As the minivan, loaded with boxes and bins crammed full of her clothes and music books and photos, and all the newly purchased dorm supplies lurches out of our street and onto the main road, I suddenly find myself thinking of Jesi. Chris is driving, Alan is next to him and Kari and I are behind them. We are heading for Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. Kari reaches for my hand through the tangle of her two stuffed animal companions, Grandpa Jo, the cuddly soft bear that had been given to Jesi during the last months of her hospital stay, and Akira, a big black bear Kari was given when she was little.
“Do you think I’m too old to take stuffed animals to college mum?” Kari asks.
“Never too old for good friends,” I reply. “Besides, they love adventure and this is the beginning of a wonderful new adventure for you!”
It is, and I am truly happy for Kari and all she has achieved, but inside I also feel an indescribable sadness. Jesi should be here with us, also beginning her freshman year in college, and she isn’t.
For the past week I have been watching the progress in Kari’s room as her favorite belongings have gradually moved from piles on the floor into boxes and crates. As the walls of her room have been stripped of the laughter she shared with Jesi, and the echo of their life together has been folded away. I have stood silently, living the memory of Jesi, who, the week before she went into hospital for her bone marrow transplant over two years ago undertook a thorough cleaning and sorting of her room never to return to it. Watching Kari, I have felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention, alerted to her imminent departure, while the rational voice inside my head has kept reminding me, this is not the same, this is NOT the same.
As the car, weighted down with its cargo and four passengers lunges towards the freeway Alan asks Chris about the bike. It is strapped to the roof on its side. In order to have the handle bars lying flat the front wheel mud guard (they have taken the wheel itself off) is sitting at a right angle to the roof. It crowns the van like a silver beacon shining in the sunlight. Suddenly I realize Jesi is with us after all. I imagine her sitting perched on the top of the bike, her arms flapping in the breeze, mouth wide open laughing, her hair, its pre-cancer length to her waist, streaming behind her. Everything about her is waving untethered in the wind. I turn to tell Kari of my vision but she has her ear buds in and is listening to music so I squeeze her hand instead. A few days later, when we walk down the quiet streets of Oberlin I will imagine Kari riding her bike and Jesi perched behind her on her pannier, her same exhilarated laughter. Both girls hair will be loose and flying in the breeze. Kari will be yelling “hold on Jesi, hold on.” Jesi will be waving her arms and legs and screeching “go faster Kari, go faster.” This will be the way Jesi will attend college with Kari.
That evening, over dinner in a small Italian restaurant in Bethlehem Pennsylvania I suggest a family photo. This will be the last family photo of the trip, as in the morning Chris will peel off from the party so he can prepare for his final year at Lehigh University. We huddle together while I hold the phone for a selfie. Family photos have become a very complex issue for me. But I do not think this while we all lean in and make funny faces at the screen. I am busy making sure everyone’s head is visible. Click. But there is a nagging voice inside. Jesi is missing. We are not complete anymore. But I have to do this… just in case. What if something else were to happen …
There is something about losing a child… a sibling… that knits a family together in an undefinable way. Even a divorced family.
When I look at the picture I look past the faces. I am looking instead at the flares of light surrounding the light bulbs. I want to find a sign of something supernatural, a sign that Jesi is with us and has revealed herself in the photo. An orb of light. But I find nothing. I look back at the faces. There are still only four of us and we are all still smiling.
As we drive Chris to his apartment the following morning, past the now familiar university buildings, I remember all the beginnings here. Three years ago when Chris was a freshman as Kari is now to be. Alan and I helped move him into his dorm that year. Kari had to stay in Lexington to try out for the high school soccer team. Jesi, in remission had been invited on a cruise to Bermuda with her best friend. Two years ago when Kari and Alan drove Chris to school to begin sophomore year and I stayed in Boston with Jesi who was in the ICU after her transplant. That was when everything went awry.
As I think about it I realize that even now my life is punctuated by Jesi’s life: her health, her illness, her death. It always will be a defining factor.
