The life of every parent is shot through with an awareness that the kids will one day fly the coop. And you’ll be left rattling around in an empty nest held together with pride, melancholy and regret about how you bungled the little stuff. (All those “petty treasons we commit against the ones we love,” as the poet Alden Nowlan put it.)
These are strong feelings, but you can mostly hold them off until grade 12 year.
It’s grade 12 year.
Since Christmas, Mad and her classmates have been facing the question of how life beyond high school is going to play out. (Or at least, how it’s going to start.) She’d narrowed her list of candidate universities to three. Two she’d already visited. It was time for the third and final reconnaissance trip. Since she was insanely busy with actual schoolwork, we decided to make a Big Day out of it. Drive to UBCO—the Okanagan satellite of the University of British Columbia. Then find the campus, take the tour, gather intel, have a meal, bivvy overnight and try to beat the sunrise home.
“How would you feel if your sister joined us?” I asked night before departure. Silence. Mad is big on making a plan and sticking to it, so this pivot was going to take time to process. Was this trip a parent/child thing or a family thing? It could only be a semifamily thing at best: Jen would have given a nonvital organ to come, but work obligations prevented it. I could see in Mad’s expression the accommodations already happening as she let her sister into the mix. People grow up the way the tectonic plates move, or ketchup comes: nothing obvious happens, and then a lot does at once.
And so it was settled, and soon the three of us were blasting east down Highway One, in a driving rainstorm, past a kilometres-long convoy heading the other way—hundreds of truckers protesting the price of gas by driving to nowhere in particular and then heading back.
Campus tours are mostly led by students themselves, to give would-be recruits the sense they’re getting the real inside goods and not boilerplate. Our guide is a handsome young molecular biology student named Dylan who has never tasted meat and manages his mood by ultradistance running in the surrounding mountains. He begins a lot of sentences with, “My friends…” I imagine the strength of will it’s gonna take for Mad to resist the charms of guys like this. (Then wonder why I think she has to.) Dylan tells us he’s from Seattle. He came to UBCO intending to do a year and then transfer to Vancouver, but found he liked it so much here that he never left. That big-fish-in-a-small-pond feeling is not to be underestimated. At this point Mad is just being sprung from the hatchery into the wild: it’s all big pond. But he’s right that, relatively speaking, this place is less intimidating than the mothership in Vancouver. (It has a student body forty times the size of her high school — which itself felt like the wide Sargasso Sea when she walked through its doors five years ago.) Friends keep calling out hi to Dylan as they pass by on their way to class. Feels like you could have as many pals as you wanted in a place like this.
We tour the library and the study halls. It’s exam time and every niche is occupied. The students are locked in; they take no more notice of us than baboons do of the Jeeps full of tourists in game parks. Every communal space bustles with a multicultural rainbow of impossibly attractive people brimming with health and promise. The selling point of UBCO is that it has the prestige of UBC — one of the top 40 universities in the world — but with a more intimate vibe and better connections with your profs. “Your professors really really want to meet you,” Dylan assures. “They still have their research quotas to fill, but they have fewer students to recruit, so they’re eager to put to work.” I think back to my own undergrad at the University of Alberta — another big school — where I basically sank without bubbles. In four years I did not meet with a single professor in their office. That was partly my own shyness and immaturity, but some places don’t exactly coax you out of your shell. I did better at the smaller school I went to next. Then again, I was older. It’s hard to know which factor drove the improvement. Life offers few controlled experiments.
High-school career counselors promote the idea of having a “reach” school. This is the one you aspire to even though you suspect it might be out of your league (As soon as I heard the term I tried to apply it to other areas of life. Your “reach” car, your “reach” friend. I briefly considered asking Jen if I was her “reach” husband, but decided I probably didn’t really need to know.) This is not Mad’s “reach” school, but it’s one she can get her head around. It’s possible to imagine being enrolled here without fearing you’re about to be summoned to the dean’s office and told there’s been a terrible mistake.
We tour the “show suite” in one of the main dorms. Here my heart sinks a little. It is no bigger than a prison cell. It’s been “staged” to convey the sense that it was occupied by a well-adjusted kid who’d just stepped out to mail a donation to the World Wildlife Fund, but there’s a palpable sense of confinement. You share a bathroom with a kid who opens and closes the door from their side. We learn that the individual dorms are a big like the “houses” in Hogwarts, with regular competitions between them. Fun! There are occasional “Amazing Race” parties, and there’s an ice-cream club, where you can try various flavours. There ‘s a great gym. If you’re feeling stressed out, there’s a place you can go and pat a random dog. And you never feel unsafe on campus, even at night, cuz there’s a number you can call and a volunteer student will appear and walk you home. Home. It would all be fine. Right? Here, or anywhere, really, it would all be fine.
I have the sudden urge to scoop Mad up and take her back to Vancouver where she could get a job at Starbucks and live with us forever.
We pick up some bumf at the end of the tour, chat briefly with a student advisor and head back to the motel. Just before we’d checked in I’d had to stop by the bank and put enough money on my credit card to cover the room deposit. (This is the kind of moment you don’t necessarily want your kids to see, as it undermines confidence that you have your sh*t together.) Mad’s sister had elected to hang out in the room rather than tag along the tour. When we return, she’s been snoozing, but somehow also has a joke at the ready:
Interviewer: “How do you explain this four-year-gap in your resume?”
Prospective employee: “Ah. That’s when I went to Yale.”
Interviewer (delighted). “Okay, then! Well, I should tell you, as of this minute you are our number one candidate.”
Employee: “That’s great. Because I really need this yob.”
We take a meandering route through town on the way to dinner, past shuttered stores and a cinema that’s now a Tim Horton’s. It feels like Covid just about did in this tourist town. It strikes me what a precarious time it is for a young grad to be popping out into the world. Holding their dreams up like a tiny circus umbrella.
At one point I can feel something happening to my eyes. Must be all the dust. Raymond Carver said, “We’re only lent to each other.” By the time your kid turns 18, statistically speaking, 90 percent of your time with them is finished. Not it’s all just trims and ends.
“Did you know that the chances are surprisingly high that a random eighteen-wheeler you pass on the highway, you’ve seen that truck before?” Mad says, sharing something she’d seen on Reddit. “Because it spends years and years going back and forth on that road you’re on. So you may well have driven by it. But of course you don’t recognize it.”
I up the ante. “You could at any moment be walking past the person who will one day be your life partner.”
“That’s true,” she says. “You hear of people, after they get married, comparing family photos. The trip to Niagara Falls they took as a kid. And it’s like: Wait, who’s that in the background? Some other family’s kid. Wait, that’s … you!”
“Implausible but not impossible,” I say, adding not much to the poetry.
That night we can’t get the motel room temperature right, and we all have fever dreams.
In mine, we’re huddled in a crowded, chaotic refugee camp, and someone hands me a baby. I pull it in tight, protecting it, while looking around for the mother. Where are this kid’s parents? I somehow know it’s a dream, and suddenly fear waking up. Cuz if I wake up, this baby and its mother will be separated forever. Don’t come out of this dream! Fight it! But I can’t hold the real world off. As I surface from the dream, the baby dissolves in my arms. I wake up in a sweat, clutching my own elbow.
I tell Lila about the dream in the morning.
“What do you think it means?” I ask.
“I think it means you just went on a campus tour with your daughter,” she says.