So there I was, sitting at a table outside the coffee shop in O’Shaughnessy Hall, writing in my little notebook and dreaming of literary fame, as I am wont to do during my idle hours. I scribbled a few sentences of timeless prose, paused for a sip of my coffee, and then stared out into space, savoring the familiar sights and sounds of college students bustling back and forth to their classes.
After an hour or two of this leisurely composing, I peered down the hallway to see a vaguely familiar face, framed by long brown hair, headed in my direction. This was probably someone I was going to have to chat with—maybe someone I had met at an off-campus party? Normally I welcomed the opportunity to speak to pretty girls, but I found the prospect of being interrupted at that moment vaguely irritating. I was working on something really good this time. The Juggler would kill for prose like this. I buried my head into my notebook and began writing feverishly. It didn’t help. In a moment she stood before me, hovering directly over my table.
“Tour’s over, Dad,” she said. “I’m starving. Can we get lunch?”
This was April of 2013, my first trip back to the Notre Dame campus in a dozen years. After my wife and I moved our small family to Massachusetts, and then had a bunch more kids, we could never seem to find the time or money to justify a trip to South Bend every fall, as we had been accustomed to doing when we lived in Chicago. So I maintained a long-distance relationship, hunkering down on the couch on fall Saturdays like the rest of you, keeping up with my classmates on Facebook, flipping through the pages of Notre Dame Magazine four times a year for the latest campus news and perspectives.
My oldest daughter only applied to Notre Dame because I encouraged her to. Some people would say I browbeat her to. Some of those people are married to me. Nevertheless, I knew the university would be a great fit for her, and I had no plans on persuading her to actually attend. I just wanted to ensure that she had at least one outstanding Midwestern Catholic university on her list of prospects.
After April 1st, when all of the dust had settled, and we had eliminated the safety schools from her mix, she had two choices remaining: Notre Dame and some other school, both a plane ride away. She had a month to decide.
“I’ll fly you to one of the schools,” I said, my 1989 national championship hat tilted jauntily on my balding head. “Your choice.”
She chose wisely.
We flew to Chicago and drove down to campus for an accepted students day and overnight visit. After her student host picked her up for her visit, I wandered around campus in a happy reverie. I paged through an Observer at LaFortune, lit a candle at the Grotto, and had a chicken patty at North Dining Hall.
In the evening I explored some of the newer features of campus and off-campus life. I attended the screening of a documentary on the Irish writer Liam O’Flaherty at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, and then hosted a pint or two in his honor at O’Rourke’s at the new Eddy Street Commons. I fell asleep in my hotel room that night dreaming of Bookstore Basketball, the Sophomore Literary Festival, SYRs, and nights at Senior Bar. In the morning I wandered through the library and stood outside a few classrooms, drawing up nearly forgotten memories of classes in Latin, Greek and ancient history.
At some point in the morning I received a text from my daughter.
“I’m coming here,” she announced, in that laconic phrasing so characteristic of the American late teen these days. Oh right, I thought to myself. I knew we were here for a reason.
On the car ride back to Chicago she told me all about her overnight visit. She stayed with some girls in Breen-Phillips. Sure, I thought to myself. Breen-Phillips. I hankered after a girl that lived in that dorm for a while. Her overnight host had taken her to dinner in South Dining Hall. South Dining Hall? I thought. You only go there if you’re meeting for lunch with your brother who lives in Morrissey. Otherwise Grace guys eat at North Dining Hall. We don’t need all that fancy wood and wide open space.
And so it went—and has continued to go for the past year, as my daughter has finished her first two semesters at the University that I called my home, and that remains a source of many happy memories for me. Those happy memories turn out to be a problem when you are trying to embrace the experience of being a Notre Dame parent and you still feel like more of a Notre Dame student.
I get two lottery applications these days: the one for alumni, and the one for parents. I pitch the one for parents; I’m not having my cherished relationship with the university defined by my daughter. I get two sets of e-mails about university news: one for alumni, and one for parents. I read the ones for parents grudgingly, just to make sure they are not trying to sneak anything by the alumni. I also get two solicitations for money nowadays, one of them substantially larger than the other. I write the tuition checks and wish that they were paying for another four years for myself.
When we returned for a football game this fall we tailgated with my daughter, and then headed our separate ways for the game itself: my wife and I into the regular seating, and she into the student section. I gazed longingly at the sea of green-shirted students making their hand signals during kickoffs, doing pushups after every score, and rattling their keys on third-down plays. That used to be me, I thought. I miss that guy.
But of course these emotions tell only half the story. I’m thrilled that my daughter has found her home beneath the dome. I love her like crazy, I want the best for her, and I know that the university will give it to her.
When we were dropping her off for the first time in August, I had the warnings from all of our friends with college-aged children ringing in my ears: You’re all going to cry. They were two-thirds right. My daughter, who normally doesn’t show much emotion, was sobbing as she gripped us both tightly, stalling the inevitable moment of our departure. My wife was leaking like a sieve.
I was grinning like a maniac.
“I know I’m going to feel sad in a few days,” I said to her, vaguely guilty about my dry eyes. “But right now I feel like I’m dropping you off at the house of my best friend. I know he’s going to take care of you, and you’re going to be so happy. I can’t feel anything but excited for you right now. You’ve made the best decision of your life.”
And so it seems to have been. She’s had a terrific year, she’s making her own memories, and I will come to terms eventually with my dual relationship with Notre Dame. Sometimes, as I am lying in bed at night, I think about my daughter lying in her dorm room in Lewis Hall, just beneath the Dome, and I fall asleep happy.
But just because she happens to live on campus now doesn’t mean I’m trading in my Notre Dame memories for her stories. And if that kid even so much as thinks about giving me a “Notre Dame Dad” sweatshirt for Christmas, she’s paying for her own tuition.
James M. Lang is a professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and author of Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. He is working on a book about the nonfiction writing of George Orwell.