We pull up in front of Chris’s apartment and tumble out of the van and into his house. Jesi again appears in a vision before me. This time she is the fifteen year old she was when we visited Chris in freshman year for family weekend. She is wearing her tight black jeans and the waterproof grey jacket she bought in Australia earlier that year, and her favorite black lace up boots. She is jumping and leaping, larking around like the happy teen she was when cancer let go of its hold on her. When I see her I have walked through the front room of the house and I am standing at the door looking into an empty room. Except in front of me is Jesi, leaping, as if onto Chris’s back. The image is so vivid I have to stop myself for a minute. Sometimes it is like this because Jesi’s spirit is so enormous it is still difficult to comprehend she is not here with us.
We drop Chris’s bags off at his apartment and decide to potter around Bethlehem for an hour or so before driving on to Ohio. Unlike Oberlin, which is situated on a plain, Lehigh is built into the side of a mountain so Chris takes us up to a scenic lookout.
“This is a great place to come at sunset,” he explains and then adds, “One of our philosophy professors bought the class up here once and asked us all what we wanted out of life.”
I want to ask ‘and what did you say?’ but somehow it doesn’t feel right to make this carefree moment into an intense meaning of life conversation. Besides, I can feel a fluttering in my belly knowing I will have to stay goodbye to Chris soon. So I settle for
“Do you guys want a photo?” directing my question to Chris and Kari. “Sure,” they both respond.
The same pang hits me that did the previous evening when I point my phone at the two of them as they sit, Kari with her arms clasped around Chris’s middle, on the stone wall of the lookout. I know what goes through my mind. It is the same script as before. This isn’t right. Jesi should be here. Two is not right. I have three children. It happens to me all the time. A simple question in a doctors office survey. An innocent question asked by a new acquaintance. But what do Chris and Kari think? “He’s the only sibling I have.” Kari has said these words to me on a number of occasions. The same is true for Chris. Yet they both smile into the phone as I click some photos as if it has always been this way. And this time I do not look for the orb of light. Then we all hop back into the car and drive down the hill.
The road to Oberlin is long and flat and straight and for most of it I focus on Kari’s anticipation of the following day’s activities. It is a relief to have this to think about so Jesi takes a back seat in my mind. I also know that I struggle with the lingering thought of what it will be like when Kari is settled into her dorm room and the parent orientation is over and Alan and I get back into the car to start the long drive back to Boston. I am relieved to have a day or so’s respite visiting a friend in the Philadelphia area where we used to live to get used to the idea of being an ‘empty nester.’
That evening, dinner is very different. We are late arriving at our hotel and settle for a mix of take out dishes from a local south western style diner. Kari’s black bean soup ends up being white beans and beef. Not her favorite. She settles for the mac and cheese instead.
“Comfort food,” I announce.
It’s funny the things one remembers. Of all the times Kari has eaten mac and cheese it only now strikes me that Jesi would always choose mac and cheese when she was in the hospital. I mention this fact to Kari and we joke about it. We also joke about the way in which Jesi is making her presence felt on this trip.
The following day Kari moves into her dorm room. On the wall above her bed she pins two large photos of Jesi. Grandpa Jo nestles into her pillow below them. Kari entrusts me with the task of carefully unpacking the treasured items of Jesi’s she has bought with her: some jewelry, a head scarf, a small box of incense, candles and ceramic elephants, and a framed photo of them both taken when they were toddlers. I place the jewelry and scarf in the bottom drawer of her desk with her conductor’s baton and the photo on the shelf near her books.
This is not the last advice I leave Kari with (let’s face it, mothers are always full of advice, especially when they are dropping their daughters at college for freshman year), but before we leave her dorm room I stand in front of her, her face glowing both from perspiration and with pride at having achieved this first step toward her independence and hold her hands and say,
“Maybe this is the best way for Jesi to always be with you, Kari. She can be with you everywhere now she isn’t restricted by a physical body. And through you, she can experience college that she never got the opportunity to do in her life.” I wonder while I say this how Kari will receive it. But Kari smiles and nods her understanding. We hug, a mixture of sweat and love before we wander out into the hall to find Alan and the cafeteria for lunch.