My daughter will be headed off to college... in 13 years. While that thought can put both a lump in my throat and a spring in my step, depending on the day, I do have some time to sit with it a bit. I have until 2026, to be exact. Yet this morning, it became clear to me exactly what story I am going to tell her when that time comes.
In fact, I had the chance to give her a preview of the tale today, even though she is only 5 years old. Similar to the summer between her high school graduation and departure for college, this is also a big summer for Lucy. This one is bookended by preschool and grade school. At age 5, she is a full hand of spread-out digits, each one proclaiming a year on this earth. It's a hand waiting for a high-five from a world ready to congratulate her for it all. Losing her first teeth, writing her letters, taking off on her two-wheeled bike... these are all feats that she shares with anyone and everyone from cashiers at the grocery store to tellers at the bank. And these are all feats that earn her a high-five and cheers from these parties who are generous enough to lend an ear to a spirited 5-year-old.
Until she had a crash on her bike, scraped up her chin and crushed her tiny little spirit. We saw a pediatric dentist and checked everything out. Thanks to helmets, her chin was the only casualty of this very bad fall. Even still, it's kind of sad; I can tell that she doesn't recognize herself when she passes a mirror. And it's kind of sad; her big brother exclaimed that she looks like she has a beard.
Fortunately, that same big brother, Lucy and I have been reading the wonderful book, Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, chapter by chapter over a number of bedtime sessions this summer. This sweet and revealing book tells the story of a boy with a facial deformity going to school for the first time. It is filled with precepts about many things, including loving yourself exactly as you are and loving each other no matter what. Thanks to lessons from this book and lessons from life, we all know that a scraped-up chin is really not a big deal. Not really. And she knows that too, but in my daughter's little world, her red, raw chin is a big deal, right at this time. And it's kind of sad.
And so this morning, when she didn't want to go to have fun at the beach with her big bandage and her scrape and her embarrassment, it was kind of sad.
Luckily, I had the just the right dose of funny to cheer up her sad. I told her about how when I went to college as a freshman, I had two huge, black eyes. I was in a car accident the week before and other than a totaled car, the only damage was a matching set of bruised eyes, swollen shut with only a small sliver of an opening from which I could see. It was kind of sad to go to college and meet a bunch of new people looking like this, but what choice did I have really? I did my hair and selected one of my favorite outfits, topped by a puffy face and two shiners. I rolled my shoulders back and walked into my dorm room to meet a person I only knew as a name on a piece of paper, but would be living with over the next four years. Paying no attention to my eyes, she said, "Hi, I'm Amy." No doubt, this new roommate would become an old friend in no time.
Those black eyes quickly became irrelevant as we swapped stories of our summers and plans for school. Just hours into our newly-formed friendship, shared interests were discovered. We were laughing about TV shows and high school experiences and everything in between... including those black eyes. We made up stories to tell the boys in our dormitory about how I had a nose job gone bad. We used the eyes to make our way to the front of lines and they became a great conversation piece when we were meeting other freshman on our campus. Everyone remembered me and my signature accessory.
As the bruises around my eyes shrunk, the friendship with my roommate grew. Twenty years later, she is still one of my closest friends. We currently live over 800 miles apart, but that feels close because at times, we've been separated by oceans and international date lines. In fact, other than those few years when we shared a bunk bed in college, we've never lived in the same state, or even the same time zone, at the same time. Yet her friendship is one of the cornerstones in my life.
We give each other advice on parenting, and pick out handbags for each other. We go shoe shopping together... on Zappos, while on the phone. I can't imagine going any significant stretch of time without talking to her on the phone or shooting her a text, either about a big life challenge or about Katie Couric's dress color. And as for the black eyes, they're rarely mentioned, except for on occasion, like the one time in our late twenties when she sent me a photograph of the freshman black eyes with a post-it note attached saying, "Just remember this when you don't feel so good about yourself."
Just thinking about that note makes me laugh, just as I laughed this morning when I told Lucy this story and catered it to her 5 years of age. I said that to me those black eyes represent a time when I was able to be brave and turn something kind of sad into something kind of funny. And furthermore, they represent a time when I made a friend for a lifetime. We talked about how great it was that my roommate didn't let my appearance stop her from making a new friend, just like in the book we've been reading.
Then we talked about how Lucy's chin represents how hard she has been trying to ride her bike on two wheels and how sometimes, you're going to fall, but you have to get back up. Plus, when someone sees that scrape, they're going to think about how Lucy is brave. And that scrape shows how interesting Lucy must be, how she has a really good story to tell!
Lucy seemed receptive to my story and I immediately sent a text to my friend saying, "Just got to use your friendship and my college black eyes in a teaching moment with Lucy".
She is right. I can't tell this story only once while Lucy is 5, and then not again until she is 18. I need to keep telling it over and over. So much so that it won't be a story, rather a part of the texture in the fabric of her being. It will become so ingrained in her that she'll forget that it's not her original story, rather a blend of her story and my story. Isn't that exactly how it works, really? Parents and children and true friends, we continue to be always interwoven... strengthening the durability of each other and adding layers of richness and beauty to one another by being a part of each other's history and tales.
I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunities for this story to be told, with various renditions, over the years between now and when she goes to college. But today, upon hearing it for the first time, Lucy laughed, put her chin up and confidently marched off to the beach, just as I marched into that dorm room 20 years ago.
The world is full of discovery, lessons, hardships and laughs. So in 13 years, when she is headed off to college, I'll have some general tips: Study hard and have fun (but not too much fun). And some more specific tips: When that first warm day of spring hits, go ahead and skip class and sit on an old couch in the front yard with your friends (you'll spend the rest of your life reminiscing about that afternoon). And a big tip: Study abroad (oh gosh, please study abroad).
But I'll also have this, an interwoven story that blends my story and her story, a story about bravery and how I went to college with my black eyes and how she went to the beach with her scraped chin.
In the meantime, first things first: Lucy marches off to Kindergarten in just three short weeks! Chin up, Class of 2026!