فصل 06

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فصل 06

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My dad drove me to Princeton in the summer of 1981, across the flat highways connecting Illinois to New Jersey. But it was more than a simple father-daughter road trip. My boyfriend, David, came along for the ride. I’d been invited to attend a special three-week summer orientation program, meant to close a “preparation gap,” giving certain incoming freshmen extra time and help settling into college. It was unclear exactly how we were identified—what part of our admissions applications had tipped the university off to the idea that we might benefit from lessons on how to read a syllabus or advance practice navigating the pathways between campus buildings—but Craig had done it two years earlier, and it seemed like an opportunity. So I packed up my stuff, said good-bye to my mom—neither of us teary or sentimental—and climbed into the car.

My eagerness to leave town was fueled in part by the fact I’d spent the last couple of months working an assembly-line job, operating what was basically an industrial-sized glue gun at a small bookbinding factory in downtown Chicago—a soul-killing routine that went on for eight hours a day, five days a week, and served as possibly the single most reinforcing reminder that going to college was a good idea. David’s mom worked at the bookbindery and had helped get the two of us jobs there. We’d worked shoulder to shoulder all summer, which made the whole endeavor more palatable. David was smart and gentle, a tall, good-looking guy who was two years older than I was. He’d first befriended Craig on the neighborhood basketball court in Rosenblum Park a few years earlier, joining pickup games when he came to visit relatives who lived on Euclid Parkway. Eventually, he started hanging around with me. During the school year, David went away to college out of state, which conveniently kept him from being any sort of distraction from my studies. During holiday breaks and over the summer, though, he came home to stay with his mom on the far southwest side of the city and drove over almost every day to pick me up in his car.

David was easygoing and also more of an adult than any boyfriend I’d had. He sat on the couch and watched ball games with my father. He joked around with Craig and made polite conversation with my mom. We went on real dates, going for what we considered upscale dinners at Red Lobster and to the movies. We fooled around and smoked pot in his car. By day at the bookbindery, we glue gunned our way into a companionable oblivion, wisecracking until there was nothing left to say. Neither of us was particularly invested in the job, beyond trying to save up money for school. I’d be leaving town soon anyway, and had little intention of ever coming back to the bookbinding plant. In a sense, I was already half departed—my mind flown off in the direction of Princeton.

Which is to say that on the early August evening when our father-daughter-boyfriend trio finally pulled off Route 1 and turned onto the wide leafy avenue leading to campus, I was fully ready to get on with things. I was ready to cart my two suitcases into the summer-session dorm, ready to pump the hands of the other kids who’d come (minority and low-income students primarily, with a few athletes mixed in). I was ready to taste the dining-hall food, memorize the campus map, and conquer whatever syllabi they wanted to throw my way. I was there. I had landed. I was seventeen years old, and my life was under way.

There was only one problem, and that was David, who as soon as we crossed the state line from Pennsylvania had begun to look a little doleful. As we wrestled my luggage out of the back of my dad’s car, I could tell he was feeling lonely already. We’d been dating for over a year. We’d professed love, but it was love in the context of Euclid Avenue and Red Lobster and the basketball courts at Rosenblum Park. It was love in the context of the place I’d just left. While my father took his customary extra minute to get out of the driver’s seat and steady himself on his canes, David and I stood wordlessly in the dusk, surveying the immaculate diamond of green lawn outside my stone fortress of a dorm. It was hitting us both, I assumed, that there were perhaps important things we hadn’t discussed, that we had perhaps divergent views on whether this was a temporary farewell or an outright, geographically induced breakup. Were we going to visit? Write love letters? How hard were we going to work at this?

David held my hand in an earnest way. It was confusing. I knew what I wanted but couldn’t find the words. I hoped that someday my feelings for a man would knock me sideways, that I’d get swept into the upending, tsunami-like rush that seemed to power all the best love stories. My parents had fallen in love as teenagers. My dad took my mother to her high school prom, even. I knew that teenage affairs were sometimes real and lasting. I wanted to believe that there was a guy who’d materialize and become everything to me, who’d be sexy and solid and whose effect would be so immediate and deep that I’d be willing to rearrange my priorities.

It just wasn’t the guy standing in front of me right now.

My father finally broke the silence between me and David, saying that it was time for us to get my stuff up to the dorm. He’d booked a motel room in town for the two of them. They planned to take off the next day, headed back to Chicago.

