The Last Time We Were All Together

We left home around 5:30 a.m., a year ago today. Our campus tour was scheduled for late morning, and it would take a little over four hours to get there. 

J and T were here at home in Franklin, VT. T was spending his high school winter break with me, my wife, and J, as he did each year. M was living in Burlington then with his stepsister, and we needed to pick him up before heading to Maine.

We were all tired. None of us had slept great the night before. 

It’d been a while since we’d done any sort of road trip together, just the four of us. That, combined with a weather forecast calling for flooding near St. Joseph’s College, kept me from sleeping soundly. J was understandably excited to check out one of her options for higher education after graduating from high school in a few months. T and M were mostly tired, I think, just from staying up late despite knowing we had an early start time. 

We’d been in Burlington a couple days earlier, just hanging out and goofing off. We went to The Roxy and watched Knives Out. Such a great movie, we agreed after, standing around a table at Ali Baba’s, eating inexpensive, tasty food. 

The city was quieter now, though, the roads half-full of early-morning commuters heading to work. A few flurries drifted through the air as M got into my Subaru Outback and we headed east toward Montpelier. 

Showing signs of how old they were getting, M and J – then 21 and 18, respectively – quickly reached a detente, agreeing to a verbal Treaty of the Auxiliary Cord. They spent the trip to Maine peacefully alternating iPhones and songs. T, then 15, went along with whatever. He’s never been particular about music.

We made our first stop in Marshfield at the Marshfield Village Store on Route 2. Half our group needed a bathroom break, and we all needed coffee, water, or a snack. Someone was taking their sweet time on the store’s only bathroom, and we wandered the aisles of this independently owned landmark, pretending to have a purpose beyond our quick needs. 

Together so rarely, this mundane pit stop was a sublime delight. I stood at the coffee pumps and listened to M, J, and T chatter away as I filled my trusty Contigo. T would head back to his mom’s in a couple days, and we’d go back to his every-other-weekend visits until summer. Hearing his interactions with M and J, it was clear that in their eyes, he was no longer just the “little brother.” They considered him a peer.

My heart sang quietly for all three of them.

Back on Route 2, we drove toward the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Crossing the border on the interstate and exiting onto Route 302 in Bethlehem marked roughly the halfway mark to St. Joseph’s. It was also the gateway to one of my favorites places. 

Since I was a kid, the Mount Washington Valley has captured my imagination and taken my breath away. The three kids patiently endured my repetition of stories about the Willey House landslide in Crawford Notch, the Old Man of the Mountain, the legendary UFO abduction of Betty and Barney Hill, and on and on.

Just before the entrance to the Cog Railway, we stopped at an Irving gas station, one of the sort that looks like every other gas station. Devoid of the charm we were surrounded by back in Marshfield. This time the other half of our group needed the bathroom, and having emptied my bladder, I filled up the Contigo with yet another cup of coffee.

About 45 minutes later, we stopped to eat at Peaches, one of the best breakfast places in the Conway, NH, region. Somehow we didn’t have to wait half an hour for a table (I waited 75 minutes for one once; it’s that good), and we marveled at the menu. 

I don’t recall what it was, but by the time the food arrived, that was a bit of sibling tension in the air. I worried that it would mar the trip. The meal cured it, though, and we got back on the road in good spirits.

We crossed into Maine, and the scope of the college visit hit me. Whether St. Joseph’s or somewhere else, J would be going to college in the fall. I felt a lump in my throat, and I swallowed back tears as the miles went by.

M is older than J, but he opted not to go to college right after high school. He decided to work and spend time in AmeriCorps. This brought its own throaty lumps and tears. 

Whatever choices my kids make, if they manage to make them more maturely and thoughtfully than I would have at at their age, my heart fills with pride, and I honor their decisions. So far they’re batting a hundred.

Maine was warmer than Vermont, and as we approached the town of Standish, where St. Joseph’s was based, we saw bright orange, diamond-shaped signs warning of flooding. Fortunately, we passed through late enough in the morning that making it through wasn’t an issue. Fields were under water, though, a clear sign that spring was on the way.

The St. Joseph’s campus is situated on Sebago Lake, and it’s a beautiful setting. I instantly wanted J to go to college here, not just because it’s a good school and it was the option closest to us, but because it was a place I’d actually want to visit. I kept my thoughts to myself, though, not wanting to bias J’s visit.

When the tour was over, we didn’t want the day to turn back toward home yet. So we took a 40-ish-minute drive into Portland. It wouldn’t be a day-long visit like T and I had their the summer before, but it was still something different in the final weeks of winter.

We wandered the streets, walking down to the harbor and visiting shops like Bull Moose Music and Casablanca Comics. There was, of course, a stop for more coffee. But we didn’t stay long. Both M and J had to work the next day, and I didn’t want to get them home too late.

Tired and a bit moody, we had a hard time settling on where to eat on the way back. We ended up stopping at Fryeburg House of Pizza. A local band toiled away at setting up in one corner while we ordered. I was so hungry I was kind of wobbly. 

One of the kids mentioned a pie-in-the-sky teenager idea that had no basis in reality. Being hangry and fragile from thinking about college, I took it way too seriously, switched over to stern-know-it-all-dad mode and gave a lecture about responsible decision making. 

I can be a real idiot sometimes.

This soured the mood big-time. We ate mostly in silence and headed out just ahead of the band starting its set. The car was quiet as we crossed into New Hampshire, but the tension broke after just the right song reconnected us.

Garbage Truck by Sex Bob-Omb from the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World soundtrack, in case you’re interested.

As we drove west into storied Crawford Notch, shrouded in darkness and surrounded by mountains that have played host to so much history and high strangeness, we listened to a podcast about COVID-19. As the hosts and guests debated the seriousness of the situation, we talked through our thoughts.

Uncertain. Nervous. A bit scared. 

At least we were together.

All I remember after that is dropping M off at his place and driving back home with J and T. We were tired and happy to be home.

When we said goodbye to M, we couldn’t know that while we would see each other again over the next few months, it wouldn’t be in our familial quartet. M, J, and me. M, T, and me. J, T, and me. But not M, J, T, and me. 

Not for a year. And not for who knows how long.

T went back to his mom’s two day’s later. He’d be back in the middle of March for a weekend visit, but he wouldn’t be here again until early July. Here for a few weeks before school started up, then a couple of short visits to see him outside at his mom’s house. Then no more visits until … well, hopefully soon. 

I’ve had both my shots. With warm weather coming, I’ve got my fingers crossed for some outside visits with him.

J finished her senior year of high school, going remote shortly after our trip to Maine. She didn’t choose St. Joseph’s. But she also didn’t go to the college she picked. Not with the way things were and are. She’s making the best of the situation and working hard. Hopefully this fall …

M is out west now. He’s doing ok, but seeing him next … No idea.

Going to bed one year ago tonight, there was so much we didn’t know. That the next day the first reported U.S. coronavirus death would be announced. That I’d be laid off and out of work for months. That we’d spend Christmas “together” on something called Zoom. And on and on.

All we knew for sure – all we know for sure – it’s what’s already happened. 

And I think about it every day.

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