Creative Nonfiction by Terry Engel
Published in Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2019 — Essays
August 12, 2019
Move in day at the dormitory is the hottest day of the year, 107 degrees with a constant Oklahoma breeze that feels like standing in front of a convection oven. My daughter’s room is filled with boxes and bins, three roommates, and three sets of parents, all trying to unpack and organize and decorate. Once the heavy work is done, the fathers are commissioned to run to the hardware store and pick up lunch, assemble shelves and unpack refrigerators and microwaves, and lug empty boxes and trash downstairs.
My daughter, Julia Rose, lives on the seventh floor of a coed dorm with guys and girls on separate wings. The “coed” part hasn’t fully registered with me until I notice boys unpacking boxes. Surely I was told that this was a coed dorm, but in all the preparation this summer, from buying a new laptop to the roommate meeting to decide who brings the broom and who brings the shower caddy, I never heard “coed.” I look at the gangly teenage boys who will share a floor with my daughter and remember myself as a gangly teen, acned and introverted, a first generation college student with a mass of insecurities. As a college professor, I interact with teenagers every day, but now I realize that I know very little about their world outside the classroom.
At the parent orientation session, the dean who handles sex offenses, dating violence, and stalking makes parents promise to talk to our freshmen about what “consent” means before we leave. I think about this new terrain for Julia Rose that, unlike climbing the 14,000 foot Colorado peak when she was 15, she will have to traverse without me.
Along with coed dorms, I worry about the intensity of the competitive dance program that selected Julia Rose. She really wanted a ballet program, and I drove her to auditions at highly ranked programs in Indiana, Oklahoma, and Utah. Her mother, Lisa, drove or flew with her to a half dozen more auditions from New York to San Antonio. The auditions were scary. Two hundred girls and thirty high-school guys competing for a handful of freshman spots. Make-up, buns, leotards and tights, pointe shoes; the stretching, the temper tantrums, the tears. The Black Swan intensity of competition—not just the boys and girls trying out, but the dance parents. I imagine a dance mom arranging an I, Tonya pipe to the knee for any dancer who might take a scholarship away from her daughter or son.
After her first audition at the University of Oklahoma, my daughter cried. I waited, until she finally said, “Just so you know, I’m probably going to cry after every one of these.”
The college application and dance audition process followed fifteen years of dance lessons, most of them in Little Rock, a two-hour round trip from our home. For several years my wife and I took turns driving six to seven days a week. There were summer intensives with Ballet Arkansas in Little Rock and two summers dancing at the University of Utah in Salt Lake, a preview of dorm life and collegiate dance. Mercyhurst University rejected her, writing that “our dance faculty believe you would struggle in our [ballet] program.” After every audition came a two week wait and then the email. She was accepted into Marymount Manhattan, but in dance pedagogy rather than dance performance, and she was waitlisted by the University of Utah’s ballet program. Mostly rejections. Depending on how much she liked the school (Mercyhurst), or if one of her teachers had danced there (Butler University), Julia Rose would cry for a bit. But then she’d wipe her eyes and pull out her textbooks, or else pack her dance bag for the drive to Little Rock.
The night before we leave her at college, she’s feeling the sadness of our departure, questioning her decision to move so far from home, wondering if she has what it takes to make it in the program. Oklahoma City University is heavier on tap and jazz, her weaker genres, and the program was low on her list. It’s also one of the top dance theatre departments in the country. I tell her, “Oklahoma City chose you. That means something. Dance hard, and you’ll be alright.”
Late in the summer, Lisa and I take Julia Rose to her last dance class in Little Rock, where we have spent hundreds of hours at the studio waiting, reading, and grading papers while she danced. Most evenings we didn’t get home until 9:30 or 10:00, fourteen hours after leaving the house for work. Saying goodbye to her teachers is like moving out of the old house where you watched your children grow up; it’s handing over the keys to the new owners, knowing the house will continue to be filled and studio life will go on without us. The yearly rhythms that have dominated our calendars—Nutcracker in the fall, Young Adult Grand Prix ballet competition in the winter, recital in the spring—will belong to other dancers and parents. Lauren and Allison, who have helped Julia Rose navigate the college dance audition ordeal, tear up as we are leaving. Lauren and Allison both studied at Butler University; Lauren danced professionally for Ballet Arkansas, while Allison was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. They’re excited for Julia Rose. Lauren goes to her car for a gift and a letter. I imagine it brims with love and pride, as well as advice about how to survive a college dance major. It’s the kind of advice that I can’t give. Julia Rose already knows hard work stubbornness, my two greatest gifts to her.