In the parking lot, I hugged my father tight. His arms had always been strong from his youthful devotion to boxing and swimming and were now further maintained by the effort required to move around by cane.

“Be good, Miche,” he said, releasing me, his face betraying no emotion other than pride.

He then got into the car, kindly giving me and David some privacy.

We stood together on the pavement, both of us sheepish and stalling. My heart lurched with affection as he leaned in to kiss me. This part always felt good.

And yet I knew. I knew that while I had my arms around a good-hearted Chicago guy who genuinely cared about me, there was also, just beyond us, a lit path leading out of the parking lot and up a slight hill toward the quad, which would in a matter of minutes become my new context, my new world. I was nervous about living away from home for the first time, about leaving the only life I’d ever known. But some part of me understood it was better to make a clean, quick break and not hold on to anything. The next day David would call me at my dorm, asking if we could meet up for a quick meal or a final walk around town before he left, and I would mumble something about how busy I was already at school, how I didn’t think it would work. Our good-bye that night was for real and forever. I probably should have said it directly in the moment, but I chickened out, knowing it would hurt, both to say and to hear. Instead, I just let him go.

It turned out there were a lot of things I had yet to learn about life, or at least life on the Princeton campus in the early 1980s. After I spent several energizing weeks as a summer student, surrounded by a few dozen other kids who seemed both accessible and familiar to me, the fall semester officially began, opening the floodgates to the student population at large. I moved my belongings into a new dorm room, a one-room triple in Pyne Hall, and then watched through my third-floor window as several thousand mostly white students poured onto campus, carting stereos and duvet sets and racks of clothes. Some kids arrived in limos. One girl brought two limos—stretch limos—to accommodate all her stuff.

Princeton was extremely white and very male. There was no avoiding the facts. Men on campus outnumbered women almost two to one. Black students made up less than 9 percent of my freshman class. If during the orientation program we’d begun to feel some ownership of the space, we were now a glaring anomaly—poppy seeds in a bowl of rice. While Whitney Young had been somewhat diverse, I’d never been part of a predominantly white community before. I’d never stood out in a crowd or a classroom because of the color of my skin. It was jarring and uncomfortable, at least at first, like being dropped into a strange new terrarium, a habitat that hadn’t been built for me.

As with anything, though, you learn to adapt. Some of the adjustment was easy—a relief almost. For one thing, nobody seemed much concerned about crime. Students left their rooms unlocked, their bikes casually kickstanded outside buildings, their gold earrings unattended on the sink in the dorm bathrooms. Their trust in the world seemed infinite, their forward progress in it entirely assured. For me, it was something to get used to. I’d spent years quietly guarding my possessions on the bus ride to and from Whitney Young. Walking home to Euclid Avenue in the evenings, I carried my house key wedged between two knuckles and pointed outward, in case I needed it to defend myself.

At Princeton, it seemed the only thing I needed to be vigilant about was my studies. Everything otherwise was designed to accommodate our well-being as students. The dining halls served five different kinds of breakfast. There were enormous spreading oak trees to sit under and open lawns where we could throw Frisbees to relieve our stress. The main library was like an old-world cathedral, with high ceilings and glossy hardwood tables where we could lay out our textbooks and study in silence. We were protected, cocooned, catered to. A lot of kids, I was coming to realize, had never in their lifetimes known anything different.

Attached to all of this was a new vocabulary, one I needed to master. What was a precept? What was a reading period? Nobody had explained to me the meaning of “extra-long” bedsheets on the school packing list, which meant that I bought myself too-short bedsheets and would thus spend my freshman year sleeping with my feet resting on the exposed plastic of the dorm mattress. There was an especially distinct learning curve when it came to understanding sports. I’d been raised on the bedrock of football, basketball, and baseball, but it turned out that East Coast prep schoolers did more. Lacrosse was a thing. Field hockey was a thing. Squash, even, was a thing. For a kid from the South Side, it could be a little dizzying. “You row crew?” What does that even mean?

I had only one advantage, the same one I’d had when starting kindergarten: I was still Craig Robinson’s little sister. Craig was now a junior and a top player on the varsity basketball team. He was, as he’d always been, a man with fans. Even the campus security guards greeted him by name. Craig had a life, and I managed at least partially to slip into it. I got to know his teammates and their friends. One night I went to a dinner with him off campus, at the well-appointed home of one of the basketball team’s boosters, where sitting at the dining room table I was met by a confounding sight, a food item that like so many other things at Princeton required a lesson in gentility—a spiny green artichoke laid out on a white china plate.

