A mother called me this afternoon. I was sitting in Voss Hall, tending to a few things in my office, when the ringer erupted to shatter the otherwise quiet of the meandering midday hours. As I am required to do, I answered, grabbing a pen to record a few notes as I visited with this concerned mother with a thousand questions about her son’s’ future. Only some of them I could answer.
I settled in to answer the barrage of questions: “yes, I truly believe your son could fit in well here.”
“Scholarships, yeah we have those available.”
“No, he cannot bring his dog to college with him, unless, of course, if its a service animal.”
Most of these furrow browed mothers want assurance that their child will be okay. I do my best to promise them the things I know are true: a nurturing environment filled with personal attention and an opportunity to be successful. With genial parting salutations, I hung up the phone, stood up from my desk, and stretched my legs as I walked down the hallway.
“I’m no fortune teller,” I thought as I opened the door to the creepy back staircase connecting Voss and Thorson.
As I climbed, I was confronted by a ghost that confirms my musing, or perhaps just a thought that has lingered in the reluctant shadows of that stairwell for a good long while.
That’s the funny thing about thoughts: when they leave our heads do they simply dissipate, or do they float like spectres, hanging in the air until another suitable head comes along? In that darkened staircase I am often reminded that it is perhaps the latter.
The thought came to me as I treaded up the same stairs once walked by my father several decades ago. He was also working his first job out of graduate school, his office located at the top of those very stairs in Thorson Hall. When I was hired on here he was happily filled with nostalgic sentiment, but made sure to give me a few words of advice: “Don’t try to be a fortuneteller.”
I wonder if he eventually came to that conclusion walking up those very same creepy back stairs, the thought floating out of his head and lingering in the atmosphere until this afternoon when it falsely recognized me as him. We look kind of the same, or so I’m told by those too friendly older ladies at the grocery store who have been around long enough to remember. Or perhaps there is a more tangible ghoul, the still lingering memory of someone else who once walked these halls, albeit briefly, during the same time as my father.
It was the fall, a little earlier in the season than it is now, and Forest City was ablaze with the oranges, yellows, and crimsons that characterize the autumn. My father was coaching basketball, or perhaps pretending not to on that particular evening, as he lingered high above the floor of the Hanson Field House watching the players below participate in voluntary preseason workouts from a hallway window. The rules prevented him from physically being in the gym at that time of year, but as an eager young coach he wanted to see what how his new recruits were coming along.
He had spent the previous year gathering a group of players he thought could be very special, sitting in living rooms across the Midwest with eager mothers and fathers, much like the ones I try to reassure now. He had foretold of the great success their sons would have on the hardwood and in the classroom, and even eventually in life, if only they would come to this tucked away collegiate campus at the intersection of highways 9 and 69.
When he tells the story he often pauses here, waiting a moment while gathering thoughts that I am not still sure have all been taken from those dark places like the back stairs of Thorson Hall.
As he has described it to me on occasion, he was looking away from the court as the players raucously practiced below, visiting with his assistant coaches about the grand things about to unfold for their program when all of his favorite sounds in the world stopped.
Silence hung in the air.
No bouncing balls.
No squeaking sneakers.
Just quiet, unbroken for a second that must have seemed to stretch into eternity while he turned his head, looked down, and took in the source of the pervading stillness. Theron Anderson, one of the young men whose parents’ living room he had sat in just last spring, had crumbled to the floor.
The momentary quiet was shattered as he sprinted down the stairs, racing to half court where he knelt, holding this young man whose future had been so bright when foretold on that living room couch just months before.
I wonder what thoughts may still be hanging around those dusty rafters in Hanson that escaped from my father’s head in that moment of panic. As I think about myself now, of similar experience and age, and how overwhelming that moment must have been, how his thoughts must have splintered until there was only the particles of a million tiny sentiments remaining. The sinking sensation, all too real, when he realized that the outcome would inevitably be tragic. A young life taken too soon, one that he had foretold of becoming great.
After the medics were gone and the team dismissed, I wonder if my father lingered on campus. Making the brisk early evening walk up the hill on I St. his thoughts must have been a muddled collection at best. I bet he thought about his own children, a son and a daughter, and a third child well on the way, and how he would feel to get the phone call he had just himself made to the parents of the too recently departed. With heavy heart, I am sure he wondered what his role had been in the young man’s death, although the autopsy report would uncover a previously unreported heart ailment as the culprit.
As he arrived on main campus, I am sure his head was swirling with questions and doubts. Perhaps he walked up those back stairs, regretting the bright future he had foretold to that child’s parents, letting a thought escape through his ears and into the inky, cob webbed darkness. Unintentionally leaving a thought to find me, concealed in the shadows until I now walk in his footsteps: “don’t try to be a fortuneteller.”