This summer, when she wasn’t working, Julia Rose spent many evenings sitting with her mother and me, talking, watching reruns of the Office or Parks and Rec or the Sopranos, teasing the cats with a laser pointer, and giving us a hug when she left for a shift at the yogurt shop or heading upstairs to bed. There’s a lingering between the life she’s known and the life ahead. A liminal space where she’s holding on to the doorjambs with her feet still in high school and home, but her head and torso leaning forward to college and independence. Bittersweet is a cliché, but no other term feels so apt for her mother and me. Pride, certainly, excitement for this new adventure, surely, and deep sadness, overwhelmingly. Julia Rose is excited, but she’s also frantic about leaving her cat, Pearl, who sleeps with her at night and wanders the house with mournful yowls whenever she isn’t home. Her departure date approaches as inevitably as a receding glacier before the forces of climate change: nothing I can do will slow it or make me feel better about it.
One of the joys of becoming a college student or a new parent lies in the planning. Julia Rose sold frozen yogurt all summer, saving most of her pay but using the rest to buy supplies and decorations for her dorm room. One corner of her bedroom holds plastic bins of clothes and shoes, cleaning supplies, ironing board and iron, a Keurig and a few dishes, notebooks and pens, a refrigerator/freezer, and pictures and favorite books and personal items that will connect her to her childhood and family and friends. The move will require most of her compact car and all of my SUV. I moved to college with a sixteen foot canoe and a ten speed bicycle tied to a Chevy Chevette. Inside, I had a footlocker, school supplies, a hot pot, a couple of Frisbees, and a combination record/cassette player with two backpack-sized speakers and a stack of vinyl. I packed too much. When we brought Julia Rose home from the hospital, we filled a bedroom with brand new equipment: crib, mobile, boxes of diapers and a changing table and a diaper genie, chest of drawers, and books and books and books. The rest of our space filled with a car seat, stroller, and play pen; a wind up swinging chair, bouncy seat, and a baby bath; stuffed animals, toys, and sleep deprivation. I remember thinking that first night with her home from the hospital, that I had no idea how to be a parent.
August 11, 2019 – Sunday morning
Saturday night we loaded two cars for the drive to Oklahoma City. Tonight Lisa and Julia Rose and I are in a Sleep Inn. Tomorrow we move her into her dorm at 9:30. On her second day at college she will dance for six hours, where her professors will determine her skill levels for tap, jazz, and ballet. Wednesday is the faculty convocation and freshman matriculation, where professors parade in academic regalia and students transition from high school seniors to collegians. After the convocation, Lisa and I will say goodbye and return home to shepherd a second daughter, Stella, through senior year of high school and teach our own college classes. This morning, just before we left to take Julia Rose to Oklahoma, I found her sprawled on the den floor, crying and petting her cat, Pearl, who has no idea about the momentous shift in her routine, no idea that she won’t be seeing her favorite human for a couple of months. Julia Rose says goodbye to our Australian shepherd, Zoe, who had a malignant tumor removed a year ago. Zoe loves to go on walks, ride with her head out the window, and herd the cats and chickens, but ten months ago when we did the surgery, we bargained for a year. I don’t mention this to Julia Rose, since her homesickness is already setting in.
August 11, 2019 – Sunday evening
After supper Julia Rose and I make a run for Half Price Books. Julia Rose drives her car and I sit in the passenger seat, which still feels unnatural even though she’s been driving for three years. The suburbs of Oklahoma City sprawl in the golden light of sunset, laid out in a neat grid with major streets running north and south, sectioning smaller streets and neighborhoods and shopping centers and parks. There are fewer trees than in Arkansas, a constant wind, and because we are on the Southern Great Plains, we can see the tall buildings of downtown from miles away, rising like volcanic islands out of the ocean.
Half Price Books is as large as a Barnes and Noble and well stocked with used books in like-new condition and new books at, as advertised, prices half of what we would pay in the B & N. The bookstore is a chain and Julia Rose and I had visited its sister store in Indianapolis at the Butler University audition. We have thirty minutes before close, so I head for fiction. After a few minutes Julia Rose turns up in my aisle holding the entire Harry Potter series in half-price paperback.
“I’ve been wanting my own set,” she says.