Craig had found himself a plum housing arrangement for the year, living rent-free as a caretaker in an upstairs bedroom at the Third World Center, a poorly named but well-intentioned offshoot of the university with a mission to support students of color. (It would be a full twenty years before the Third World Center was rechristened the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding—named for Princeton’s first African American dean.) The center was housed in a brick building on a corner lot on Prospect Avenue, whose prime blocks were dominated by the grand, mansion-like stone and Tudor-style eating clubs that substituted for fraternities.

The Third World Center—or TWC, as most of us called it—quickly became a kind of home base for me. It hosted parties and co-op meals. There were volunteer tutors to help with homework and spaces just to hang out. I’d made a handful of instant friends during the summer program, and many of us gravitated toward the center during our free time. Among them was Suzanne Alele. Suzanne was tall and thin with thick eyebrows and luxurious dark hair that fell in a shiny wave down her back. She had been born in Nigeria and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, though her family had moved to Maryland when she was a teenager. Perhaps as a result, she seemed unhooked from any single cultural identity. People were drawn to Suzanne. It was hard not to be. She had a wide-open smile and a slight island lilt in her voice that became more pronounced anytime she was tired or a little drunk. She carried herself with what I think of as a Caribbean breeziness, a lightness of spirit that caused her to stand out among Princeton’s studious masses. She was unafraid to plunge into parties where she didn’t know a soul. Even though she was premed, she made a point of taking pottery and dance classes for the simple reason that they made her happy.

Later, during our sophomore year, Suzanne would take another plunge, deciding to bicker at an eating club called Cap and Gown—“bicker” being a verb with a meaning particular to Princeton, signifying the social vetting that goes on when clubs choose new members. I loved the stories Suzanne brought back from the eating-club banquets and parties she went to, but I had no interest in bickering myself. I was happy with the community of black and Latino students I’d found through the TWC, content to remain at the margins of Princeton’s larger social scene. Our group was small but tight. We threw parties and danced half the night. At meals, we often packed ten or more around a table, laid-back and laughing. Our dinners could stretch into hours, not unlike the long communal meals my family used to have around the table at Southside’s house.

I imagine that the administrators at Princeton didn’t love the fact that students of color largely stuck together. The hope was that all of us would mingle in heterogeneous harmony, deepening the quality of student life across the board. It’s a worthy goal. I understand that when it comes to campus diversity, the ideal would be to achieve something resembling what’s often shown on college brochures—smiling students working and socializing in neat, ethnically blended groups. But even today, with white students continuing to outnumber students of color on college campuses, the burden of assimilation is put largely on the shoulders of minority students. In my experience, it’s a lot to ask.

At Princeton, I needed my black friends. We provided one another relief and support. So many of us arrived at college not even aware of what our disadvantages were. You learn only slowly that your new peers had been given SAT tutoring or college-caliber teaching in high school or had gone to boarding school and thus weren’t grappling with the difficulties of being away from home for the first time. It was like stepping onstage at your first piano recital and realizing that you’d never played anything but an instrument with broken keys. Your world shifts, but you’re asked to adjust and overcome, to play your music the same as everyone else.

This is doable, of course—minority and underprivileged students rise to the challenge all the time—but it takes energy. It takes energy to be the only black person in a lecture hall or one of a few nonwhite people trying out for a play or joining an intramural team. It requires effort, an extra level of confidence, to speak in those settings and own your presence in the room. Which is why when my friends and I found one another at dinner each night, it was with some degree of relief. It’s why we stayed a long time and laughed as much as we could.

My two white roommates in Pyne Hall were both perfectly nice, but I wasn’t around the dorm enough to strike up any sort of deep friendship. I didn’t, in fact, have many white friends at all. In retrospect, I realize it was my fault as much as anyone’s. I was cautious. I stuck to what I knew. It’s hard to put into words what sometimes you pick up in the ether, the quiet, cruel nuances of not belonging—the subtle cues that tell you to not risk anything, to find your people and just stay put.

