Three years ago, when Isabel was in kindergarten, her popular, veteran teacher with spun-silver hair, gold glasses, and a Harry Potter name — Mrs. Snavely — held Careers Week. During that time students heard from parents who visited to talk about their jobs: a nurse, an artist, a policeman, and a doctor. And on Career Day that week, the children were to dress for their future professions. There would be a little girl in surgical greens, a boy firefighter with a red construction-paper helmet, and even a tiny clown, all sitting cross-legged in room K-1. I had done my best to steer Isabel in one of those directions, but her mind was very much set on her career choice: queen. “I want to be a queen, like Queen Isabel of Spain,” she proclaimed.
I had suggested more realistic choices: astronaut, teacher, even movie star. But Isabel held firm. So I spent the morning clipping the hem of a pink satin costume Celine had worn a few Halloweens ago, and Isabel searched through her toy box and her Magic Chef kitchen for the queen hat, a plastic pink tiara from Target. Leaving for school in her satin robes that morning, she was frustrated as I buckled her into the booster seat, not having found the queen hat. But Celine ran up, last minute with a silver princess cone trimmed with a white feather boa, and Isabel settled for the cone hat. “I’ll just be a princess,” she said, resigned.
Isabel went over some of the reasons I had given her as to why choosing royalty as a profession involved different steps from other careers: “So if I want to be a princess, I have to marry a prince? Is that how you do it?” she asked, a little doubtfully, as I helped her down from the minivan.
“That’s pretty much it.” But any objections I might have had to this future identity were no longer relevant, because when we arrived at K-1, Mrs. Snavely hugged my daughter and said, very matter-of-factly, “Isabel! So you’re a queen!”
As I see it these days, it’s a short distance from kindergarten to college, getting ready for a new identity away from home. And this distance is nil the moment my father raises his camera and takes a snapshot of us all standing by the big orange truck that will move Vincent into his first day of college today. I will have puffy eyes in the picture, but today is a happy day, a glorious day.
It is still a glorious day when we arrive in Berkeley on an unseasonably warm afternoon. We can see the San Francisco Bay flashing from the front steps of Clark Kerr. Parents and students push carts laden with boxes and bags and heaped with clothes. We find a stray metal conveyance to load and rattle past the Spanish courtyard and its fountain, where parent boosters welcome us from a little tent, with pamphlets and “CAL PARENT” pins. We move down drab hallways to a big brown door with names tacked on in little signs: Vincent, Travis, Tom.
“Wow!” I have to say as Vincent’s key lets us into a big, sunny suite with its own living room and kitchen. The bathroom even has a tub, and down the hall is Vincent’s single room with two windows. I have never seen such luxury and space in a dorm.
Bags and boxes on couches and the little kitchen table tell us the other roommates have come and gone. But while Brian and Walt shoulder a mattress down the hallway, we meet Tom, a polite, wiry kid with brown hair and an earring. His family trails him, greets us cordially, and we go through parallel rituals, hanging up clothes, filling drawers, pulling printers out of boxes. It is so warm in Vincent’s little room, I try to push open the old windows, overlooking a construction site, but they are sealed shut. There is noise and dust from below, even today, as tractors and men move debris to quake-proof the cafeteria.
I hope we will not leave without meeting Vincent’s other roommate. From his doorway, I have spied a photograph on his desk. It is a portrait of an Asian boy with his arm around a girl with long, fair hair. “You’re going to be friends,” I say to Vincent.
“How do you know?” There is something to the picture.
We hear a woman introducing herself and her son in the next room, chatting, laughing. “I’m Geri Wong,” we hear.
Geri, lovely and petite, resembles the fair-haired girl in the picture in the next room, and Travis is an earnest, nice-looking kid with dark hair and glasses. He will major in science and math, and played trumpet in his high school band, he tells us. At this, my son brings out the blue instrument case from his new closet.
“How’d you get in the capped science classes?” asks Travis, examining the silver trumpet appreciatively.
I seize this chance: “It’s because of a disability. You get to sign up first.” For nine years FOP has trained me to inform. Now it will be Vincent’s turn, but I am in transition — as much as he is.
Most people would just nod politely, but Geri Wong asks, as if prompted by God, “What is your disability, so we can help?”
“Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva,” says Vincent. Of course, Travis and his mother have never heard of it, and this is not the moment for scientific explanations.
“He can’t have trauma,” is all I say. “So no fistfights!” I tell Travis, who, with his math-and-science air, seems most unlikely to start hitting people. Geri laughs. I like her.
We say our good-byes, and Vincent follows us to the U-Haul yawning open at the end of his dorm’s hallway. We are late in returning it. Brian is late for a reunion at Bowles.
But as I climb into the car we drove behind the U-Haul, and start to pull a seat belt across me, I feel uneasy, like when you aren’t sure if you left the house with the oven on. The dorm and the university have all the FOP information, but will my son take up this baton overnight? “He’s at the age where he can tell people about it himself,” says Walt. He’s right.
Is seventeen that age?
I have to do this — one last time — and if I’m not doing this for Vincent, I guess I’m doing it for me.
So when Walt and Brian are securing the U-Haul hatch, I unbuckle my seat belt. I have to answer that other mother. Tell us, so we can help, she said.
I rush back to the locked exit, opened by a young man emerging with an armful of empty boxes. I run down the hall and knock at the brown door with my son’s name on it. Travis’s mother greets me, surprised.
“My son hates when I do this,” I begin. “But I just couldn’t leave without answering you.” And we both stand in the suite’s entryway, where a ten-speed slants against the wall. I talk about FOP as fast as I can, about obstacles, treatments, emergency numbers, and Geri Wong promises to pass it all on. It isn’t the most perfect way to do this, but under the circumstances, maybe the best way. Vincent finds us in the little hallway and raises his eyebrows.
“We’re just talking mom stuff,” Geri says. My son kisses me good-bye again, and steps off lightly into his new life with his new roommates through his new front door.
“God bless you,” says Geri, looking like an old friend as we hug good-bye. There is a knock at the big brown door: Walt, checking his watch. We’ve missed the U-Haul deadline.
“She’s just being a mom,” says Geri. “She’s just being a mom.” And as we leave her standing at the door watching us go, I have the illusion I am putting a lovely, capable mother in charge. At least for a few more moments.
The above piece has appeared in different versions in El Andar and Hispanic Link News Service (Los Angeles Times News Syndicate) and is reprinted courtesy of Avalon Publishing from Finding Magic Mountain: Life with Five Glorious Kids and a Rogue Gene Called FOP.