The small Connecticut garage where we stopped for gas on our first family pilgrimage to Notre Dame a dozen years ago slips by on my left. Its gingerbread appearance tickled me back then, now it triggers a wave of shuddering sadness.
On this pleasant September weekend in 1993 I am a few hours into my trek from Rhode Island to Notre Dame. It is a repeat of a journey that my wife, Margo, son, Chris, and I had made just a week ago.
But the tenuous hope of that previous trip has fled. Chris, only a few deep breaths into his freshman year at Notre Dame, has told us he wants to come home. I am on my way to perform that dread task. The dream of seeing him experience the gentle blending of body, mind and spirit that Notre Dame afforded me has expired in seven dismal days.
For weeks Chris had seemed tense and vulnerable about going away to college. He doted on favorite items at home. After merely reading the name of his prospective roommate, he decided they would be incompatible. He clung to old friends and familiar music and said long goodbyes to the dog. We had to peel him away from his closest friends the morning we set out.
Freshman jitters, we hoped. Once he conquered them he would come to love Notre Dame.
But no spark kindled in those opening days. Even though he and his roommate got along fine, Chris kept saying that the school was not for him. It lacked the diversity of his high school.
At parent orientation, Margo and I heard a speaker caution that a handful of the freshman class would not stay, that ND is not for everybody. Usually I let others worry about those rare cases. But those words plunged like an anvil onto my heart, for now we were the rare, unhappy fringe.
Lou Holtz rallied us for a time. The coach told the freshmen that it’s understandable to be nervous and perhaps sad, because they are leaving things of value — friends and families and routines that have comforted them through the years. Those words buoyed Chris, but only for a time.
Margo and I talked to Father Tom Gaughan, the enthusiastic Stanford Hall rector who was so available to the freshmen. Perhaps he could shepherd Chris through this rocky start.
Then the moment came when University officials urged parents to depart, no matter what freshman butterflies remained. We left feeling that we had sentenced our son to prison.
All around him people extended hands of friendship. But his hand remained balled into a tight defensive fist, brooking no favors, recognizing no fellowship.
Back home I talked to my classmate Peter Connolly ‘62. He and his wife, Judy, would be visiting ND from Chicago for a football weekend and were wondering how Chris was doing. Terrible, I said. Judy mentioned that her niece, a high school senior interested in Notre Dame, was accompanying them and they’d contact Chris and hope her effervescent relative would cheer him up.
But Chris turned his ankle on that day and never made the meeting.
His calls home were increasingly morose. He just wanted to leave.
Could we grit it out? We had heard numerous tales of young people loathing their initial weeks at college. Chris’s sister, Danielle, had seemed bewildered and alone two years before when we left her at Syracuse University. But by the first weekend, she was already delighted with the college scene.
Perhaps Chris could ride out the doldrums. I wanted to stall for time, but when we called Father Tom one night, he said he had never seen a student as sad as Chris.
So here I am, back on the road, clinging to a last feeble plan.
A friend at work mentioned that a family she knew faced the same situation. One parent returned to campus and gave the student a week to decide. The steadying presence did the trick.
Now I’m sowing some remaining vacation in hopes of one day reaping a Notre Dame alumnus. I’ve told Chris that I’ll hang around South Bend for the week, then he can make his decision.
As my Eagle Premier rolls down Exit 77, I spy the Golden Dome. For the first time in my life, the sight of it fails to steal my breath.
Much of what I value took shape under that towering presence. I broke the apron strings here. The ND years shaped and formed and steeled me. I want so much for Chris to undergo a similar joyful formation.
How could it have come to this?
In retrospect, perhaps I should have understood his dilemma better. Decades before, I had bowed to fear of the unfamiliar and the faraway and enrolled at nearby Providence College, even though Notre Dame had long been my dream.
Providence College was fun. Familiar faces. Ping-Pong between classes. Home every afternoon to my childhood lair in Cranston, Rhode Island. But it was not what I had dreamed of as a kid when I hurled myself at my bed and scored imaginary touchdowns for the Irish. So I mustered the gumption to transfer after freshman year and ended up at the old Fieldhouse, overwhelmed at the lines and shut out of one class after another.
Unlike Chris, my sense of dread involved being expelled. A crescendo of reading overwhelmed me. I studied while walking to dinner, waiting in line for it and on my way back. Smell the roses? I didn’t even have time for a whiff of the ubiquitous cherry pie dessert.
Eventually, though, a balance emerged and the northern Indiana campus worked its magic. By my final year I had decided I wanted to be a Notre Dame senior till the day I died.
Barring that, maybe someday I’d be lucky enough to have children relish the same nectar. My wife came to share my love for the campus.
We introduced our children to Alumni Family Hall when they were 5 and 7. It was their first long drive, and it became a three-day safari. Some back home branded the vacation folly — forsaking the ocean to swelter in the Midwest. But the kids relished the freedom of the virtually auto-free environs. They tottered around on tandem bikes, watched endless Rocky reruns, swam in the lake and made friends with children of other alumni.
They yearned to return.
We did, again and again and again.