Cathy, one of my roommates, would surface in the news many years later, describing with embarrassment something I hadn’t known when we lived together: Her mother, a schoolteacher from New Orleans, had been so appalled that her daughter had been assigned a black roommate that she’d badgered the university to separate us. Her mother also gave an interview, confirming the story and providing more context. Having been raised in a home where the n-word was a part of the family lexicon, having had a grandfather who’d been a sheriff and used to brag about chasing black people out of his town, she’d been “horrified,” as she put it, by my proximity to her daughter.

All I knew at the time is that midway through our freshman year, Cathy moved out of our triple and into a single room. I’m happy to say that I had no idea why.

My financial aid package at Princeton required me to get a work-study job, and I ended up with a good one, getting hired as an assistant to the director of the TWC. I helped out about ten hours a week when I wasn’t in class, sitting at a desk alongside Loretta, the full-time secretary, typing memos, answering the phone, and directing students who came in with questions about dropping a class or signing up for the food co-op. The office sat in the front corner of the building, with sun-flooded windows and mismatched furniture that made it more homey than institutional. I loved the feeling of being there, of having office work to do. I loved the little jolt of satisfaction I got anytime I finished off some small organizational task. But more than anything, I loved my boss, Czerny Brasuell.

Czerny was a smart and beautiful black woman, barely thirty years old, a swift-moving and lively New Yorker who wore flared jeans and wedge sandals and seemed always to be having four or five ideas at once. For students of color at Princeton, she was like an über-mentor, our ultrahip and always outspoken defender in chief, and for this she was universally appreciated. In the office, she juggled multiple projects—lobbying the university administration to enact more inclusive policies for minorities, advocating for individual students and their needs, and spinning out new ideas for how all of us could improve our lot. She was often running late, blasting out the center’s front door at a full sprint, clutching a sheaf of loose papers with a lit cigarette in her mouth and a purse draped over her shoulder, shouting directives to me and Loretta as she went. It was a heady experience, being around her—as close-up as I’d ever been to an independent woman with a job that thrilled her. She was also, not incidentally, a single mother raising a dear, precocious boy named Jonathan, whom I often babysat.

Czerny saw some sort of potential in me, though I was also clearly short on life experience. She treated me like an adult, asking for my thoughts, listening keenly as I described the various worries and administrative tangles students had brought in. She seemed determined to awaken more boldness in me. A good number of her questions began with “Have you ever…?” Had I ever, for example, read the work of James Cone? Had I ever questioned Princeton’s investments in South Africa or whether more could be done to recruit minority students? Most of the time the answer was no, but once she mentioned it, I became immediately interested.

“Have you ever been to New York?” she asked at one point.

The answer was again no, but Czerny soon rectified that. One Saturday morning, we piled into her car—me and young Jonathan and another friend who also worked at the TWC—and rode along as Czerny drove full speed toward Manhattan, talking and smoking all the way. You could almost feel something lifting off her as we drove, an unspooling of tension as the white-fenced horse farms surrounding Princeton gave way to choked highways and finally the spires of the city rising in front of us. New York was home for Czerny, the same way Chicago was home for me. You don’t really know how attached you are until you move away, until you’ve experienced what it means to be dislodged, a cork floating on the ocean of another place.

Before I knew it, we were in the teeming heart of New York, locked into a flow of yellow taxis and blaring car horns as Czerny floored it between stoplights, hitting her brakes at the absolute last second before a red light caught her short. I don’t remember exactly what we did that day: I know we had pizza. We saw Rockefeller Center, drove through Central Park, and caught sight of the Statue of Liberty with her hopeful hoisted torch. But we were mainly there for practical reasons. Czerny seemed to be recharging her soul by running through a list of mundane errands. She had things to pick up, things to drop off. She double-parked on busy cross streets as she dashed in and out of buildings, provoking an avalanche of honking ire from other drivers, while the rest of us sat helplessly in the car. New York overwhelmed me. It was fast and noisy, a less patient place than Chicago. But Czerny was full of life there, unfazed by jaywalking pedestrians and the smell of urine and stacked garbage wafting from the curb.

She was about to double-park again when she sized up the traffic in her rearview and suddenly seemed to think better of it. Instead, she gestured to me in the passenger seat, indicating I should slide over and take her place behind the steering wheel.

“You have a license, right?” she asked. When I answered with an affirmative nod, she said, “Great. Take the wheel. Just do a slow loop around the block. Or maybe two. Then come back around. I’ll be five minutes or less, I promise.”

