But, Dad, I want to come home: A son's response

Author: Chris Chiappinelli

I know that Notre Dame is supposed to turn your soul blue and gold forever, but I left before the paint could dry. Now, looking back eight years through a foggy rearview mirror, I can almost make myself believe that what happened was simple.

Without a good reason to stay, I left Notre Dame. I turned my back on my dorm room and the freshman year stretching ahead of me. With everyone reciting a litany of reasons for staying, I returned home. I told them I felt nothing that said, “Stay.” It was more than that, though, and not nearly as pat and emotionless. Not once in these past eight years have I regretted the decision, but I have questioned what made me withdraw.

In fall 1993 I spent my abbreviated freshman days at Notre Dame exploring the freedoms of college life, and, when I drove away less than a month after orientation, my mind was full of good memories. I had joined a rowdy crew of dormmates in the Stanford Hall basement and watched the Irish beat Michigan in the season’s first away game. I had met a nice girl from Saint Mary’s — another good way to start a semester.

But there were drawbacks. On the August day when I moved into Stanford Hall, I looked at the bulletin board covered with pictures of my 300 hallmates and saw only a handful of black faces in a sea of white. I had left a crew of diverse friends in Rhode Island for this? At that time in my life I didn’t crave the company of more people who looked like me. I pointed out the welcome board to my parents, but whatever platitudes they offered couldn’t alter the reality.

Then there was Ryan, floormate and fast friend who distracted me from my growing rebellion. We played basketball at the Rock and ate together in the surprisingly appetizing dining hall. We went to a bar early on, stayed out late, basked in the darkness and the pounding beat, then later walked across a quiet campus back to Stanford Hall.

Another comrade through it all was Richard, the innocent, considerate roommate. We went together to the Graffiti Dance, mingled with hundreds of other freshmen and covered each other’s clothes with greetings and phone numbers. Richard wrote, “Nice to be your roommate,” with a permanent black marker.

Some nights there were parties on our floor — painful affairs during which 30 kids would fill a room built for two and drink beer down to the suds and shout banalities at each other, feeling mighty grown up all the while.

A bunch of my floormates and I stayed up late another night, talking of home and telling ghost stories — perishable elements of our pasts that we missed. Jack told us about a high school girlfriend he had left behind; I shared memories of Rhode Island summers and favorite friends. Together we were keeping our respective histories alive and close — a buffer against the uncertainty of the future.

We did many of the same things, my freshman friends and I. We sat in DeBartolo for classes, spent money at the Hammes Bookstore, crossed the same paths on the same storybook campus and probably fought similar apprehensions. They stayed. I did not.

I could have lived with the lack of diversity. I could have weathered the sardine parties and the desolation of the Indiana wilderness. But I could not withstand the advance of the days. What I mean is, I needed to step away from college and this life in order to buy more time. Eight years of contemplation has brought me to this simple understanding: I got scared. I knew that Notre Dame would be the last stop on the path out of childhood and that too soon I would be delivered to the real world. So I decided not to take the ride. I chose to linger where it would be safe for a little while longer. Sometimes fear is our preservation, and obeying it keeps us afloat.

Through middle school and high school, my destiny remained stubbornly unforeseeable. Then Notre Dame came, and I stood on the cusp of the big world without a plan. No epiphany had struck, classes began and the choice of a major loomed. I was still acting like a kid — quick to party and talk a good game while adulthood bore down on me. Only Notre Dame stood between me and the inevitable void I didn’t know how to fill, so I balked. Here was the slippery slope toward a future I could not abide. Leaving South Bend meant stopping the slide — like skiing sideways on a hill to keep from falling.

The few faults I had found with Notre Dame constituted a better excuse than the truth — that I wasn’t ready for college to envelop me. When I left, that explanation had not occurred to me. But after those first few days my trepidation grew. There were missed classes, pensive strolls around Saint Joseph’s Lake, suitcases once again filled, and my father — right back after a long trip home to Rhode Island — sadly present to help me abandon my young college career.

While my aversion ran strong, my desertion of Notre Dame was not as easy as packing the car and turning in my keys. Throughout childhood I had embraced the Notre Dame tradition and loved its colors. In many respects I was the typical son of an alumnus — leprechaun T-shirts, Paul Hornung posters, fall Saturdays spent in front of the TV.

Three months out of high school, I was eager to join the Notre Dame story. So my father and I headed west across Pennsylvania to South Bend. Once there I found friends and freedom and the fear I thought I had left behind.

Now, more than I want to admit and more than I could understand back then, mine is most simply a story about a father and a son, and this son’s battle between listening to himself and risking his father’s admiration. More than 40 years ago young Bob Chiappinelli headed west from Rhode Island to join the Irish. My father saw it through. He loved his days there, and from the moment I told him I was going to Notre Dame, he had hoped the same for me. Instead, he helped me repack my clothes into his battered black trunk — the one he had used as a freshman all those years ago — and then my father helped me run away. I don’t know what that did to him.

