If it’s not hard for you,” the older one says, “then you don’t have to come into my dorm room—you can stay outside.”
We follow a flashing patrol car through the streets of Nashville and arrive at a circular drive next to the dorm, where a crew of alarmingly cheerful students in neon green t-shirts seizes on our car, unloads all of our stuff and drags it to the top floor, sweeping us along with it, depositing us in a small room with laminate faux-wood flooring, which is not beautiful, but not terrible either. Certainly it’s better than the industrial grey tile I lived on in my own freshman year of college.
After a moment of disorientation, standing in the midst of boxes and suitcases, unsure where to start, we set to work. I start pulling shirts out of a suitcase, folding them as carefully as I can—I don’t excel at this kind of thing—and placing them in drawers that are too deep and narrow, made more for office supplies than clothing. My husband rips into a cardboard box, and with an impossibly small amount of floor space to work in, begins assembling a cheap set of shelves from Target. And my younger daughter climbs onto the loft bed, spreads out the sheets and blankets, and hangs strings of star-shaped lights on the wall above the bed, attaching photos to the clips between the lights. We do all this with nervous urgency, as if by arranging these things perfectly, we can infuse them with our love and protection.
The morning we say goodbye, we eat breakfast in the large hall they call the Commons and then walk to a parking lot on the edge of campus. She hugs each of us, and as she puts her arms around me I start to cry—how can I not?—and says, “Oh, Mom, you’re going to make me cry.” And she hugs me again and doesn’t let go. I wonder what I should do. I don’t want to let go. But it seems I have to. This is my job as a mother, or that’s what I’ve been led to believe, so I step out of her embrace, and I climb into the car. She remains outside, waving, standing under a young tree. Her blue eyes shimmer with tears and by some trick of refraction become twice their size. I see the sweet child of eight months and eight years and not-yet-eighteen, and I see a woman perched on a precipice, an anime hero with lakes for eyes. Then we are moving, rolling down a hill away from her, and now her forehead is out of sight, now her white wrist, gone, and I don’t know how I can keep doing this thing called life, how I can survive the new hole in my center, how any of us do. You walk around bleeding inside for the ones who leave. Physically, you grow weaker, and death looms ahead. You want to lie on the sand and surrender. But then a melody circles down, jabs you in the back, and forces you onto your feet and back into time.
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