I looked at her like she was nuts. She was nuts, in my opinion, for thinking I could drive in Manhattan—me being just a teenager, a foreigner in this unruly city, inexperienced and fully incapable, as I saw it, of taking not just her car but her young son for an uncertain, time-killing spin in the late-afternoon traffic. But my hesitancy only triggered something in Czerny that I will forever associate with New Yorkers—an instinctive and immediate push back against thinking small. She climbed out of the car, giving me no choice but to drive. Get over it and just live a little was her message.

I was learning all the time now. I was learning in the obvious academic ways, holding my own in classes, doing most of my studying in a quiet room at the Third World Center or in a carrel at the library. I was learning how to write efficiently, how to think critically. I’d inadvertently signed up for a 300-level theology class as a freshman and floundered my way through, ultimately salvaging my grade with an eleventh-hour, leave-it-all-on-the-field effort on the final paper. It wasn’t pretty, but I found it encouraging in the end, proof that I could work my way out of just about any hole. Whatever deficits I might have arrived with, coming from an inner-city high school, it seemed that I could make up for them by putting in extra time, asking for help when I needed it, and learning to pace myself and not procrastinate.

Still, it was impossible to be a black kid at a mostly white school and not feel the shadow of affirmative action. You could almost read the scrutiny in the gaze of certain students and even some professors, as if they wanted to say, “I know why you’re here.” These moments could be demoralizing, even if I’m sure I was just imagining some of it. It planted a seed of doubt. Was I here merely as part of a social experiment?

Slowly, though, I began to understand that there were many versions of quotas being filled at the school. As minorities, we were the most visible, but it became clear that special dispensations were made to admit all kinds of students whose grades or accomplishments might not measure up to the acknowledged standard. It was hardly a straight meritocracy. There were the athletes, for example. There were the legacy kids, whose fathers and grandfathers had been Tigers or whose families had funded the building of a dorm or a library. I also learned that being rich didn’t protect you from failure. Around me, I saw students flaming out—white, black, privileged or not. Some were seduced by weeknight keg parties, some were crushed by the stress of trying to live up to some scholarly ideal, and others were just plain lazy or so out of their element they needed to flee. My job, as I saw it, was to hold steady, earn the best grades I could, and get myself through.

By sophomore year, when Suzanne and I moved into a double room together, I’d figured out how to better manage. I was more accustomed now to being one of a few students of color in a packed lecture hall. I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was. Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t at all smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.

Some of my peers felt their otherness more acutely than I did. My friend Derrick remembers white students refusing to yield the sidewalk when he walked in their path. Another girl we knew had six friends over to her dorm room one night to celebrate her birthday and promptly got hauled into the dean’s office, informed that her white roommate evidently hadn’t felt comfortable with having “big black guys” in the room. There were so few of us minority kids at Princeton, I suppose, that our presence was always conspicuous. I mainly took this as a mandate to overperform, to do everything I possibly could to keep up with or even plow past the more privileged people around me. Just as it had been at Whitney Young, my intensity was spawned at least in part by a feeling of I’ll show you. If in high school I’d felt as if I were representing my neighborhood, now at Princeton I was representing my race. Anytime I found my voice in class or nailed an exam, I quietly hoped it helped make a larger point.

Suzanne, I was learning, was not an overthinker. I nicknamed her Screwzy, for the impractical, sidewinding course of her days. She based most of her decisions—who she’d date, what classes she took—primarily on how fun it was likely to be. And when things weren’t fun, she quickly changed direction. While I joined the Organization for Black Unity and generally stuck close to the Third World Center, Suzanne ran track and managed the lightweight football team, enjoying the fact that it kept her close to cute, athletic men. Through the eating club, she had friends who were white and wealthy, including a bona fide teenage movie star and a European student rumored to be a princess. Suzanne had felt some pressure from her parents to pursue medicine though eventually gave up on it, finding that it messed with her joy. At some point, she was put on academic probation, but even that didn’t seem to bother her much. She was the Laverne to my Shirley, the Ernie to my Bert. Our shared room resembled an ideological battlefield, with Suzanne presiding over a wrecked landscape of tossed clothing and strewn papers on her side and me perched on my bed, surrounded by fastidious order.

“You really gotta do that?” I’d say, watching Suzanne arrive back from track practice and head to the shower, stripping off her sweaty workout outfit and dropping it on the floor where it would live, intermingled with clean clothes and unfinished school assignments, for the next week.

“Do what?” she’d say back, flashing her wholesome smile.