Our copies at home are worn and belong to the whole family. My daughters were raised on Harry Potter, and we’ve filled cross-country car trips with my wife reading the books aloud, or reading a chapter a night before bedtime. The summer my wife and I taught at an international program in Florence, Italy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had just come out, and every night at the 16th century villa where we lived, Lisa read a chapter to our daughters, seven and nine at the time, and to a half dozen or more college students crammed into our apartment. My children know that if they turn up in a bookstore aisle with five or six books in their hands, I am a soft touch, and Julia Rose has caught me on the eve of her transition into college dorm life. I like that she wants to surround herself with books and memories from home. She adds up the cost of the series and the out of pocket expenses she anticipates for the coming year against the thousand dollars she’s saved from her summer job. But it’s a good price for books in excellent condition, and I tell her I’ll go in half. She gives me a twenty dollar bill and I pocket it, knowing that I’ll surprise her with it later in the year, tucked inside a care package or a letter.
My journals—almost thirty years’ worth, handwritten and then revised and typed—record travels, weather, book and movie lists, events, eavesdropped conversations, and notes on places and people. They are written in scene, dialogue, characterization, and sensory detail, and since I became a father, my imagined audience has always been my children. When Julia Rose graduated I shared the electronic document with her, nineteen years of her life, a prompt for dim memories and events lost to childhood. In Italy, my college students—for a grade—kept notes on the cultural sites we toured in pocket Moleskine journals. Imitating the college students, Julia Rose and Stella kept their own journals, drawing pictures and recording in their elementary school print whatever seemed important to nine and seven-year-olds touring the Uffizi, the Duomo, and the Galleria dell’Accademia, not realizing that they were guarding against the potential to forget experiences as the new crowds out the old.
August 15, 2019
It’s a quiet late afternoon after a mind-deadening day of English department meetings. Already the school semester feels hectic, and classes don’t start for four days. I’ve cleaned the kitchen, emptied the dishwasher and started a new load, put in a load of laundry, and started jambalaya for supper. My wife is still at her office and Stella, my high school senior, has gone upstairs to start homework following after-school meetings for chorus and theatre. This is a familiar time of day, but the rhythm feels off. For years, the hours after school meant driving Julia Rose to Little Rock for four hours of dance and waiting in the studio answering emails, grading papers, reading, napping, or writing. Or, on the Fridays Julia Rose drove herself, worrying about rush hour traffic and making sure that supper will be ready when she arrives home, famished from a full day of school and driving and dancing. I wonder what she’s doing in Oklahoma City and think about texting, but then I worry about making her homesick, or interfering with her new job of settling into college life, making friends, and sorting out her own problems. I put away the phone.
Pearl is out of rhythm too. As a kitten, Pearl imprinted on Julia Rose, and now she wanders the house yowling, looking for her human whose lap she nests on, whose knick-knacks she knocks off the dresser at night, precipitating eviction from the bedroom in front of a slamming door at 1 a.m. Right now Pearl is perched on the back of the couch in front of the bay window, watching birds and insects and squirrels and passing cars—and I imagine—waiting for the sound of Julia Rose’s car in the driveway and the slamming car door and the rattle of the breezeway door. The cat senses that it’s time for the girl to come home, and it’s depressing to think that that won’t happen tonight, or tomorrow night, or any night for weeks to come.
August 20, 2019
I take Zoe to the vet with a sense of dread because it’s been ten months since her splenectomy. Last year we didn’t know how extensive the cancer was, and because Zoe was already an old dog, I was hoping for a good year. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, then, and I weighed the surgery against a few more good months, which we received.
Just as Julia Rose is Pearl’s human, I am Zoe’s human, and while she jumps up on the couch and stares out the bay window at the sound of Lisa’s car pulling into the driveway, when I come home she explodes into full-body wiggles, barking and prancing and leaping on furniture and following me around the house until I drop my bookbag and get down on the floor to play with her and tell her about my day. Zoe and I have made the most of the time we bought with last year’s surgery. When I take down her leash she dances, barks, twirls, pounces on my feet, crashes into furniture, and slides into the door, focused on the leash in my hand. Her herd instincts kick in, and she guides me to the car, nipping at my legs like I’m a wayward sheep. In the car we drive with the windows down and Zoe’s head and shoulders outside, ears flying back in the breeze. On the trail she runs ahead of me, sniffing the brush, chasing the occasional rabbit or squirrel, joyous. She runs ahead forty yards, dips off the trail, then comes back to me, seeking reassurance that we’re still moving forward, then she dashes up the trail again.
