Road Grad

Jill Talbot on secret messages between mother and daughter.

Jill Talbot | Longreads | June 2021 | 9 minutes (2,508 words)

The showers had been steady for days. Even when the rain broke, the weather app on my phone showed another coming storm. At night, lightning scarred the sky, jagged answers to the crack of thunderous questions. A relentless deluge, like so much else last year.

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In the spring of 2020, the bottom corner of TV screens broadcasting news channels recorded the rising numbers of deaths and cases, along with Dow numbers shifting, sometimes in seconds, from green to red.

During the spring break of my daughter Indie’s senior year, her school district announced they would close schools the week following the break, with plans to reopen on March 23. On March 19, the governor of Texas temporarily closed schools until April 3, then later extended the order to May 4, and on April 17, he closed all private and public schools for the remainder of the year, while initiating steps to re-open the state for business. Indie would finish her senior year in her bedroom. She would not step back through the front doors of her high school, and she would not place her hands in purple ink and press them to a wall or write her name and 2020 beneath her handprints. There would be no Bronco Walk, when seniors paraded the school halls behind the drum corps in their caps and gowns as teachers and students came out of classrooms to cheer, while parents lined the main lobby boasting signs of celebration and congratulations. I would have cried, I am sure, standing there, holding a sign for Indie.

During those first weeks at home, Indie told me more than once how she wished she had known that the last day she left school was the last time. She grew up with so many goodbyes, so she knows the importance of looking back in those moments before leaving.

Up until that week in March, as Indie left for school each morning, I’d stand beneath the canopy of an oak tree outside to watch her go. She’d always look back as she pulled away, and I’d blow kisses and wave my arms wildly. I mourned those mornings. They ended before I knew they were gone.

I raised Indie on my own.

After her father left, disappearing one July morning when she was 4 months old, I understood the most important thing I would do in my life was raise Indie. When she was 2, I promised myself not to date until she was grown. I worried about men coming and going through her life, but more importantly, I recognized my responsibility, and while I have a history of being irresponsible in my life, I wanted to get this one right. The promise kept.


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Through the years, I went to every parent-teacher conference alone. I taught Indie how to ride her bike. How to drive a car. How to dive into a pool. I watched her write her first word, apple. Heard her first word, juice. I decided punishments, and I chose rewards. For every birthday, I woke her by walking into her room with a lit candle in a pastry and singing, “Happy Birthday.” On the days when daycare was closed or I couldn’t afford it, I took her to my office or into my classrooms. I explained to every pediatrician and one ER doctor that no, I don’t know the father’s medical history. I shook hands with the boys who picked her up for dates, set her curfew at 11:30, the same one I had had in high school. Then that morning three years ago, when I had to tell her that her grandfather was suddenly gone, and two months later, when I waited for her to get home to say the words, “Gramma has cancer. Stage IV.” I taught my daughter how important it is to apologize, and I told her, “I’m sorry,” every time I made a mistake or yelled or we had to move, again, because for 11 years, the academic job market awarded me only visiting positions. The first time we moved, from Colorado to Utah, Indie was 16 months old, and by the time she entered eighth grade in Texas, we had lived in nine states.

And because of that, we are most who we are when we’re on the road.

As the weeks went by, I worked at our kitchen table teaching my creative writing workshops on my laptop, while Indie studied on her bed in her room. Around six each night, we’d meet on the couch to watch our shows and visit, often agreeing how lucky we were that we get along so well, that we enjoy each other’s company. Because that’s what we were for months, each other’s company.

And because of that, we are most who we are when we’re on the road.

We stayed up late, and we slept late. For the five years we’d lived in this apartment, I’d hear the wail of trains in the middle of the night, and in the mornings, the roar of planes in their descent to the DFW airport, 25 miles south. That spring, no train whistles called out in the night, and the morning skies were empty.