I sometimes had to block out Suzanne’s chaos so I could think straight. I sometimes wanted to yell at her, but I never did. Suzanne was who she was. She wasn’t going to change. When it got to be too much, I’d scoop up her junk and pile it on her bed without comment.

I see now that she provoked me in a good way, introducing me to the idea that not everyone needs to have their file folders labeled and alphabetized, or even to have files at all. Years later, I’d fall in love with a guy who, like Suzanne, stored his belongings in heaps and felt no compunction, really ever, to fold his clothes. But I was able to coexist with it, thanks to Suzanne. I am still coexisting with that guy to this day. This is what a control freak learns inside the compressed otherworld of college, maybe above all else: There are simply other ways of being.

“Have you ever,” Czerny said to me one day, “thought about starting a little after-school program for kids?”

She was asking out of compassion, I would guess. Over time, I’d grown so dedicated to Jonathan, who was now in elementary school, that a good number of my afternoons were spent wandering around Princeton with him as my sidekick, or at the Third World Center, the two of us playing duets on its poorly tuned piano or reading on a saggy couch. Czerny paid me for my time but seemed to think it wasn’t enough.

“I’m serious,” she said. “I know plenty of faculty members who’re always looking for after-school care. You could run it out of the center. Just try it and see how it goes.”

With Czerny’s word-of-mouth advertising, it wasn’t long before I had a gaggle of three or four children to look after. These were the kids of black administrators and professors at Princeton, who themselves were a profound minority and like the rest of us tended to gravitate toward the TWC. Several afternoons a week, after public elementary school let out, I fed them healthy snacks and ran around with them on the lawn. If they had homework, we worked on it together.

For me, the hours flew. Being around children had a wonderful obliterative effect, wiping out school stress, forcing me out of my head and into the moment. As a girl, I’d passed whole days playing “mommy” to my dolls, pretending that I knew how to dress and feed them, brushing their hair, and tenderly putting Band-Aids on their plastic knees. Now I was doing it for real, finding the whole undertaking a lot messier but no less gratifying than what I’d imagined. I’d go back to my dorm after a few hours with the kids, drained but happy.

Once a week or so, if I found a quiet moment, I’d pick up the phone and dial the number for our apartment on Euclid. If my father was working early shifts, I could catch him in the late afternoon, sitting—or so I imagined—with his legs up in his reclining chair in our living room, watching TV, and waiting for my mom to get home from work. In the evenings, it was usually my mother who picked up the phone. I narrated my college life in exacting detail to both my parents like a homesteader dutifully providing dispatches from the frontier. I spilled every observation I had—from how I didn’t like my French professor to the antics of the little kids in my after-school program to the fact that Suzanne and I had a dedicated, mutual crush on an African American engineering student with transfixing green eyes who, even though we doggedly shadowed his every move, seemed to barely know we were alive.

My dad chuckled at my stories. “Is that right?” he’d say. And, “How about that?” And, “Maybe that engineer-boy doesn’t deserve either one of you girls.”

When I was done talking, he ran through the news from home. Dandy and Grandma had moved back to Dandy’s hometown of Georgetown, South Carolina, and Grandma, he reported, was finding herself a bit lonely. He described how my mother was working overtime trying to care for Robbie, who was now in her seventies, widowed, and struggling with an array of health issues. He never mentioned his own struggles, but I knew they were there. At one point when Craig had a home basketball game on a Saturday, my parents drove all the way to Princeton to see it, and I got my first look at their shifting reality—at what never got said on the phone. After pulling into the vast parking lot outside Jadwin Gym, my father reluctantly slid into a wheelchair and allowed my mother to push him inside.

I almost didn’t want to see what was happening to my father. I couldn’t bear it. I’d done some research on multiple sclerosis in the Princeton library, photocopying medical journal articles to send to my parents. I’d tried to insist that they call a specialist or sign Dad up for some physical therapy, but they—my dad, primarily—didn’t want to hear any of it. For all the hours we spent talking on the phone while I was at college, his health was the one topic he wouldn’t touch.

If I asked how he was feeling, the answer was always “I feel good.” And that would be that.

I let his voice be my comfort. It bore no trace of pain or self-pity, carrying only good humor and softness and just the tiniest hint of jazz. I lived on it as if it were oxygen. It was sustaining, and it was always enough. Before hanging up, he always asked if I needed anything—money, for instance—but I never said yes.

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