Picking up the candy hearts

First published at TheHill.com

By Memorial Day it was, finally, time to pick up the candy hearts.

During my son’s freshman year at Vanderbilt University, I sent him a letter or a package every few weeks. Not so much to cheer him up; he loved the university and enjoyed being there. More to cheer myself up, and remind myself that I still mattered to his life.

Around the first of March I spotted two-week old Valentine candy hearts on super-duper sale at a CVS. No doubt they were 95 percent off by that point. Who wants hearts that say “I Love You” when it’s already March, the Roman month of war? I dashed off a letter to my son, packed it in with the candy, and sent it off to Nashville.

Then they closed his school.

On March 9 Vanderbilt had a report of exposure to coronavirus. The administration planned to shut down for a week or so, but my wife correctly predicted there would be no further classes on campus this Spring. She booked my son on a flight out the next day. He hadn’t gone back to Nashville since.

Zoom replaced office hours, online learning replaced lecture halls. The candy hearts sat, unopened, on his desk.

In late May, the school announced its next step. Students should return at prearranged times to clear out of their dorm rooms. That’s how we ended up driving to Nashville on Memorial Day weekend.

It was eerily quiet when we arrived at his dorm. When we’d moved him in back in August, campus had been a madhouse. Teams of students unpacking cars and helping freshmen move in. Thousands of sad parents milling around. Now, we were about the only people on campus. We parked, illegally, in the roundabout by his dorm and headed in.

A gallon of milk from the fridge quickly went down the drain. A bag of apples ended up in the front seat for the drive home.

I unzipped the suitcase we’d brought, and realized there was a smaller suitcase inside. When I unzipped that one, I found a third. Because I didn’t want to get stuck in an Abbot and Costello routine, I didn’t open that third suitcase to find more and more and more suitcases. I just set it aside.

My son didn’t have much stuff. His clothing fit in the large suitcase, his schoolwork and books into the second one. His bedding went into the dirty clothes hamper. Some posters, a small keyboard, toiletries. Boom. Within an hour we’d packed everything from the room neatly into our car.

“Ready to roll?” I asked.

“Sure, but it’s warmer than I thought. I shouldn’t have worn a long sleeve shirt,” he answered. We were both sweating from the trips up and down from the fifth floor.

“Well, you have about 100 short sleeve shirts in the trunk,” I noted. It took just minutes to pull one out of the suitcase and we headed toward home.

The drive back is a metaphor. 

For hours and hours, we rolled through the country with no problems. The sun was shining. I listened to podcasts, he tapped into music on his phone. It could have been 2019, except that we also spent some time plotting our family’s future in this changing world.

Suddenly, after seven hours on the road, as I was preparing to have him drive again, came a challenge. A downpour of biblical proportions. I slowed but didn’t stop.

Gripping the wheel and concentrating on the stripes in the middle of the road, I steered carefully for more than hour, able to see just well enough to keep us, like our nation, moving forward. While I kept a white-knuckle grip on the wheel, I noted that my son was playing on his DS, apparently oblivious to the storm.

And I realized: this is the difficulty of being an adult.

“Adulting” means, simply, that there are people depending on you. You cannot afford to let them down even when it’s all too easy to do so. I suddenly had a memory. I was a child, riding home through a snowstorm on New York Route 17, an interstate-like highway. That trip meant hours of high-stress driving for my father. As a child, though, I had no idea the pressure he was under. Now I understand.

Also on my mind is the fact that, just a week before this trip, I’d lost my job. I’m laid off from a trade association because of Covid-19. It was nothing I’d done, they told me. They just needed to make some cuts in this new economic environment. I have no idea when or whether I’ll land another gig. That makes for some white knuckles as well as gnawed fingernails.

What will the world look like after Covid-19? The thought is as scary to me as a downpour on I-81. However, we cannot avoid the coming crisis. We can only steer through it as best we can, keeping our eyes on the road and hoping for the best.

My family is depending on me, just as your family is depending on you. As Americans, we’ll all get through this together.

As for us, well, we ate my son’s candy hearts on the drive back. When I dropped them in the mail, I’d never expected to see them again. Today, the world of Valentine’s Day 2020 no longer exists.

Our family is luckier than most. My son had a normal high school graduation, and more than half of a normal freshman year. He can expect to see the Vandy campus again in good times.

As for the rest of us: yes, there’s a downpour. But we need to keep our eyes on the road and keep moving forward. Adulting remains difficult. But it’s more important than ever right now.

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