Dear College Sophomore Living in Trent Hall,
Yeah, your building.just.sucks. It’s dark. There’s lots of stairs. And it feels like everybody else who really belongs here at this school lives somewhere else. And you got stuck here. You’re wondering why. Is it because you get too much financial aid? Or because your parents don’t know the rules of elite college parenting and “who” to call? Because you chose not to join a sorority? Maybe just dumb luck?
I know you are thinking about how sad you were last year too. That this place just feels too far away from home. And your boyfriend is back in NJ. And you haven’t made any good friends. And you really are not having the fun all your high school classmates claim to be having in college – or even all the other students here for that matter. And oh yeah, there’s all of that incredibly hard work. But what I’m writing to tell you is that you haven’t seen the good part yet. That’s a lesson you are going to take many years to learn – but sometimes, the good part only comes from going through the worst part. I know it doesn’t make sense to you now because the bad part feels really bad and long and you don’t have a clue about what the good part even looks like yet. But all I can do is assure you, that the good part gets really really good. And there will come a day when you think about life before Trent Hall and life after Trent Hall.
Let me give you a little glimpse.
One day, you are going to come back to this college campus for the first time with your oldest son for a mother-son weekend. He’s going to be 10 at the time. And you’re actually going to get lost finding this ugly building, because it’s become a part of your past – an old memory – not a living one. You’ll wander through the Duke gardens (which you certainly should enjoy more while you can – study there, write there, drink there, have sex there), but since I know you won’t really do any of that stuff, you won’t have any crazy memories with your son you need to work through – so maybe that’s a good thing. So back to my story – you will wander around the garden and find yourself in a parking lot. The parking lot will have a festival going on – or so it seems. Live music. Popcorn. Bounce houses. Lots of tents and people. When you get there with your son, you will realize it is a fundraiser for a group called Angels Among Us. They raise money for brain tumor research. There are families walking around, teams wearing group t-shirts, children and adults alike in wheelchairs wearing name stickers that say “survivor” or “spouse of a survivor” and more then one “mother of an angel.”
You will remember your friend Amy whose little girl Arden died of neuroblastoma. The one you think of all the time even though you have not seen her in years. You will send money in her memory to St. Baldricks every March because you just can’t imagine losing your child to a brain tumor. Tears come down under your sunglasses as you tell your son about this. “I never knew,” he says. You remember what it was like to be a kid when you didn’t really understand the magnitude of things that happened around you either – like the finality of death.
You continue to walk around the event and you think about the black tie event that you go to each year with the man who will be your future husband. You won’t meet him until you leave Duke, but wow, will you fall head over heels for him. As you walk around this event though, you will think about him and a function you will attend each year – where you wear a gown and he wears a tuxedo and you have a wonderful evening with your friends at the Union League in Philadelphia drinking martinis and too much wine to raise money for a guy named Joel Gingras who died of a brain tumor while he was in college. Luckily, you won’t know anybody who dies while you are in college – but this group of friends did. And they still celebrate him today – and they have for over 20 years – and it’s a beautiful thing. You’ll think about how amazing it is that those friends will revisit a time like this and celebrate someone they loved so much from their college years. They have found a way to build joy and celebration out of a devastating loss.
Brain tumors haunt you as you continue to walk around. What if I got one? What if one of my kids got one? As you start to lose your breath over this – you hear your therapist in your head saying “Is this a fact or a feeling?” You realize it is yet again, a feeling. Something you often let cloud your thoughts. And yet your rational side comes back and says “Mama (that’s what you call yourself these days…) you would handle it. In a million different ways on a million different days – if life handed you that terrible card – you would handle it.” And you’ll cry at this too, because well, you still cry at everything and because you’ve gotten through some bad, and you’ve handled it before.
But the best part Lovie (that’s what I’ll call you because it must be good to know that your future self REALLY loves you) is what happens next. Because in that parking lot, you will look up and see an ugly building. And just like that, realize it is Trent. Where you are right now in 1996! The building is still there – right in front of you! Only thing different from the outside is they changed the parking lot from an open square to a diagonal lot (wtf – waste of money I say!) But when you see the building now – 21 years later in 2017 – you’ll have a very different memory than that of a dank, depressing building. The feelings of 1996 will be overcome with the facts of the years to come.
Remember your first day when you were moving in and you saw that girl – the pretty skinny one with the long blond wavy hair? And her dad, the one with the white hair and glasses who reminded you of everything you love about Santa? Well, take note. 21 years from now, she’s still in the picture. And not only is she still in the picture, she’s going to be your best friend – your nena. She’s going to graduate with you and move back to NJ with you. She’s going to live with you for the next 3 years. She’s going to be the maid of honor at your wedding and she’ll be standing next to you when that 10-year-old boy I’ve been talking about is born. She’s going to move very far away and get married and have babies of her own but you will see her every year – no exceptions – for the next 21 years. She will know everything about you. She will see who you really are. Your souls will be inseparable. And you know what, you will text her a picture of this building with your son in front of it. And you will be overcome with joy as you think about how blessed you were to make it through what was the saddest time you had known in your life to that point to find your nena – the kind of friend you see in the movies and wonder if people ever really have. God will smile on you and give you that kind of friend – the kind only Grandma Sheila really seemed to understand when she told you on your wedding day – “I had a nena too.” And you will know – that she gets it. Because not everyone gets a nena. Not everyone gets to measure their life by ‘before Trent and after Trent’, but I do. The feelings of 1996 will not remain the feelings of 2017 – they were transient but purposeful. The good is better than you could ever imagine Lovie. The good is so much better.
You will laugh one day at how bad it seemed back in 1996. And you will smile at how lucky you were to run into her on the stairs that move-in day – and to offer her a hand with her boxes – and to drop tea and cookies off at her door that night. You just had a feeling about her. Your life will change forever in that building on that hot August day.
Looking back, its hard to reconcile how little I understood 21 years ago. Walking around this campus I had no idea what the future held. I can’t say I even fathomed the level of love that would fill my heart watching my son stand in front of the Duke Chapel or the pleasure I’d take in riding the campus shuttle bus with him. It is so clear to me that the picture of what I thought life would be like, and what it actually would one day become, had nothing in common. Even if some of the events were the same, they were drawn by different artists and and set to different tunes. But the one thing I know for sure is that the worries that plagued me are worries I can barely recall today, but the beauty of it all – that remains. And the appreciation for that beauty has grown tenfold.
One day Lovie, life as you know it will be nothing like you imagined, and more than you ever dreamed of. You will be thankful for the blessings that Shakespeare assured you would shower upon your head. So take note Lovie, say thank you, and just.you.wait.