Directions for today’s Ann Dee Ellis’ 8-Minute Memoir: “Write about something you need to finish. Or many things you need to finish. What’s holding you back? What do you do instead? Or perhaps write about something you did finish and you’re proud of it. Or maybe something you’ll never finish and you feel fine with that. 8 minutes. No stopping. Whatever comes.”
Day 7: Finishing
When today’s prompt came through was posted, my youngest child was finishing packing at literally the 11th hour and fifty-ninth minute of the day. She and I went to sleep past midnight and woke at four AM to load her bags for the trip to the airport. She checked in on time, after removing nine pounds of sweaters and scarves from her checked bag, said her goodbyes, and after a tediously long time waiting for the TSA agent to shuffle through her clothes, walked down the terminal toward the flight that would take her to college. This was my third college send off, but it was not typical: she was flying alone to the northeast where she had billeted for the last two years, so she was familiar with the flight and the route. Except this time she would not be living with the family to play hockey, she would be going to college to do it.
As she walked away, disappearing among the other travelers, I was hit with an overwhelming feeling of heaviness. After almost twenty-seven years of raising children, the last one was leaving. We throw around the phrase empty nest a lot, as if birds have flown away. In truth, it is the nest that is alone, abandon after it has served its purpose. Being a parent means you never finish. The ritual of going to college changes the relationship with your child but does not finish it.
Not that I’m great at finishing things. In seventh grade, I join the school band and chose the to play trumpet. I enjoyed the brashness of the sound, the loud, squawking blue note, the vibration of my lips on the mouthpiece that formed the little rumble from my cheeks that came out as a sonic blast. We got the trumpet from a local music store. The band director told all brass players to get a mute, too, so that we wouldn’t blow the woodwinds away, but the mute was expensive, and my mother told me a sock would work just as well. She wasn’t joking.
When I tried to practice, she banned me from the house. I played outside, scaring the birds out of the trees. When the neighbors complained about the squawking, she banned me from practicing at all. The band director, angry that I wasn’t practicing, sent me to the back of the bad room while the other bass played. He flashed angry looks me each day but said nothing. Within a week, I was hopelessly behind the other trumpets. I tried to learn the fingering of the notes but had no idea of how they sounded.
Then one day, my mother picked me up from school instead of making me take the bus. We drove to the music store, where the manager repossessed the trumpet. The next day, I went to the guidance counselor and switched from Band I to Current Events II, where you didn’t need to practice loudly to learn. When he signed the drop slip, the band director scowled and said, “You had some talent, but you’re lazy. You quit now, you quit for the rest your life. Do you know that?” I stood mute, but inside, I knew that I wasn’t the one who had quit this time.
Not that I hadn’t quit before: Baseball in the second grade, football in the sixth, was beyond our means. You can’t play baseball with a borrowed glove. We can’t play football without pads and helmet. You can’t play basketball when there’s no hoop at home. There are just some doors that don’t open when you don’t have a key. But it wasn’t just about the gear. I quit running, too, when side cramps bent me over. I quit riding a bicycle once, too, while going downhill, and I crashed full speed into our grumpy neighbor’s fence, cracking the knuckles of my left hand. My hand swelled like a puffy oven mitt, but because I could still move my fingers, we didn’t go to the doctor. Two decades later, an unrelated x-ray showed three broken fingers that had long healed.
When you quit things early, you began to doubt yourself. When you doubt yourself, you don’t try new things. There were things that I quit after the band teacher repossessed my self-esteem, but there were things I finished, too. I finished high school, which my parents never did. I finished college–three times. I never quit on my own students when I myself became a teacher.
When I taught Brit Lit, my favorite poem was “Ulysses.” I love to read from Tennyson’s last stanza: “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” I yield many times as a young man, and I still yield is an adult. I have too often yielded to my inner demons, giving into anger and pride instead of listening, often at the cost of friendships that sustained me. Like the idle old king, I know that we are never done, even on days like yesterday, when my daughter’s departure finished one phase of my life, while another had began.
The purpose of writing these memoirs has been to look back, to remember, and to make some meaning in those remembrances, yet now I find myself more and more looking forward instead of backwards, wondering what the future holds.