Purple

The unexpected death of the incomparable Prince knocked me a little off balance, and I spent a day and a night reflecting on why that is. It is true that Prince’s music painted a colorful and inspirational canvas that embellished my formative years in a small, bland Illinois town. It is true that Purple Rain—the song, the album, and the movie—was an anthem for me and for my high school classmates in the 1980s as we embraced a more open and inclusive world and separated ourselves from our more traditional parents. And it is also very true that as we all cling to the pop culture of our youth, the loss of a childhood idol exposes our psyches to our own inevitable mortality. Yet why should the death of a person I never even met cause such sadness in my heart when I have suffered the tragic and personally devastating death of my own daughter?

That uncomfortable question floated around inside of my brain all day yesterday as I mourned the passing of my favorite pop star and as I shed my tears for a loss that is so much bigger than my own connection to his music. The world is far less colorful today than it was yesterday, before we all learned the sad truth of what it really sounds like when doves cry. But that question, it haunted me. It stayed wedged there between the dozens of articles and tributes I read about Prince. It lurked in the shadows of the music videos I watched. It breathed within the melodies of Prince’s beautiful, exhilarating, and provocative music that I listened to a long, long way past midnight. I felt guilty for owning such sorrow for Prince during those weepy and nostalgic hours, but I was compelled to pay some small tribute of the importance of Prince to the teenager I was. To give up one good night’s sleep seemed a small sacrifice to honor a man whose musical brilliance and irreverence for stark categories made me love him, and whose bold androgyny, unabashed support of female artists, and unapologetic commitment to being who he was opened my eyes up to a world far beyond the confines of my provincial, white, and conservative childhood.

But still. That question. How can the death of a pop star matter to me now? As I spent the night with that question, communing with Prince, enjoying the music of my youth, and lamenting the loss of so many years between the fourteen-year-old me and the forty-nine-year-old me, I cried for Mack. I cried for me. I cried for that fabulous, diminutive Prince, who could flat-out slay a guitar solo like a king, while rocking a pair of heels, a ruffled shirt, and a purple brocade jacket like a queen. Mack was there in all those tears, but her presence was not for the purpose of eliciting regret for my emotional reaction to the death of a pop star. Rather, she was there to give license to the depth of my sorrow at the end of a life of one of the most unique artists I have ever had the great pleasure to appreciate. Since losing Mack, I am more generous with my tears, I have more empathy, and I feel the sorrows in the world more keenly. But, of course, once again, I needed my girl to show me the way. Sometime, long after midnight, in a glassy-eyed, purple fog of exhaustion, Mack whispered in my head. She said, “I know why you’re so sad. Prince got a little bit in your teenager soul, and that’s a good thing, Momma Bear. And don’t worry, because surely you remember that purple is my favorite color, too.”

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A Purple Bulldog

Last week, a large envelope arrived in the mail with a Truman State University logo in bold purple letters. This was the kind of envelope that announced quite clearly that it conveyed a very important and official parcel. Upon holding that envelope in my hands and feeling the somewhat squishy character of the item within it, my heart skipped a beat…or maybe two…as I realized that the envelope and its contents possessed the feel of a padded diploma portfolio. I am not sure why I knew it, but even before I pulled out the lush purple folder with Truman State University embossed in gold letters across the front, I knew that Mack’s college—the school she had picked on her own, the school she had embraced with every atom of her budding intellectual being, the school she loved—was recognizing her collegiate accomplishments along with its spring 2015 graduates.

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The tears freely flowed down my cheeks and I forgot to breathe as I fixed my blurred gaze upon that beautiful diploma. I cried because this represented Mack’s hard academic work and her success at Truman. I cried because she will not graduate with her best college friends and classmates one year from now. I cried because this will be her only college diploma. But I also cried because I realized that Mack had made a very wise college decision. That she had chosen a special school that embraced her as much as she had embraced it. And that my baby girl had spent her magical two years of college at a very special campus where individual students matter. The letter accompanying the diploma validated my realizations, and the tears just kept coming as a read it…

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I am grateful and happy that Mack chose Truman State. Mack was incredibly happy there. And at every turn, she met teachers, administrators, editors, a coach, and friend upon friend upon friend who were all happy that Mack was there, too. But I can tell you that back in March of 2012, when Mack was procrastinating her college choice right down to the wire (of course), I had no idea Truman was such a special place. I had not even heard of this small liberal arts school in rural, northern Missouri until after we began searching for a suitable substitute for Oberlin College, which was way out of our price range. In our last-minute research, we became impressed with Truman’s rankings for academics and value. After we visited Truman for the first time, we came away with a pretty good feeling about the lovely little campus with its solid red-brick buildings, lush green spaces, and architecturally impressive library. The academics, especially in English, the varied writing opportunities available to all levels of students, and an invitation to play NCAA Division II golf added to the allure. But I was still worried it would be a poor substitute for Oberlin; and late in the game, I favored Mack’s other choice, Saint Louis University.

Once Mack narrowed her choices to Truman and SLU, she refused to discuss it further. She wanted to be left alone to quietly make a decision on her own. I tried not to press her, as I wanted the final decision to be hers; but, of course, I fretted more as each day passed. Mack’s nonchalance about it added to my stress, but she expressed no worry whatsoever. Finally, just a couple of days before a deposit for housing was due, Mack chose Truman State. She was calm and deliberate in delivering her decision and explaining it. She told me that she believed it made the most sense. It was affordable and would require very little in the way of student loans. It offered the liberal arts curriculum she wanted, as well as a strong creative writing department and a B.F.A. if she decided to pursue that path. And playing golf for free was “the bacon on the burger,” she quipped. Mack’s decision made sense, I had to admit. But I immediately worried that she had simply made a practical decision, choosing Truman not because it spoke to her heart but because it was more affordable. When I expressed my doubt about her choice, Mack said: “Mom, the school color is purple. I’m going to be a Bulldog. What could be better than being a purple bulldog?!!” I responded that a college wardrobe of her favorite color and the lovability of the mascot was no way to choose a college. “Nah! Hush, hush, Momma Bear,” she chided me. “It’s all good. I’ve found the right place. I feel it.”True Bulldog 5

Of course, like so many other things in her life about which I had fears or doubts, Mack was right all along. Her hunch…her feeling…about Truman State was, indeed, all good. Within just a few days of arriving on that campus, it was Mack’s place. She found a comfortable home there, and it was from that amazing little college in northern Missouri that I watched the scholar in Mack emerge. Truman was the place where she bloomed and beamed and blossomed. It is a good feeling now to understand so very completely that the most important choice that Mack made as a young adult was absolutely perfect. Truman’s kind and human gesture in awarding a diploma for the academic work Mack completed adds one final proof attesting to the special place it really is. Truman is a smart and quirky little school with a whole lot of heart, just like my Macko. Thank you, Truman State University, for giving my baby exactly what she wanted: a happy and healthy and hopeful place to flourish.

Purple bulldogs forever.

Mack sporting some of that TSU purple…

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Mack is the first golfer on the left, next to her coach, Sam Lesseig. He was a sweet man, greeting Mack at freshman orientation with her Truman State golf bag. He and his wife fed the girls at their home and showered them with kindness and small gifts. Mack reported to me after a Christmas feast of lasagna, that he had given her a coloring book and crayons so that she could chill out a little while studying for finals. She was so tickled about that. Sadly, Sam died suddenly in the summer of 2013.