Zoe’s excitement flags when she recognizes the vet’s office. While we wait she sits, her weight against my leg for protection, watching the staff move behind the desk, ignoring their attempts to make her feel at ease with proffered treats. We go into the examination room and the vet takes her into the back to take a blood and stool sample, but it isn’t long before the tech brings her back and Dr. Nelson comes in, wearing faded jeans and scuffed brown cowboy boots and a polo shirt. She’s a straight shooter, and she tells me what I expected to hear. Zoe’s cancer has gone into the lymph nodes, and in these cases, Dr. Nelson warns, death usually comes between two and six months. A vet in Memphis can do chemotherapy, but it would involve weekly drives to Memphis and cost thousands of dollars, a brutal treatment in exchange for a few extra months of life where the treatment would take away the energy for walks and drives with her head out the window. I decide on steroids and antibiotics, knowing that Zoe isn’t in pain yet, and there will be walks and biscuits and herding of the chickens in the backyard for a time, but also knowing she will inevitably decline, and we will know when she begins to suffer. I thank Doctor Nelson and pick up Zoe’s meds and take her home and pamper her with dog biscuits. I know that I will have to tell Julia Rose and Stella, and I think about how to do that.
September 1, 2019
By the third week of the semester, new rhythms are in place. Stella’s high school routine revolves around classes, theatre technical crew, and choir rehearsal. She is voted French Club sweetheart for Homecoming, where I will escort her onto the football field. My school is in full session, and I’m teaching three classes, directing the Senior Project, chairing the English Department, caring for a dog and three cats and six chickens, plus taking care of the routine maintenance of life and trying to have relationships. The dog is the hard part, right now. Zoe is not responding to treatment, and the vet tells me that she could last a couple of weeks or a couple of months. It’s difficult to know anything other than that we will know when she begins to suffer. So I use the good days, spending my lunch hour with Zoe, taking her for walks in the evening. I try not to think about what’s coming.
But it is hard not to think about how fast life is changing. My mother is eighty-three years old and lives alone and refuses to think about moving closer to my town in Arkansas or my brother’s town in Georgia. She fell a few weeks ago and gashed her scalp and broke three ribs and drove herself to a walk-in clinic. She didn’t bother to call me. A tough little woman, shrinking with age. This summer I hired a financial planner to manage my retirement accounts, and we spent hours discussing my investment attitude, determining how aggressive I want to be with my mutual funds. It’s odd to think that after a lifetime of work, I will retire in nine years, assuming I quit at sixty-seven. The retirement countdown dropping to single digits sobered me, the abstract suddenly feeling much more tangible. Nine years. What will that look like? My daughters should be out of college and working, my house will be paid for, and my retirement income decent though not extravagant. I will have new, arthritis-free knees, and who knows, maybe grandchildren. More time to write. Time to travel. Time to putter. Maybe build that wooden canoe I bought the plans for in 1984. Assuming I’m healthy, maybe walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a spiritual pilgrimage. I think about the years ahead. I think about next year, when Stella leaves the house, and Lisa and I will be alone together for the first time in twenty years. What did we even do with all that time, twenty years ago, before our world was consumed by diapers and sleep deprivation, laundry and school lunches, drop-offs and pickups, parent-teacher meetings and homework, and all that driving to gymnastics and dance lessons?
It’s easy to think too hard, to get caught up in the moment, to worry about the future or try to hold on to the past. Julia Rose calls or texts nearly every day, and often we’ll listen to the latest news from college on speaker phone. She’s making friends, learning a new city. The dance faculty are pushing her harder than she could have imagined, treating her like a professional company dancer, and all of her doubts about whether she chose the best program are erased by the first month of college. Stella is doing the college tours and applying to theatre tech programs, starting to weigh her own collegiate decisions.
On the day we left Julia Rose at Oklahoma City University, Lisa and I went to the convocation and matriculation ceremony for new students and parents. The parents lined the sidewalk outside a one-hundred year old building with massive white columns and a tower, and the freshman class walked through the line of parents and into the auditorium, followed by the faculty in full academic regalia. Parents filled the auditorium and balcony behind the students and faculty. We were welcomed by various administrators, and the choir sang Carole King’s “Beautiful.” There were scripture and prayer and hymns—both Christian and in Sioux, this being Oklahoma—and then the faculty senate leader offered this invitation: “This University is an institution set aside by tradition for the preservation of knowledge, research into the unknown, the full development of human resources, the enjoyment of the life of the mind. It is this special tradition of learning and growth that we seek to extend and celebrate in this academy.” The students responded to the challenge and were accepted into the community of learning.
We went to a brunch provided by the university, and then Julia Rose walked Lisa and me to our car. We said our goodbyes and I gave Julia Rose a final hug and kiss on the forehead. She has never liked shows of affection and rarely endures more than a side hug before quickly breaking it off. Anticipating this, I gave her a brief hug and released, only to have her not let go. So I held her for as long as she would let me, and then we separated, and she did the same with her mother. I gave her my last gift, a journal to keep a record of this new journey, and then we got in the car and I watched her walk back toward her dorm and freshman orientation, clutching her Moleskine. She didn’t turn and look back.