returning the favor
eight years ago, four of us — a soon-to-be fifth grader, a soon-to-be freshman in college, and the two grownups who live in this old house — boarded a plane, then rented a car, taking considerable note of a string of improbable hurricane alerts as we skirted the edge of the berkshires and drove straight to the heart of emily dickinson’s poetic home village.
on the other side of a night when i could not stop the tears, could barely muffle the occasional sob, on the other side of squeezing extra-long-twin sheets round a bumpy old mattress, dodging that rarest of western massachusetts hurricanes, and wandering the greensward that would soon be my firstborn’s faraway home, three of us lined up on the green, tears clouding our eyes, and we hugged the tall one goodbye. whispered last lines of love notes in his ear, blessed him with unspoken incantations, and the little one (for that’s who he was at the time) hugged and hugged and wouldn’t let go.
the kid we left on the college quad, he’s returning the favor. flying home even as i sit here in the lightening dawn. putting aside law books all his own, because eight years later, the one who wouldn’t let go, is going off for his own adventure in college.
in this old house, eight years is our defining narrative. the eight-year-span, our indelible equation. it’s the arc of time between brothers, it’s the second chance i’ve had from the start, to see if — second time around — i just might get it right (or at least a little bit righter).
when you grow up eight years older or younger than the one you declare as your hero, you’re somehow magically stripped of the competitions and jealousies that, ever since cain and abel, seem to get in the way of so many siblings. eight years pretty much erases the dark spots. eight years amplifies and magnifies the essential heart of the matter.
and so, those eight years are drawing him home, the one who this time around will be on the giving end of the goodbye. the one who, on the eve of the start of his own third year of law school (he’ll fly back to new haven just in time to slide into his seat in one of those seminar rooms), he’s coming home to be here for the bumpy days of goodbye.
he’ll be here to tell the soon-to-be college kid what to pack, and what to forget. he’ll be here for those long-and-winding conversations that stretch deep into the folds of the night. heck, i’ve already deputized him, put him in charge of imparting a few things-you-must-know last-minute instructions (given that three times in the last week, i’ve been mistaken for the college kid’s grandma — thank you very much, hairs stripped of original hue, hairs now a shimmering shade of, um, gunmetal grey, or as we like to put it, “pewter” — i figure the 26-year-old stands a far better chance of targeting particular cautions, and speaking the language of post-millennial college).
and then, a week from today, all four of us will clamber into the old red wagon (the one i’ve already packed, swear to god, when my dry run to see if it all fit turned into the what-the-heck, why not leave these sheets and towels and plastic milk crates right where they are, wedged inch-for-inch into the factory-allotted maw at the back of the car). and, this time, barring no middle-of-ohio hurricane warnings, we will point the car in the direction of yet another greensward, this one with a middle path as pretty as any in new england, and we will do what one does when moving a kid into a dorm, and then, at the appointed hour (it’s inscribed in the orientation handout: “1:15 p.m. sunday, family farewell. families leave campus.” p.s. late-breaking update: looks like they’ve gentled the instruction with a simple declarative, “Families, we look forward to seeing you in October for Family Weekend!” in other words, scram!) we will do as we’ve done before, though never in this particular order.
some of us might try to hold back tears (don’t count on me in that bunch), and as promised in the unwritten family code, the biggest brother in the bunch will bestow the final benediction: he’ll reach out his brotherly hand, pull the kid in close, wrap him in one of their signature all-enveloping hugs, whisper words i won’t hear, and then we will inch ourselves away, back to the old red wagon that will be heading home hollowed, and slowly filling with tears….
that’s what we’re doing this week….
do you remember your own college drop off? do you remember the last words imparted before the ones who left you drove off into the distance?
p.s. photo way above on the right is a placeholder from graduation, when once again the big brother dashed home for a short sweet action-packed weekend. once i click the trophy shot, i’ll swap it out for safe-keeping here. but for now, it’s just perfect.