There is nothing like Chapel Hill in the fall. It’s even enough to soothe the system after a difficult encounter at a lunch meeting with someone who did not know Hudson had died. My colleague, whom I see only twice a year at the meeting of a law alumni committee I serve on, was asking all the usual catch-up questions: “Remind me what your practice is?” “I left practice. I’m the pro bono coordinator at Catholic Law School now.” “Where do you stay when you are here in town?” “My dad lives in Pittsboro.” “And did you bring anyone with you? Your spouse?” “He’s coming tonight—he couldn’t get off of work today.” (The red warning lights started flashing in my head—I knew the inevitable was coming.) And before I could even steel myself, before I could even prepare…
“Oh, and you have a baby, right?”
“Is she here with you, too?”
“No, she passed away in May from a sudden illness.”
Tears. Mine. Hers. “Oh, I am so sorry.” I spent the next minute trying to keep from bursting into total sobs—after all, we were sitting at a banquet table with 8 other people. I looked around and was relieved to see that everyone else was engaged in conversation—no one was staring at us wondering what might have brought me to tears. Once I had mostly recovered, we talked more about Hudson and why I changed jobs. And then it was over. Terrible, but not as bad as I always imagine it will be, and then it was behind me.
And the rest of the day acted as a salve. It was 75 degrees, sunny, and breezy in the beautiful town I love so much. There is no other place in the world where I feel more at home. My dear friend Chad and I wandered around Franklin Street, ending up on the patio at Top of the Hill, where we sat and talked about politics, the First Amendment, and the state of American schools for an hour or two. Then I got a pedicure with a fresh coat of Carolina blue polish for my girl. And then I wandered back down Franklin Street, popping in and out of the numerous stores that sell all kinds of Carolina paraphernalia. I was reminded of a trip we made to Chapel Hill when Hudson was about 4 months old. It was March 2009, and on a particularly warm day, we went downtown, where her grandparents indulged their urges to dress her in every kind of Carolina outfit imaginable—bloomers, dresses, onesies—she practically had a whole new wardrobe by the time we got off of Franklin Street. I have such fond memories of nursing Hudson that day on the bench near the Davie Poplar—something about that just felt so right to me. I thought about that today as I walked up through McCorkle Place. I walked slowly, deliberately, taking it all in, remembering. And smiling. That trip is really the only memory we have of her on campus and around town with us—all of our other trips home were spent mostly at the grandparents’ houses.
I kept walking through campus, feeling so uplifted by the palpable sense of community all around me. Students, their parents, alumni—people of all kinds were trickling into town, enjoying the weather, preparing for tomorrow’s game. Every other person was wearing Carolina gear of some sort. As I drove home, I got stuck in a small traffic jam going up the hill by the field where the marching band was practicing. My windows were open, and as I drove by, they were playing, “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred…” I was so taken in by the experience, it took me several moments to recall that I used to sing those words to Hudson every night before she went to bed.
For several months after Hudson died (and to some extent still today), I felt really strongly that I couldn’t wait to move back to North Carolina, to get out of DC, where I couldn’t go anywhere without painful reminders of Hudson’s absence. Then I read a novel in which one of the characters goes to Europe for college after her sister dies, and she spends the year depressed and distraught, thrown off balance by being in a place where no evidence existed of her sister’s life. I wondered for the first time whether I might ultimately regret acting too soon on my urge to get out of DC. I wondered if, contrary to my instincts, I might feel Hudson’s absence even more acutely in a place where we had not made as many memories with her. Today helped me resolve some of those worries. Not only do I have fond and very tangible memories of Hudson in my favorite place on earth, I also see her everywhere. In every small child I see walking on Franklin Street with a Carolina pom pom, or chasing a sibling around the quad, or riding in a parent’s jogging stroller. She is always with me. Maybe even moreso in those places I love most.
My little Carolina girl. My home. My heart.