Back home I could have sounded the age-old refrain of a son pushed into a father’s footsteps, but that would not have been true and I never resorted to that when I searched for answers. This is not a tale of mismatched footsteps, of a strong-willed father and rebellious son.

But I do sometimes wonder if I have fallen in his eyes. I want to tell him that it was the right thing for me to do, but my only evidence is that I am happy now — and he probably thinks I could have been happy there.

We packed in silence that early September day in 1993. I looked forward to the journey home. I was tired from staying up late the night before, talking to Ryan and the others. Then, heading east on the toll road with Dad at the wheel, I turned and stared at the dome until I could see it no longer.

I sang the fight song a few days later. It was football season and apparently the campus had carried on without me. I watched excitedly as the gold helmets covered the screen. I missed the sight of the Main Building from my dorm window, but the dome couldn’t hold me. So I’m a sideline fan in the Notre Dame story. That’s the only way I fit in now. Most kids would be thrilled to be walk-ons. I walked off . . . and survived.

But surviving didn’t come easily. The early weeks at home were trying. My parents expected me to do something with my days that would belie my drop-out status. With plenty of guilt to goad me, I set about proving that my life could continue. I found a job canvassing for environmental causes, a natural match for me. But only in ideology was the fit so snug. The physical realities of the job — five hours a night beating the pavement, slogging through rain, snow and darkness, fending off the rejection of doors slammed in my face — meant more sweat and travail than I probably would have endured at Notre Dame.

One night during my first week on the job, as the rain fell against my overturned clipboard and the misty light from the street lamp flooded down on me, I stood still against the deluge, embittered and crestfallen, wanting to be delivered from the nightmare I had created. A few days later I got a call about another job I had applied for. I told them thanks but I had already found something. Then I put on my jacket and headed to work, not wanting to give my parents another reason to be disappointed in me. They had to know that I remained capable of following through. So did I.

One snowy night during that winter I stared out my bedroom window at the snow-covered driveway, reminded of childhood and the comfort of my room. I thought back to 1978 when a blizzard hit Providence. I was 2, but sometimes I make myself believe I remember it all — the snow drifts that touched the top of the garage, the walls of ivory flanking my small body as I walked down the snow-shoveled path. But I think it’s mostly pictures I’ve seen; I can’t parse what is history and what is mental revision.

What I do know is that the morning after the storm began — while the wind was still blowing, with the snow already three feet high and the city shut down in defeat — my father put on his boots (with plastic bags around his socks to keep them dry) and walked through the desolate streets, up the slippery hills, all the way to work.

My father always took hardship head on; I never saw him flinch. But that morning in 1978, his only son lay snuggled in bed, cozy and oblivious. And now, 15 years later, having fled the school he had embraced, I wondered if he still thought of me as that little boy snuggled beneath the covers of childhood.

Having passed the test of a year’s canvassing, I headed to Syracuse in fall 1994. My first few days there brought wisps of familiar worry but no chance of withdrawal. I had promised myself I would not bow out again — not at work, not at school and not in life.

At Syracuse I learned not to worry about the days to come; when I got apprehensive about what I wanted to do with my life, I decided it didn’t matter. I figured out that I would be defined by who I was instead of what I did. From that realization I stepped resolutely into the big bad future I had always feared and found my future demons silenced.

At my graduation ceremony, after my name had boomed through the P.A. system and the cheers had faded, my father and I hugged. As I looked at him that day, I remembered the blizzard of ‘78, and I pictured him walking resolutely through the snow to the place he was supposed to be. I don’t know where that is for me, but I know, if I walk with some fraction of his strength, that I will be okay.

During those deliberations eight years ago, my dad and I drove into Chicago from South Bend for a White Sox game. He had come back to Notre Dame hoping I would change my mind and continue freshman year. He treated me like a son who wasn’t about to disappoint him. We watched from the left field bleachers, and then, not long after we’d returned to South Bend, I told him I wasn’t going to stay. And that is all I told him — because I couldn’t give him the “why” behind it. I haven’t really known that until now. In some way, this is for him as much as it is for me — the explanation I never offered.

These days I’m as big a Notre Dame fan as ever. The football schedule sits on my shelf, and I wince whenever the Irish and Syracuse meet in basketball. But I tell everyone who asks that I am glad I left South Bend, and I tell them I believe more kids should take a year off to collect their thoughts and learn about themselves before stepping onto the thruway into adulthood.

My dad and I talk often. I walked a wayward path to follow his lead. I went left where he went straight. And, although I didn’t follow certain footsteps, I did grow toward the things I most admire in him. I aspire to his constancy, believe in his compassion, hope for his grace. I did run away from Notre Dame, but every day since then I’ve been running toward him.

Chris Chiappinelli is an associate editor of Area Development magazine and a freelance writer living in New York.