The Country of Who He Used to Be

In memory of school years—and a loved one—past

By Brian Doyle | February 15, 2013


My late brother Kevin was once a tall skinny student at the University of Notre Dame du Lac, where he lived in an old residence hall on the south side of campus, between the cemetery and that university’s signature golden dome. As a freshman he stayed on the first floor, where most freshmen are consigned, but for the rest of his undergraduate career he moved up to 327, at the top of the stairs, and it is this room, or set of rooms, that I wish to muse about today.

A sensible and informative essay would at this point make some mention of the architectural details of the three tiny rooms in which my brother and his three roommates lived, or would talk learnedly about the rooms’ all-important proximity to the lone set of shower stalls on the floor, or note the view from the mullioned windows, or relate some of the entertaining and headlong adventures of the lanky children who lived there. But I grope after something else about those rooms, about my brother’s life in those rooms, about the 700 days and nights that he lived there, some 50 feet in the air above the sandy soil of northern Indiana.

The silent dawns, when he awoke in the top bunk, above a snoring roommate, and for a moment was transported back to his childhood bed, in the dapple of tall sweetgum trees outside his window, his mother’s silvery laugh in the kitchen as faint as yesterday’s hymn; the long winter nights, as he sat at his ancient desk, staring at the runes cut by a dozen previous denizens. The thump of basketballs and ricochet of footballs in the hallway, and the deep barking laughs of the neighbors who hammer and fling them; the autumnal smell of sawn wood as students edit their rooms, and the vernal scent of mothers in the hall, reclaiming their sons for the summer; the stammer of greetings to a friend’s girlfriend, the cheerful roars at a friend’s kid brother visiting in awe; the shouldery tumult and reek and jest of roommates; the annual drawing of straws or cutting of cards for who gets which room; the wry notes left for each other, the casual generosity, the thicket of toothbrushes, the dank of towels and socks, the scrawl of numbers and names written on the yellow wall by the phone against all rules and regulations; and the way those names and numbers will be painted out, at the last moment, with paint of wholly different color than the paint originally applied by the university when Indiana was young and dinosaurs strolled the earth.

He was 19 when he walked into those rooms for the first time and 21 when he walked out, and I do not think he ever returned to them, though he returned to campus often, ostensibly for football games, but more likely to visit the country of who he used to be. The residents of a campus change, but the residence does not, and each child who lives there adds infinitesimally to a story that can never be told in words. We thrash after ways to say what we know to be true, that the breath and laughter and tears and furies and despairs and thrills and epiphanies of children on a campus season the very air, coat the walls, soak into the soil just as dying birds and leaves do, in ways we can never quite measure or articulate; so that while my brother’s ashes now rest in another soil, something of him, something of who he was, something of who he became, swirls still in the rooms where he lived for three years when he was young.

Much of what we talk about when we talk about universities is only fact; and far beneath facts are things we know to be true but can never explain, not if we were given as many years as the dinosaurs were given before they passed into memory, their bodies sifting into the generous and merciful soil, to become that from which new life springeth green.

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