Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces the moments before her daughter leaves for college. It will run every Friday this month, and then return for a month each in the winter, spring, and summer.
It’s late October, and the leaves of the tree outside the door to our apartment in Texas cling to their branches, green and full. Late last night, a surprise rain. My seventeen-year-old daughter and I rushed out to the deluge in bare feet, our T-shirts darkening with each drop. We raised our arms, spinning on the walkway and laughing until lightning seared the sky. I pointed to the tree’s thick arms, thinking about the way they stretch as if waving. We huddled under the light on the porch while rivers swelled against the curbs of the parking lot. When I told her we’ve been running into the rain since she was little, she grinned and nodded, her long blonde hair matted on her shoulders and against her neck. Lately, every moment like this trembles with one idea: our last year.
It has rained less than five inches since July, not a drop in September. We need this release. We are weary from the stubborn heat. But more than that, we are weary from staying here for so long.
Indie was born in Colorado in 2002, in February, when snow shawled the trees. By July, her father was gone, slipped out the door on a Saturday morning before she stirred. I could not know then that she and I would never see him again, the same way I couldn’t know our lives, mine and hers, would become a collection of long roads, Uboxes, and change-of-address cards.
When Indie was sixteen months old, I drove us west into Utah to teach writing at a small university. We lived in a corner house with the largest tree in town, a tree with leaves that covered our yard in brown husks the three falls we were there. Those winters, I’d stare out the window, the shadows of the branches like pencil scribbles across the snow. It was there I decided I would not date until Indie was grown. So it has gone all these years, just the two of us.
It was there in Utah, when Indie was two and three and four, that I started the tradition: as soon as we hear rain, we throw open the door. During those first rains, I carried her. She was too young to know my sorrow, the way I waited for word from her father, the way I worried about my bank account every month. But when the rain came, all want and worry washed away. And then in the later rains, she beat me to the middle of the yard or the sidewalk or the walkway.
We left Utah. Then we left Idaho, where a tree outside our duplex spilled yellow-orange onto my windshield. We left Kansas, a room we borrowed, a futon we shared, a tree with branches stretching across a corner of the yard. Then Oklahoma, a tree outside our duplex the setting for the picture I took of Indie in the black-and-white dress she wore on her first day of kindergarten, the morning I told my feet to walk out of Mrs. Brown’s room and leave Indie, let Indie, be. Then New York, where a tall tree outside Indie’s bedroom window turned the grass into a yellow blanket, and she pushed her scooter through the halls of the English building on the weekends. Then Chicago, where our landlady would give me forty dollars a month to feed the birds that flitted in and out of the tree in her front yard, flutters Indie and I watched from our basement window while we binge-watched The Office for the first time. Then New Mexico, and the tree that grew through a hole in the back deck of our adobe home where we liked to sit and watch the headlights curve the mountain, and my father called to tell us every time Titanic was showing on TNT. And now Texas, where we’ve been for five years, the longest we’ve lived anywhere, where I had the chance to leave a few years ago but didn’t because my parents were fifty miles away in the house where I grew up. Now there’s a tree at the cemetery, a tree I stare at while I tell the headstone my parents share about Indie, about me. At every leaving, I say to the wind, “I know you know this all already.” Then I tell my feet to move.
I don’t know trees, how to name them. The same way I may never know how to explain all our leavings. In February, Indie will turn eighteen, and right now, she’s sending out her SAT and ACT scores. I know I am not the first person to stand here, but it’s the first and only time I will stand here, and I’m standing here now.
This morning, the sun crests the building across the parking lot. I’m waiting under the tree, where last night’s rain clings to the leaves like lighted candles. Every school morning, when Indie pulls away in her car, I blow kisses and wave my arms wildly. This morning, an elderly neighbor who’s been here longer than we have calls from her balcony. “Soon,” she says, her voice like a falling leaf, “I will miss your waving arms.”
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her writing has been recognized by the Best American Essays and appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Longreads, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine.