In March of 2019, my younger brother Jack and I found ourselves shoulder to shoulder on an itchy cot in the lemon-scented, linoleum-tiled hallway of the University of Michigan emergency room. He assured me for the umpteenth time that I was fine, but the sharp pain in my chest told me otherwise. Jack’s pragmatic mind knew enough about my history of anxiety and hypochondria to know that I was suffering from a panic attack, and not heart failure, but he sat patiently beside me for the five enduring hours. He stayed there, empathetic, until my vitals were declared perfect, my chest clear and I was handed a blue-grey inhaler for “exercise-induced asthma” and a bubblegum pink discharge slip.
There’s one word to describe my brother, a first-year pre-med student: sensible. He acts with realism and quietude. He’s easygoing, down-to-earth and erudite. Going to school on the same campus as my brother Jack is uncomplicated and bright; he has an inherent impulse to put others at ease.
This is why Jack didn’t object to the 10-and-a-half hour drive we had to endure together from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Fair Haven, New Jersey, when University President Mark Schlissel urged students to go home to avoid further exposure to the rapidly spreading COVID-19. For all of college, we had never driven to or from New Jersey: It was too long of a drive, mostly on open highways, which triggered my anxiety. There was, then, a sentimentality to the departure, and its intangible ironies. The last time leaving Ann Arbor as an undergraduate student would be nestled among a first.
After bartering with my parents to stay in Ann Arbor for a few more days before leaving, so I could give my goodbyes to hulking buildings and people who have impacted my journey in immeasurable ways, we rented a 2018 silver Mitsubishi.
As it drew closer to when I had to leave town, I treated every goodbye as a “see you soon” and pushed sentimentality from my mind as if it had no place there. Pathetic fallacy welcomed sorrow to the array of emotions I was feeling as it poured rain my entire last day in Ann Arbor. I packed the backseat of the car with trash bags of grey-purple bedding, boxes of faded The Michigan Daily newspapers and suitcases bursting with heavy sweaters and rainbow scarves. In my chest lived an unnerving cocktail of isolation and desolation. I’d never felt so without a home before, as I did now, being uprooted from Michigan, a place where I had learned, lost and grown: I started college with long hair, pink bedding and dreams of sorority houses and fraternity boys, and I ended with short, chin-length hair, a lack of Greek life affiliation and a deep-seated passion for writing poems and telling stories.
I knew it would never truly feel like the right time to leave Michigan, but there definitely is a wrong time. There I was, standing in front of a rental car packed with my entire life, seven weeks before the closure that was supposed to make a semi-sweet goodbye feel, at the very least, conventional.
That’s why, as I got into the driver’s seat of that same overpacked Mitsubishi the next morning, a road trip playlist titled “It is 100% Coronatime” playing softly in the background, I focused on our drive and destination — not the departure.
The plan was for Jack and me to split the drive in half. We spent the first five hours of the drive on a road trip euphoria. We laughed and reminisced, telling one another stories about the questions smartass kids asked in humid lecture halls, roommates that go to Chipotle for brunch every Sunday, sweaty parties full of theater majors where something ironically dramatic happened and the idiosyncratic people we’d left behind. We listened through the Camp Rock 1 and 2 soundtracks and sang along to Bruce Springsteen songs. There was strange tranquility as I drove down Ohio’s stretch of I-80, sipping on a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. After a while, we just drove quietly, both lost in thought.
Jack began begging me to drive once it hit noon. At 1:30 p.m., I pulled into the nearest gas station. Jack filled the gas while I got into the passenger seat, both glad he was to drive the rest of the way. We ate yogurt-covered pretzels and sang along to the Hamilton soundtrack for the first half-hour that he sat behind the wheel. The Pennsylvania highway began to empty of cars and fill with thick, foggy air.
At 2 p.m., an aunt of ours who we hadn’t spoken to in a while called. She wanted to see how the drive was, and perhaps, subliminally, make us feel some strain of guilt for not leaving Ann Arbor five days earlier. She went on for 20 minutes about what her family had been doing to quarantine, referencing terrible stories of people in New Jersey who’d passed away due to the virus.
“Have you been social distancing at school?” She asked, poking around for information about Ann Arbor, where the first few cases had begun to pop up just as we pulled away from campus.
“Uh … sort of, I mean, things were just starting to close when we left. We said goodbye to our friends,” I said, trying to understand why it was important to her. I didn’t know what to say, feeling suddenly guilty, even though every goodbye was from a distance — light taps of our sweatshirt-covered elbows.
“Well, what’s your plan when you get home? What have your parents been doing?” My brother and I shared a muddled glance. When we finally hung up, dread and apprehension hung in the air-conditioned car that hadn’t before.
As we continued driving, I noticed that Jack had been coughing and yawning for the bulk of the drive. I knew this wasn’t abnormal for him, as he’d been on allergy medication since he was a toddler and sometimes his symptoms come back when he forgets to take it. “Have you been taking your meds?” I asked.
“No,” he answered, yawning and focusing on the road.
“Do you think you should tell mom and dad you’re coughing then? So they can refill your meds or something — you don’t want them to freak out,” I said cautiously, noticing him yawn again.
“Maybe,” he said, yawning and coughing again. He’d told me he went to bed at 2:30 a.m. the morning before we left, and I figured his impending exhaustion and the intermittent bursts of coughing would distract him from the road, which was growing foggier as we found ourselves deeper in Pennsylvania.
“Pull over,” I said, referencing a wide shoulder off the highway. “I think I should drive. You’re tired and you seem distracted.”
Without any sort of argument or rebuttal, he pulled over onto the shoulder. That’s when I sensed something could be wrong — an edge of anxiety rising in my chest. Though I normally worry relentlessly about everyone I care about, this time I suppressed the urge and focused on being responsible, nurturing and cautious. Jack went relatively silent for the next 90 minutes and I tried to keep my leg from cramping to drive with ease. I figured he was tired. I glanced in the mirror, eventually, and met his eyes. I know my brother, and I can see it in his face when something is wrong.
I said, again: “Have you told mom you aren’t feeling great?”
He replied curtly, “No.”
I paused for a moment, letting the dull sound of wheels on concrete wash over us. “Do you think you should?”
It was his turn to pause. “No, I think we should just go to the emergency room.”
The words “emergency room” in any context fill me with alerted panic. I’ve always had a strong aversion to emergency rooms and medical crises, and this anxiety is exacerbated in a time with overflowing hospitals and concerned medical officials displayed on the front page of every major newspaper.
As I drove, my hands growing sweaty as I gripped the steering wheel, I asked him to find the nearest hospital on his iPhone navigation. Jack isn’t the type of person to take trips to the hospital lightly: If he says he needs to go to the emergency room, he means it. This situation was familiar — the two of us at the emergency room, yet this time I was the companion, and Jack was the patient.
After parking and heading to the door to comfort my brother as he had for me so many times, a paramedic in a face mask and rubber gloves at the front door denied me entry. I looked ridiculous, wearing sunglasses and a floral face mask, and almost began to protest, until I realized what was happening: The paramedic at the door was stopping each individual to ask questions regarding their potential exposure to COVID-19, even if they were at the E.R. for a broken arm. I exhaled and retreated to the Mitsubishi.
In the car, I tried to avoid the guilt I felt that I couldn’t sit there with Jack. He’d texted me from inside, saying I should stay in the car anyway, that an emergency room wasn’t the best place to be given the pandemic, but I was filled with trepidation: What if he was sick? What if we needed to stay? I felt intense melancholy at the image of my good-natured little brother sitting in a hospital, in a town we’d never been to, all alone.
Ninety minutes later, Jack was discharged, told that he most likely had a cold, which had been exacerbated by the panic. When he got back into the car, it was obvious that I would drive the final two hours, being that I felt fine, though my leg shook the entire way as I touched the gas pedal.
For the rest of the drive, Jack handled the aux and I handled the Jersey turnpike. I allowed my mind to wander to what we’d been through together the past two years — today, the miles of driving and weight of leaving Michigan, a trip to the E.R in Newton, New Jersey — a year ago at this time, my own trip to the emergency room in Ann Arbor. Two hours later, we were pulling into our hometown, and I felt the adrenaline of the drive fade and the strangest blend of relief, sobriety and precariousness wash over me.
There would be no graduation. No ceremonial goodbyes and tears in oversized University sweatshirts outside our house on May 1, holding red cups of champagne in one hand and our best friends’ hips in the other. We wouldn’t see April in Ann Arbor, or run down East Liberty Street at 1 a.m., giddy with celebration early into a Sunday. There would be no respite. No final song to the closing time of our four years of undergraduate education, which was more than classes and exams and a GPA — it was a life-changing, transformative experience.
The way graduation was supposed to happen, wouldn’t. Our families wouldn’t stay in hotels and eat Zingerman’s sandwiches and take photographs of us in front of the Big House. The class of 2020 had been dealt a pretty shitty hand, full of half-hearted lasts and deflated goodbyes. Our friends were spread out all over the country, seeking refuge at home, and our senior year was over — an irrefutable, hard-to-swallow fact.
I’d driven all 642 miles from Ann Arbor to the place I grew up — where I’d be until the dust of the pandemic settled and my future began. I felt the miles in my blood. I felt gratitude for the security of family, but a yearning for my college town, where I felt as though I’d left my heart. I felt grounded by my support system, but hot with the sadness of letting go. How were all the musicals and club meetings and Saturday nights over? What was the end without the ceremonial lasts?
My brother turned up Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac — a mutual favorite — and sang along, rolling down the windows with a finally relaxed demeanor as we approached the familiar driveway. We’d made it. We’d woken up that morning in Michigan; now, we were far away from that life, that chapter. But in all the emotion and anxiety and sorrow, my brother grounded me — we shared that experience of loving Ann Arbor so fiercely that it hurt to drive away.
In the driveway, my parents, two people who are more full of heart than anyone I’ve known, were staging a graduation ceremony, complete with the Michigan fight song and balloons and a graduation cap. Both were dressed, purposefully, in Columbia University blue — a reminder that my future was here, on the East Coast. In August, circumstances permitting, I’d move to New York City. I’d start classes at Columbia.
I parked the Mitsubishi in our driveway and Jack bounded over to our dog, who was overjoyed to see us, sightless to the day we’d endured. I stayed in the car, slowly taking the key from the ignition. It all hit me at once, like a summer rainstorm or an unexpected call, and New Jersey paused around me for a moment.
My time at Michigan was over. I was carrying three and three quarter years of memories and lectures and relationships and wisdom in my suitcases tucked beside my jeans. I had fuzzy recollections of my redheaded best friend laughing on the couch in our Ann Arbor house on her 22nd birthday, a pizza box on her lap. She was in Arizona now. I texted her to tell her I made it home.
Sitting in the car, I was blindsided by maize and blue. Of the sound of the Big House roaring with pride on a Saturday afternoon. Of the sun hitting the Law Quadrangle serenely at 3:30 p.m. in October. At all of us reminiscing on Michigan time and Diag to Diag buses. Of the Burton Memorial Tower, chiming midmorning. Of the classroom in the LSA building, where I sat when I realized for the first time that I could be a writer, a real writer. That’s what the University does for you: It stares you in the face and pushes you to confront the things you never thought you’d be brave enough to achieve — and tells you to run at them full force.
Out of the car, finally, the world moved again. This was New Jersey. This was my parents chanting “Hail to the Victors Valiant” as my dog barked along. This was where it all began — my life, my adolescence. This was somehow both a relief and a punch to the stomach.
Later that night, after we’d had dinner and cake and champagne and laughed about how it was chaotic and funny that I’d driven the whole way, Jack pulled me aside.
“Thank you for driving and for being there,” He said, always quick to smooth over a situation even when it didn’t require smoothing over.
“Oh, today? Of course, bud,” I said, and went back to unpacking my things on my childhood bedroom’s floor.
“Well not just today, at home, too.” He slipped out of my bedroom and down the hall.
When he said the word home, I knew what he meant. He meant the state shaped like a hand, with the icy winters and unpredictable weather and feta bread and the block M on the Diag. He meant Michigan — and though it was 642 miles of roads away, there was truth in his word. Michigan left a perpetual mark on me. I imagine Ann Arbor can still be a place I call home. In so many ways, it always will be.