Fair warning: this post is long and edging on (OK, fine, spilled right over to) sappy.
I stumbled across Grease on television this weekend. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that movie, but I could still practically recite it. In high school, a friend and I used to watch it together all the time. She called me Sandy because I refused to be lured in to her Rizzo-like shenanigans.
My freshman year of college, I got the opportunity to audition for a musical production of Grease put on by the student theater club. I never thought I’d be cast as a freshman, or if I was cast, I’d be an extra at the dance or something. Instead I was cast as…Sandy. I was thrilled (even if the guy who played Danny was a solid six inches shorter than me). This was a part I was born to play. For various reasons, I haven’t been involved in a production on that scale since, so I have very fond memories of doing that show.
What I didn’t expect was the melancholy feelings the movie would also stir up. In addition to remembering how fun the show was, I also remembered how hard the rest of that year was. In so many ways, that was the year I grew up.
My college’s Orientation Week started on a Monday in August. It also happened to be my eighteenth birthday. The following Monday, classes started. I had been a good student in high school, but college was a total shock to me. It turns out I had no appreciable study skills because high school had been easy for me. College was decidedly NOT easy. I was in an intense, competitive major that required copious amounts of work outside of class. Whatever ratio they usually use to estimate how much time you should be spending out of class per credit hour? Double it. Triple it, even. So many all-nighters. So much wheel-spinning trying to get the hang of the course load.
Just being away from home for the first time was an adjustment as well. I’m very close with my family and I also had a boyfriend and a best friend still back at home. I was making friends, helped by the fact that my older brother attended the same school and already had a built-in group of friends, but it was still lonely sometimes. One particular day (I remember very clearly it was September 13, so about the third week of classes), I was feeling especially homesick. I was three thousand miles away from my family, my boyfriend, and my best friend. I couldn’t help but wonder what would be the first major thing to happen to my family while I was away. What would I wish I was home for and wouldn’t be able to be? That evening I spent a long time on the phone with my boyfriend, and then with my best friend, trying to shake the blues.
When I finally hung up the phone, it rang again almost immediately. It was my dad, saying he had been trying to get a hold of me all night but the line had been busy. I was instantly worried, because my parents didn’t usually call me. They didn’t have to, since I didn’t go that long between phone calls to them. Then he told me I should sit down. That they had run some tests on my mom to try to figure out what had been causing her severe headaches and they finally had an answer: it was a brain tumor.
I couldn’t process the fact that they scheduled surgery for over a month out. I couldn’t process the fact that they were 99% sure it was benign. I couldn’t process the fact that they thought it was slow-growing enough that it could have been there for ten, twenty, or even thirty years. All I knew was that this thing was in her HEAD. It needed to come OUT. NOW.
My parents finally got through to me that, although this would require brain surgery, all signs pointed to my mom being 100% fine after recovering from the survey itself. So we settled in to wait for the red target on the calendar: October 20.
The Saturday before her surgery, I slept in, then went to the cafeteria for lunch. I had some pizza and headed back to my room. About an hour later, I called my mom, telling her I didn’t feel well, that my stomach hurt. But it hurt in a way I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t cramps, it wasn’t indigestion, it just…hurt. I was also a little nauseated, so she told me to find some crackers and some clear soda and take it easy. I called one of my friends who lived one floor up and she graciously ran to the 7-Eleven across the street for me. I ate a few crackers, took a couple of sips of soda and tried to rest. I may have dozed off for a bit, but my pain was increasing and I knew I needed help. I got myself out of bed and made my way down my hall toward my brother’s room (in a different hall in the same dorm). I made it almost to the end of the hall, where I promptly threw up in a trash can. So gave up on doing it myself and dispatched my sweet friend from upstairs to go find him.
Finding him took a while, as did arranging a ride to the ER from campus security. Now, I was going to college in one of the largest cities in the country, a city with world-class teaching and research hospitals. Did they take me to one of those hospitals? No, they took me to the one smack-dab in the middle of the projects. The one with ants in the waiting room. The one that has since been shut down and abandoned. Because it was two blocks closer. It took us hours to even be taken back to a room, I think because once the triage nurse heard I’d eaten at the dorm cafeteria, she assumed it was food poisoning. Food poisoning isn’t as important as gun shot wounds, so I languished in the waiting room, curled in the fetal position in a molded plastic chair, watching the ants try to carry off a bounty of something sticky. When I finally was taken back to a room, it was another hour before I was seen by a doctor. It was another hour after that before I got any pain medication (which was sweet, sweet, joyous relief). It was another hour after that before I finally had a diagnosis: appendicitis.
There was a long phone debate about whether one of my parents should come be with me. I had to remind them both that Mom was having surgery in five days and they both needed to stay right where they were. I had my brother; I was going to be fine.
By now it was after one in the morning. They scheduled me for surgery at seven, with pre-op at 6:30. Except they actually didn’t. When my pre-op time had come and gone, my poor, sweet exhausted brother (who had slept in a chair with his head propped on my ER bed) went to find out why they hadn’t come to get me yet. And it was because no one from the ER had actually called anyone from surgery. Surgery didn’t know I existed, much less that I existed with a rapidly swelling, infected appendix. They finally came to get me, wheeled me in to surgery, and I woke up down one useless appendix.
They advised me to stay out of class at least a week, longer if I needed to. I took the week, but remember what I said about work load? In trying to catch up the following week, I got twelve hours of sleep in four nights and landed myself a sinus infection and bronchitis. Which took another week out of class to recover from. I was so behind by the middle of October that i ended up taking an incomplete in one of my classes for the semester.
Meanwhile, my mom had her own surgery and came through with flying colors except for the tumor being larger than they thought, and part of it had imbedded in to her skull so they had to permanently remove a piece of bone, and there was a little piece they had to leave because it was wrapped around a blood vessel and hey, that means it will probably grow back someday but it will take years and years and won’t the technology be so much better then? But seriously, all things considered, she did very well, the tumor was indeed benign, and the recovery was easier than we thought it would be. Even so, it was so good to go home for Christmas and actually see her (and her enormous scar) for myself.
Christmas was idyllic; having a break from such demanding school work, seeing my family and my boyfriend, breathing clean Far Northian air instead of stinky city air, and being there when my best friend got engaged. January, however, brought a rude wake-up call. I was barely back at school when I got another one of those dreaded phone calls. Due to budget cuts, my dad would only have his job for (at most) six more months. He had to find a new job, and it wouldn’t necessarily be in Far North. In addition to being worried about the state of our finances, I was devastated at the thought of my family moving. Far North was home. It was a part of my identity. I couldn’t imagine “going home” to Wisconsin or New Mexico or Florida. It wouldn’t be the same. I felt like I was losing one more piece of my childhood.
In the midst of all of this, I was catching up from my previous semester’s incomplete, joining a sorority, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, and auditioning (then rehearsing) for Grease. Eventually, thankfully, it was decided that my dad wouldn’t be losing his job, just taking a temporary pay cut (that lasted five years longer than they said it would). He’s the CEO of the company now, so I guess it all worked out.
While the deluge of memories was an unexpected side-effect of the movie, it was good to remember. I learned so much about myself through the insanity of that year. I learned that I was stronger than I thought and weaker than I thought, all at the same time. I learned more about what was truly important to me. But mostly I learned that I pretty much didn’t know anything about being an adult, despite how mature I’d convinced myself I was. That was only going to come with time, not with a 30-second time-lapse transformation at the end of the play.