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.
The stands at Bronco Field fill early tonight, and the countdown on the scoreboard clocks less than thirty minutes to kick off. On the far end of the field, the Broncos, white jerseys and purple numbers, run defense routes, while green jerseys line up secondary pass plays near the end zone. Four students in purple shirts stand at the edge of the field, each holding a poster-board above their head: FOOTBALL FILLIES CHEER BAND.
We’re told to line up alphabetically with our children, so I make my way to the back of the band line. Two cheerleaders and several of the Fillies, in their fringed, drill-team uniforms with hats tied tight, are wearing sashes—SENIOR 2020—and small tiaras.
The couple behind me introduces themselves as Chris Wilson’s parents. Chris is one of the sousaphone players. I nod, “Oh, yes, of course,” because I remember hearing about the boy who, as a freshman, had to sit on phone books during band practice. When Chris’s father asks what instrument my “son? daughter?” plays, I say, “My daughter, Indie. She’s the drum major.”
I grew up on football fields. My father was the head coach at several high schools in Texas. I like to say I lived Friday Night Lights long before the book, the movie, the show. The first games I remember were at Lubbock High in the mid-70’s, the years I was six, seven, and eight. On Saturdays, Dad took me to the field house, where I’d either play school at the chalkboard in the sweaty stench of the locker room or wander the track to a row of bars and practice the pullovers I was learning in gymnastics. On Friday nights in fall, my mother and I huddled under a blanket at the top of the stands, and I’d do a two-footed hop down every step to the concession stand for hot chocolate and a Butternut candy bar.
The clock’s winding down, and the band parents take turns stepping to the fence to see if the band is heading this way. No, each nods before stepping back into line.
Last week at the Friday morning pep rally, Indie stood in the middle of the gym floor, arm in arm with her best friend, JeTavien. The two of them were finalists for Homecoming King and Queen. I sat next to JeTavien’s mother in the thundering bleachers, the students in the overcrowded gym stomping a drumroll in the seconds before the big announcement. That night during the game, Indie stood on the podium conducting the band, her HOMECOMING QUEEN sash draped across her crisp uniform, the tiara catching the stadium lights.
Someone in the football line points to the pinks and yellows of dusk, says how lucky we are it’s not raining this year. I think about how many parents have stood here, how some of these parents walked with their parents onto this field. Indie and I have been here for five years, a promise I made to her when she entered high school that we wouldn’t move again before she graduated.
The game clock closes in on ten minutes, and I hear the rata-tat-tat of the drums, see the first gray uniforms and purple plumes march down Fillmore Street from the band hall, a tradition. I straighten my black blazer and pull at the cuffs of my jeans, question my choice to wear red heels after hearing we’ll be walking from the end zone to the fifty.
In January of 2017, my father had a heart attack in a hotel room and was gone before my mother could dial 911. Two months later, she was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer, and in the dark of an April morning the next year, while Indie held one of her hands and I held the other, my mother, too, left us.
I was a cheerleader in high school, even college. I used to flip up and down fields like this one.
When I see Indie making her way to me, I glance at the top of the stands and imagine my mother there, a blanket across her lap, clapping. I look to the sidelines, remember my father pacing, pacing. And I remember all the running starts I took on the field before flipping, flipping, flipping. Indie rushes up and takes her place in line, and I look up at her, the way I’ve had to do for years, even in heels. Chris Wilson slides in behind us, taller than both of his parents. Indie’s friends cross the field, arm in arm with one parent on one side, one on the other. JeTavien’s parents, divorced for over a decade, walk together with their son.
At the edge of the field the band director speaks names into a small mic, a direct line to the press box. We step up beside him. Indie’s wearing her white gloves. She grabs my hand and squeezes. The band director presses a button and whispers: “Talbot, ready to go.”
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.