After a while I could sense a looming sadness and restlessness in both of us, so one night I asked Indie if she wanted to go the next day to see what the World’s Largest Casino looked like closed. Her face lit up. The next morning, we drove 45 miles north, crossed the Oklahoma border, and took Exit 1 to WinStar. We drove slowly around the sprawling property the size of a community college campus, if one were to have a three-tower hotel and 600,000 square feet of gaming centers. No cars or people in sight, except for a security guard patrolling on a bike. I rolled down my window and snapped a few photos of the desolation, an eerie site. On the way back, we saw an abandoned one-story motel and pulled over to wander among the empty, exposed rooms, the diamond-shaped windows, most of them broken. That out-and-back drive would turn out to be our first half-tank trip.

After that, every two weeks I’d pick a place for us to go, somewhere a half-tank of gas away. Far enough to get away, but close enough not to have to use a gas station restroom. Only after we were in the car would I tell Indie where we were heading — a hotel on a corner square where Frank Sinatra once stayed and Bonnie and Clyde had been spotted, a vacant Futuro house (orange, shaped like a spaceship), a drive-in theater, an empty hotel featured on Ghost Adventures, and once, an abandoned post office with a collapsing porch. Along the way, we’d reminisce about all the places we’d lived, as if touring unknown towns reminded us of all the towns we’d known. Or maybe it was facing the ending to the 18 years we shared, so we wanted to remember those places and houses and rooms, to honor them as we passed mile markers and took exits along with Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits.

***

The forecast for that Friday read like all the other days before that week. Rain chances at 100% for 7:00 p.m., the hour of Indie’s graduation. Instead of the traditional ceremony inside the coliseum of the university where I teach, graduation would be held at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, where parents and families would park on the infield to watch graduates cross the checkered finish line on a big screen. The world’s largest at 218 feet wide and 94.6 feet tall — 21 stories.

Indie wanted a white dress for graduation, and even though Texas reopened on May 1, I told her I preferred she order a few online. We’d return the ones she didn’t choose. I think I’ll always see it in my memory, the afternoon she stepped out of her room in a dress rehearsal. A sleeveless, above-the-knee dress, falling in folds between the panels of her purple gown. Cap on. And because the instructions for the ceremony advised against heels because of the long procession around the track, she decided on her white platform Vans.

Over the previous few months, Indie and her friends had had to accept everything that was gone — classes and crowded hallways, prom, playoffs, end-of-the-year concerts, award ceremonies and banquets, yearbook signings, the senior walk, the senior breakfast. The senior walk was the only one that didn’t hold any meaning for Indie, a day when DHS seniors put on their caps and gowns to walk the block to the elementary school to thank their first teachers. If Indie were to walk to the elementary schools she attended, she’d have to head north to Oklahoma, on to New York, and back south to Ray Elementary in Chicago. 3,412 miles. Miles she and I drove together over the years, one road after another.

While Indie got ready that Friday, I ironed her dress. I took my time, and every now and again secretly checked the rain chances on my phone. At 4:00, 80%. Students were to arrive at the Speedway by 5:30 to have their temperature checked, to answer questions, and to turn in their signed health waiver. If it rained, graduation would not be rescheduled. It would be canceled. I stood there ironing, wanting to ask, “What if it rains?,” but I held the question in my throat, knowing Indie already carried it and that she was pushing it to the far back of a drawer of the year’s losses.

The first school event of Indie’s I attended was when she was in first grade at Will Rogers Elementary. It was a morning assembly, each class from K-3rd performing. When I got out of my car and started walking to the school’s office to sign in, I remember whispering, “I’m coming, Indie. I’m here. I’m coming.” Inside, I joined other parents leaning against the walls of the gymnasium/auditorium. The students, cross-legged and squirming, sat in rows on the tile floor. When Indie got to her spot on the stage, her blonde hair a bob, wearing a sweet dress my mother had mailed, she began searching for me. I raised my right arm and held my hand as high as it would go. I stretched out my fingers and held them still. I thought my motionless hand might be easier to see among all the waving ones. “It was,” she told me when I picked her up from school that afternoon. I told her it was also a secret message — you are strong, you are steady, I am here.

Through the years, in the stands of volleyball and basketball games, the auditoriums of plays and choir concerts, the stadiums of band half-time shows and contests, I have sat alone and raised my hand high for Indie, still and steady, even when I knew she couldn’t see me because the auditorium lights had already lowered, or I was too far away in the stands.

A few days before graduation, Indie picked up her car passes in a drive-through procession at school, the same way she had returned her textbooks, picked up her yearbook, and turned in her drum major uniform. Each senior was given only two passes — a Student Pass and a Parent Pass. One car for each student, one car for each family.

By 6:00 that night, a reprieve. Blue sky. I got in the car I had been driving for 11 years, one my parents had given me. I headed toward I-35 West for the 20-mile drive, my Parent Pass on the passenger seat:

VILLAGE OF CHAMPIONS
at Texas Motor Speedway
Parent Pass
Class of 2020 Graduation Ceremony
Present this pass for entry into the infield of
TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

As I joined the line of cars into the Speedway’s massive parking lot, I whispered, “I’m coming, Indie. I’m here. I’m coming.” I know she can’t hear me when I do this, but it always feels like she does. I showed my pass to an attendant, drove through the south tunnel, and followed the directions from orange vests to turn into a gravel space between two pylons.

As the massive screen directed, I tuned my FM radio to 97.7. All around me, the families of 459 graduates. As we waited for the ceremony to begin, the screen featured the graduation photos and activities of each senior. Suddenly, there was Indie, her long blonde hair, her smile, and her accomplishments, including the name of the university in New York she had chosen. I clicked a photo with my phone.

The following Monday, NBC’s TODAY show would feature the Speedway graduation, showing a long line of seniors in purple DHS masks as “Pomp and Circumstance” played, the rows of white chairs on the track placed six feet apart, and a parking lot of vehicles on the infield facing the 22,000-square-foot screen, honking in celebration.

Imagine the largest drive-in theater in the world — that’s what the Speedway became that Friday night, the temperature 90 degrees — a 1,500-acre facility, hundreds of trucks, SUVs, and cars lined up inside an oval track of 1.5 miles ending in a checkered finish line.

What a fitting end — to watch Indie cross a finish line on a road after all the roads we’ve known. Sitting in my car by myself, ever at the wheel, felt like an honor I had earned by raising her alone.

The students were allowed to remove their masks only as they crossed the checkered line where the superintendent, wearing a mask and gloves, shook their hands and gave them their diplomas. As each graduate crossed, some bowed, some gave a thumbs up, some did a funny dance. I wondered what Indie might do.

As the T names approached, I shifted in my seat, looking for blonde hair, a pink stole, a white dress, Vans. When I heard Indie’s name, the first time I had ever heard her full name announced in public, I pressed on my horn and held it, shouting, “Indie! Indie!” She accepted her diploma with a nod, then turned to the camera with a big smile and a wave. Full of joy.

If memory proves anything, it’s that we always miss something. Either we can’t call up a detail or someone tells us what we didn’t see. I suspect there are times when we take in the meaning of the moment more than the details of the moment itself.

Because later that night, when Indie rushed through the front door, still in her gown, she asked, “Did you see it?” She plopped down next to me on the couch, scrolling through her phone. “I figured out a few days ago what I wanted to do. Hold on, someone took a picture of me and got it.”

I stared at the photo of my daughter crossing the finish line, beaming, mid-stride.

“I couldn’t see you,” she explained, “but I knew you could see me.”

And then I saw it.

Her right hand held high.

Still and steady.

***

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has been named Notable in Best American Essays for the past four years in a row and has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, Hotel Amerika, LitMag, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, and The Rumpus. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.

 

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands