Hillary’s Bedroom, Ocean Springs, Mississippi (2005)
I turn in my grades this week, and graduation is scheduled for Saturday—a “virtual” ceremony, of course. We plan to have as many graduates as possible return here in December for the in-person version, but it made sense to do something now to commemorate the occasion since these wonderful students have completed the requirements and are college graduates. Many faculty and staff have given their best to make the virtual ceremony meaningful. Our hurt for our graduates’ loss is only exceeded by their own pain. But we sure are trying our best.
Closure is important, and when the typical ways are impossible, we need to create some version anyway.
When my youngest daughter was eight years old, we lost our house to a hurricane. We gutted the house and sold it at a significant loss, and that little girl asked me to take her to visit the house one final time in early December to say good-bye. That seemed like a harmless thing to do.
It was cold that afternoon [note: the picture above was months earlier], and looking back, I guess it was sort of fitting. The wind cut straight through you, foreboding. We didn’t need a key to get in. Or even hands now that I think of it. All of our doors and most of our windows had not been on the house for the past quarter of the year, so when Hillary and I walked in the house, there really wasn’t much to see. But it felt different.
Hillary took over as tour guide and led me from room to room. At times she was less tour guide and more tourist, asking me for some clarification in each place. “Daddy, was this where the couch was?” “Daddy, wasn’t this where we had the television?” From time to time, the tour guide would pop up with a few declarations: “This is where the big red chair was.” “Here is where I would play with my bouncy-balls every once in a while.” “Here was my bed!”
I didn’t recognize what was happening because I am a moron. Hillary was studying. It was cramming for finals time. She did not want to forget.
I started to see that little “I wanna cry” face a few times, but I told myself I was wrong. It’s probably just the wind whipping through the house, making her cold. I didn’t take any chances, however, so I asked Hillary if she wanted us to pray and thank God for all the good times in this house. She did. So we held hands in that cold and drafty gutted-out mess of a house, that house where Hillary left for her first day of school, the place where magical creatures like Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny brought wonder to that child’s imagination, the site of bed-snuggles and family nights and fevers and boo-boos and birthday parties and loose teeth and special suppers and homemade cookies and every single one of Hillary’s memories that defined “home”—and we prayed. And God saw it. And it was good.
Then, like a march to an execution we began our last trip out of that house of memories, though an eight-year-old seemed to skip playfully more than shuffle in shackles even if the journey was final and difficult. She made the declaration on her way out that this would be the last time she stepped foot in that house. She didn’t say it in such a sad voice, but she said it from a sad heart. The house had to have been sad, too.
The bone-chilling wind was just a bit colder on the outside of the house, and I was ready for some heat in the car, but Hillary wanted one more treasure-hunting trip to the front ditch where we had tossed our belongings for debris removal months earlier. Like a good father, I said, “Okay, don’t step on a nail. I’ll be in the car.”
This was another in my long line of parental mistakes.
The good news is that she didn’t step on a nail. The bad news is that she saw her prize-winning science fair display ground into the front ditch. That was not good at all.
She made it into the car without crying. She bravely mentioned that she had spotted something very important to her in the front ditch, then went on to share what it was. She had the face-thing going full strength now, doing her best not to cry. We told the house good-bye, made one last drive-by of the front ditch, and we made it part of the way down the road before she lost it. As always, Hillary had my full permission to do just that.
Fifteen years later I still remember the lesson that little girl taught me: Closure matters. Even if it is a weak substitute for normal methods, it matters.
It is hard to explain and even harder to fathom, but we think back on those hurricane stories with some odd type of fondness now. It turned out to be a special and unforgettable time in our lives.
It is my prayer that our graduates can do that someday, too. But for now, and this weekend in particular, let’s make up some kind of moment to close the door on a special time. And it is more than okay if it brings a tear.