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Eight weeks changes everything

Meghanne Downes | Saturday, August 21, 2004

Eight weeks.

It doesn’t seem like a long time, but eight weeks changed my life.

I didn’t realize at the time what was happening; I never even anticipated that it would.

In eight weeks I had begrudgingly become accustomed to the idea of showering with flip-flops and adapted my only-child lifestyle to incorporate living with a roommate.

In eight weeks I had cautiously shed my shy demeanor and passed through the doorway into a sweaty 11-x-14 room blaring Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” – a scene known only as a freshman dorm party – and eaten my first chocolate-chip cookie ever (sparking a mini-obsession with everything of the chocolate-chip cookie nature).

In eight weeks I had seamlessly perfected the art of pulling all-nighters for my first round of midterms and haphazardly balanced classes, intramural flag football (this a feat in itself, given I am quite possibly the most un-athletic person at Notre Dame) and working at this newspaper.

But in these eight weeks I had not anticipated that as I carefully charted my own course in life, independent from that of my family and home that I left behind, that the world I left behind was changing as well.

Before that Friday morning in mid-August three years ago when my parents and I loaded up the family conversion van with more stuff than could fit in my miniscule dorm room and headed to Notre Dame, everything had been about me and only me. About me getting into college. About me graduating from high school. About me preparing to go to Notre Dame.

Then came eight weeks of me trying to define me.

Eight Fridays after the first one in August I found myself sitting at my own kitchen table during fall break eagerly relaying stories about college life to my parents.

It was then that I saw the look in my father’s eyes – a sentiment that could not be detected through an e-mail or phone call.

I knew that my college experience would be bittersweet for my parents – they would be happy to see me experiencing new things, but they would be sad to see me leave and know that I was having these experiences without them there to guide me.

What I did not know was how much my parents’ lives had changed as well.

I found that my mother had not cooked a single meal in eight weeks – that is, of course, until the night when I came home to my favorite meal of green bean casserole and chicken and rice with mushrooms.

I discovered that after holding on to me tightly, shuffling me back to the car and pleading with me to come home, my parents had driven the 92 miles back to Chicago in silence with tears in their eyes.

I learned that each time they called my room and I was not there, their worry level rose five notches.

For the next nine days of fall break, my parents tried to talk me out of returning to Notre Dame. My dad tried to lay one of his infamous guilt trips on me, saying, “Now you don’t really want to leave, do you? What’s better than being at home?”

My mom even tried to bribe me when, as mother and daughter, we baked chocolate chip cookies together for the first time. As the mother, she reasoned, she could tell me what to do. As the daughter, I would have to listen.

As fall break drew to a close, my dad surprised me with a trip to Krispy Kreme (though it’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures, he is not the biggest fan). As we drove to my doughnut mecca he told me something I had heard countless times before, but that now had a different impact.

As he told me he loved me, I immediately responded that I loved him too, but he stopped me mid-sentence and said – as most parents do – he loved me more. He said though he loved me, it hurt him to see me leave and he would prefer to keep me a little girl forever, he knew Notre Dame was the place for me.

Eight more weeks later, with my first semester as a college student behind me, I returned home once again.

This time things were just a little different.

Much to my disappointment, I discovered that the dog – a rather large and unruly German Shepherd named Bailey – had essentially replaced me in the Downes household. My mom goes shopping for her and buys her toys. My dad (who learned early on that I was not the most coordinated person in the world) taught her to play catch with a basketball. And both of my parents decided that my room should now be hers.

But there was a much more important discovery that I came face to face with that Christmas break – my parents and I had a new relationship.

Sure, we were still parents and child, but we were also friends. The arguments, discussions and secrets that riddled my high school years had faded away.

While I had grown and changed that fall, they came to accept that I was growing up and we both realized the dynamics of our relationship had changed forever.

When my mom and I made chocolate chip cookies for Christmas, she did not cry and she did not tell me I had to stay at home. But she did eagerly ask me to explain in detail – just like “one of the girls” – everything that had happened since fall break.

My dad no longer tried to control every aspect of my life – granted, he still likes to have a say in my decisions – and what used to be unbearable one-sided discussions became actual conversations.

I did not realize in August 2001 that what I know now was even possible – that eight weeks would change not just my life, but my parents’ as well.

Sure, my parents still struggle with me leaving for school and they still regard me as their little girl.

Just last Sunday, my mom gave me her habitual bear hug and shuffle-shuffle saying, “C’mon just get back in the car, come home with me, you don’t need to go back. You are growing up too fast.”

Three years later, as I stare with bewildered eyes at my senior year and beyond that my future, I have collected countless unforgettable memories but hold dearest my unexpected new friendship. While I will leave behind the flag football field (probably a great idea), the dorm parties and the all-night study sessions, I will never have to say goodbye to the life-changing – mine and theirs – effects of those eight weeks.

Meghanne Downes is a senior political science and peace studies double major with a journalism minor. An only child hailing from Chicago, she never had a cookie until the first week of freshman year. Thanks to the endless encouragement and persistance of her roommates, she continues to discover other foods such as tacos, cucumbers, Thai food, peanut butter and jelly and most recently, the pita. Contact Meghanne Downes at mdownes1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.