It's fall, and my neighbour's daughter, heading to university, packs 17 years of her life into the trunk of her dad’s van . Her efforts have jogged old, tender memories of a similar day in 1975.
I was leaving home at last. Life away from mom and dad and homemade rules and responsibilities. I couldn't wait for the late nights, the untidy bedrooms, the weekend romps, and the independence. Cutting the proverbial apron strings wouldn’t pose too much of a problem for me, and to say that I was itching to go would be an understatement.
As it turned out, my brother, Chris, and I were departing for University in the same year. He would be attending Guelph while I made Carleton my home and it had been decided that we would travel south together. After wading through mom's tears, we headed down the highway in "the Ghost", our old, bent-and-beaten green Chevrolet Biscayne station wagon. As we drove, I exuberantly lectured my brother on the new life to which we would soon be living, not being receptive to the nuances within his silence. I just presumed that he was too excited to say anything.
When I look back, I can't particularly remember Chris saying much on the trip, but I must have believed or, perhaps, deluded myself into thinking that he was just being himself; a little more introverted than Mark and me and a little less likely to share his feelings. Maybe my enthusiasm was a bit overwhelming, and maybe, in retrospect, I should have been more sensitive and provided him with an opening to share his thoughts.
When we arrived at Guelph University late that night, we found his accommodations fairly easily, and we bunked down for the evening. I was starting my new life in the morning. When we awoke, I stuck around while Chris registered – a long process for those who have been through it – and was about ready to leave. Only one task remained: to find the Bank of Nova Scotia where Chris would settle his financial matters.
I remember walking with Chris into the University Centre where the bank was housed. We were greeted with a cold welcome in an immense, impersonal hall. I think it was then that I first became aware of something that had escaped me early. For the first time, I saw a sadness in his eyes that betrayed his true feelings. I realized that my baby brother was afraid.
All my life, Chris had been there - in the same bedroom, in the classroom next door, serving on the altar at Sacred Heart Church - and now, things were changing. We were, truly, becoming adults. And yet, childhood yearnings tethered our hearts pulling us back to those things that were comfortable and known. I knew that this wasn’t going to be as easy for Chris as it had been for Mark and me, and yet, I was at a loss for what to do.
I looked at him and every protective instinct I ever held for Chris welled up within me, and I wanted to reach over, put my arm around him, and tell him that everything would be all right – but, of course, I didn't.
Instead, I said that it was time that I left. I departed with a few light, hearty comments intended to temporarily appease his loneliness and to hide my own emotions. He looked up at me, embraced me, and bid me farewell. No other words were shared, and yet, in that fleeting moment of physical contact, I felt, as Morley Callaghan put it, “…all the years of [his] life…” and, to that point in my life, the most difficult thing that I had ever done, I did then - I let go of him.
I walked to the doors leading out of the building and turned to look at Chris. There he stood, outside of the bank, small in the halls immensity, shoulders lowered, scared and alone - and I felt helpless in my capacity to make it better for him.
Of course, Chris was successful at accommodating himself to his new world, and, of course, it was just the first in a series of adversities that we all face in life. And, of course he has been utterly successful since.
But the scars of those few moments at Guelph University remain with me to this day. They are scars that carry with them a certain pain in their remembrance, but they are also scars that remind me of how much I really love my brother. And I wouldn't change the agony of those moments for all the treasures on earth.
And I continue to watch my neighbour's daughter sort through all those years.