Life Beginnings

The 2016 college essay prompts are available. This happens every August, but never before has it been relevant to me. My oldest son must write one this year, and along with helicopter moms everywhere, I will suggest, recommend, encourage, and insist he get going on this rite of passage. And, along with helicopter moms everywhere, I will most certainly be ignored.

My son has received much advice on the all-important essay. From teachers. From guidance counselors. At pre-college seminars and on college tours. Do not write about sports. Or passing tests. Or grandparents passing. Avoid that mission trip you took with church last year. And any trip you took with your family. Or friends. Be unique. Talk about what is important to you. Describe your passions.

The college essay prompts have taught me so much. My 17 year old son has just barely begun to live. His entire life experience is sports, passing tests (or not), and losing grandparents. He didn’t go on a mission trip. As of late, he resists every family vacation. And trips with friends? I am not yet ready to read about them anyway.

He avoids uniqueness. His passion is spending night and day with friends who look like him, who act like him, who live like him. He has writer’s block. As do I.

This weekend, our family ran a race honoring the life of our very good friend. We were not alone, in running the race or in considering her a very good friend. There were 600 of us. Each, I am certain, had a connection to Mary. The love that emanated along the route was palpable.

Mary’s 13 year old daughter was instrumental in organizing the race and managing the day. And in orchestrating a huge post-race ice bucket challenge, bonding us together in our love of Mary and our commitment to continuing to give. Until there is a cure.

Maria is prepared, at 13, to write her college essay. She has had a big life already.

It is not the life Mary would have chosen, for herself or her daughter. Mary would not have hoped for the ease in which Maria can respond to each essay prompt. Describe a problem you’d like to solve. Reflect on a hope that was not fulfilled. Describe an event that marked the passage from childhood to adulthood. Check. Check. Check.

How thrilled my friend would have been to have a daughter who has just barely begun to live. Instead of one who has experienced the pain and grief of a loss so huge that it will define much of her life to come.

After the run, I listen to a podcast by Nancy Frates. Her son Pete’s Ice Bucket Challenge has raised more awareness of and money for ALS research than any other fundraiser has raised for anything. Ever. On the podcast, Nancy talks about the family dinner on the day Pete is diagnosed. Instead of awkward conversation, Pete demands that the family not wallow in self pity. He tells them they will work together to change the world. Later in the podcast, Nancy recounts his words: mom, he says, I have my passion.

My friend Mary’s children made her proud. All of the time. I could see it in her eyes and feel it in her manner. They are making her proud, still. I don’t know what each of them will grow up to be. But I am confident that the way their mother lived, and the way she faced her death, has helped to define who they will become.

Mary was sweet and kind. She was also reserved. So when I watch Maria climb up onto the back of a truck, with a bullhorn, to count down to the moment when 600 of her mom’s closest friends douse themselves in water and ice, I smile. I know Mary would smile too. And shake her head, as she watched her daughter command the crowd. And when Maria is ready, finally, years from now, to compose the all-important college essay, Mary will be with her, I am certain, proud as ever, helicoptering above.

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