By Catherine DiMercurio
Walking down South University in Ann Arbor with the U of M tour guide, our group of admitted students and their parents files past a row of children, who have descended from their yellow school bus to the sidewalk. Parent volunteers and a teacher herd the youngsters into a straight line. They are perhaps second or third graders—small, wide-eyed, wearing brightly colored jackets, the reds and yellows bursts of color like poppies against the grey streetscape. And here we are, another group of parents shepherding our children, trying to keep being what we are—a presence that can still shape and guide and protect them—though within a few short months they won’t even live with us anymore. It’s easy to see how fast it goes.
We all knew it, how quickly it was happening. We did what we were supposed to do, and didn’t take anything for granted, and cherished every moment, good and bad, every first and every fever, every struggle, every tear, every belly laugh and broken heart and broken bone. We still couldn’t will time to go any slower.
I’m here with my daughter, the focus of our attention all day—how are you doing? are you excited? maybe this is where you’ll live—and my son, and their father. It’s been a long while, since the four of us have spent any amount of time together, and that isn’t lost on any of us. But the day unfolds pleasantly despite its potential for awkwardness, and more than once I think, look how far we’ve come. I wonder if the children think about that, or if they relax and accept this as a new normal. Before the divorce, the four of us visited Ann Arbor on many occasions. It is where our story began, where my ex-husband and I met. Now, what is equally prominent in my mind is how many other stories began when I attended U of M as well—friendships that remain an important part of my life, that buoyed me through dark times, and quite simply, my own story. When I started at U of M, it was the first time in my life I’d truly been away from my parents and siblings, the first time I began to see myself as more than a part of that family unit, as someone whole and separate.
After we pass that row of children, part of my mind remains fixed in two pasts. It is as if being here has unwound several threads in my brain. I follow myself down one path, remembering myself as a freshman. And I also recall parenting my daughter when she was a second grader, spirited and smart and seemingly always eager for whatever was next. I look up and see she’s gotten ahead of me. Glancing past the little ones, I spot her French braids and her black windbreaker and I manage to move myself forward into now once again. But the day’s journey into the past isn’t over. Before long I find myself in my old dorm, Mosher-Jordan. It’s been renovated, but much of it still looks like it did in 1988 when I first moved in. The building is an old brick one, warm and inviting. Oddly, it is when I see the staircase that a flood of memories come back to me—specifically, traipsing up and down the tiled steps to the cafeteria where I worked. I know that living in this dorm was transformative for my ex-husband as well. Though we knew each other when we lived here, we didn’t date until long after we had both moved out of the dorm. I suspect that he is coping with a flood of memory as well. He, too, made life-long friendships here, and I can appreciate that like me, he’s probably recalling what it was like to be eighteen and at the beginning of it all.
For me, being at the beginning of it all meant discovering what it meant to be me without all the qualifiers—sister of, daughter of. It was incredibly difficult to leave my parents, my sisters, and my brother. I honestly did not know how I was supposed to do it. Though I remember feeling exhilarated, I was also so incredibly sad and terrified. And now, my daughter is preparing to make that same transition, and I’ll experience it from this side of the mother-daughter relationship. I’m sure I’ll probably call my mom and sob and ask her how she did it. How do you leave that dorm room? I console myself with the fact that I have a few months to get ready.
For a long while, the question that percolated through much of my writing centered on the question of whether we become more or less who we truly are as we accumulate experience. Do we start out as our “true” selves and lose that identity along the way, or does what happens to us in life continue to add on to who we are. For some time, I’ve been trying to figure out what felt wrong about that way of looking at things. Something occurred to me though during this last trip to Ann Arbor. I realized: I’m not the sum of all the emotions and experiences that have brought me here. It isn’t about addition or subtraction—I didn’t become more me or less me because of things that have happened to me, or how I responded to them. I have become, and continue to become, who I am in each moment. It’s not math. It’s more like chemistry. Life is transformative and in many ways nonlinear, and there is mystery and magic to it, so maybe it’s more accurate to say that the process of identity-shaping is more like alchemy than anything else.
Love breaks your heart and mends it and breaks it again in a different place. Sometimes in the same place. Parenting makes it feel as though this process is happening with each heartbeat. By some alchemy our hearts remain completely whole and completely broken at the same time and we continue to love and grow, though each breath is another goodbye. But I wouldn’t change a thing.
Enjoy the road. Love, Cath
One thought on “The Alchemy of Experience”
I know how you feel. When they go to college, you realize that you are letting go of your child. But yet you feel excited for them because of your guidance they are now starting a new journey. This is something that you were preparing for when they were just a baby. Time flies. Be thankful that you raised a beautiful and confident woman.