Later we took them to a football game. Danielle was in high school by then, and Notre Dame became her top choice for college. But she lacked the grades to muscle into the class of 1995. So the flickering torch passed to Chris.
His sister, meanwhile, chose Syracuse. She had always blazed trails for Chris, and when he visited her in upstate New York he loved the school.
When his decision time came, he narrowed his choices to Orange or Blue and Gold. Syracuse offered him a $5,000 annual scholarship. Notre Dame accepted him. My heart, if not my wallet, rejoiced when he turned down the money and chose ND.
Now he’s rejecting it, seemingly without a chance, his mind locked around the amorphous idea that it’s not right. The previous spring, without Margo or me knowing it, he had taped his torn ankle ligaments, limped on court with his partner and won a playoff tennis match. And then another. Now he seems to be quitting without a fight. How sad. How painful. Poor Chris. God help us both.
I begin making the rounds of University officials, meeting first with Eileen Kolman, dean of First Year of Studies. With everything that’s going on in the new academic year she has the time for a long, soothing discussion with the father of a potentially lost sheep. She promises to talk to Chris and to avoid “Notre Dame is not for everybody,” the phrase that he has seized upon as a justification for his departure.
She also has me speak to Dr. Raymond G. Sepeta, Chris’ adviser and another settling influence. We discuss the futility of trying to dictate something to a young person. Notre Dame would still be there for Chris if he changed his mind next year, Sepeta says. Meanwhile Chris, who is halfhearted at best about classes that he thinks will soon end, has not yet fallen irretrievably behind: If he did stay he could meet regularly with Dr. Sepeta for reassurance. Tutoring is also available.
I catch up with Chris about 1:15 that afternoon. His morning hasn’t gone well.
He was supposed to arrange an appointment at the counseling center but has forgotten the name of the woman with whom he spoke. We have to meet her at 9 the next morning. He also lost his schedule and doesn’t know what class is on this afternoon. He’s not making this easy.
I urge him to enjoy the beautiful weather, but he says that he can’t do anything with his bum ankle.
On this gorgeous day I walk the lakes, visit Holy Cross cemetery and find the graves of some priests I had known, like Father Charles Sheedy, dean of Arts and Letters and my senior hall prefect. Many of them had helped shape my life, and I had never really thought to thank them. Now, too late, I do.
The next morning we visit the counseling center and are linked with a man who frames the conflict well: I want Chris to experience the joy and lifetime love that came with this campus; he wants to rid himself of whatever demons are telling him this is wrong for him.
My plan crumbles beneath the counselor’s logic. The deadline is no good. It’s Chris’s choice, he has to make it and in his own time. I surrender — we will leave whenever Chris wants, with the only caveat being that we allow time to complete the withdrawal process.
With no deadline hovering, Chris seems to relax. I propose a trip to Chicago to see our Boston Red Sox play the White Sox. We like the newness of Comiskey Park. Jason Bere throttles the Red Sox, striking out 13, but we have fun with the White Sox fans. Chris seems more at ease that he has been in a month.
Maybe, I dream, there’s a chance.
But a few days later, on a rainy Saturday night, I am loading the car behind Stanford Hall. The steamer trunk that I took to Notre Dame and that Chris chose to pack in a symbolic extension of the tradition, is shouldered back into the Eagle. Withdrawal process complete, we head home tomorrow.
Once there I spend many a night walking down to a nearby river, pacing the shoreline, hoping that the soothing water will clear my head and bury the hurt and feeling of failure.
Margo, Chris and I visit a psychologist, who tells us this happens to many kids.
Chris gets a job canvassing for the Sierra Club and clean water. The winter develops into the coldest in memory. He strides off into it every night. He takes a few courses, resubmits his application to Syracuse. The university accepts him again, but, once spurned, extends no scholarship offer.
Chris likes his second choice and second chance.
He becomes friendly with a philosophy professor, hangs out at a coffee house with him and discusses life’s great issues. He excels in freshman biology and is invited to think about majoring in that. He watches the television show The Operation avidly and aces an anatomy course. Perhaps we have a budding doctor. But having fallen from my oak tree, he gravitates to the Newhouse School of Journalism and graduates with a concentration in magazine writing.
These days, he’s still a fan of Notre Dame football as well as Syracuse. He lives and works in Queens, New York, but relishes Rhode Island’s shore and returns when he can. We get together every year for a special whale watch.
He recently began work at a small development magazine and does freelance writing at a pace I never dreamed of. He loves the craft, revels in its nuances and blaring trumpets.
He’s turned out fine, far better than I could have hoped.
The once towheaded boy who always sat behind me in our family car alignment now usually chauffeurs me. We exchange bear hugs when we see each other.
Now that age 60 has stared me down, life is good, and Notre Dame is dearer to me than ever.
I still can’t figure out where the ND journey went astray for Chris.
About the only thing that’s sure for me is that gingerbread no longer symbolizes a fairy tale.
S. Robert Chiappinelli is a reporter at the Providence Journal. He is a Big Brother, a youth basketball coach and a Hospice volunteer.