It’s been thirteen years since I last stepped foot on the campus that should have been my alma mater. The only school I applied to. At eighteen, I would join my brother P.J. at Wheaton College, live in the same dorm on his sister floor. Like Mom, I would meet a man of God, fall in love, get married after graduation, and earn a degree in education… the closest in the catalog to one in motherhood. I had fantasized since early adolescence that one day I would take part in the Wheaton tradition of ringing the bells in the bell tower with my collegiate love to announce our engagement.
And while I did join my brother there, Wheaton wasn’t my alma mater. I did fall in love with a man of God, one with a savior complex who was happy to walk with me through my first great spiritual depression, one who ended our friendship once he had sufficiently “fixed” me. The years distanced me from the memories, good and bad, that I made on that campus. He wasn’t a hero or a villain, just a footnote in a book I closed before the story was supposed to be finished.
After my sophomore year, I spent the summer in Nashville, living on a friend’s couch, working at a restaurant, and experiencing Music City with a strange cross section of struggling producers and musicians. When asked why I left Wheaton, I’ve always told the same tale. I fell in love with Nashville and didn’t want to leave. I transferred to Belmont, worked my way through undergrad, landed a teaching job before graduation, and made it my home for ten years.
I only returned to Wheaton once for Homecoming in 2003. Though I’d been absent just a few months, it was clear that my friends had grown closer. I was on the outside of most of their inside jokes by then. I’d chosen a different college experience in an uncharted city, one untouched by the Palma name, one where I could start over. After a few short days, I drove south to my new home and never looked back.
That was, until I met Charming last fall. I use the word “met” loosely as we’d actually made each other’s acquaintance my freshman year at Wheaton when my brother was his RA. We didn’t fall in love. We weren’t even friends, but our circles intersected enough to warrant a Facebook request some time after I’d left. Our first dates were filled with reminiscing on a short era of my life that I’d since tried to forget, recounting stories about our time there with common friends, coursework, books, professors, and buildings.
A year ago, before Charming was on my radar, I didn’t devote much mental energy to recalling my Wheaton days, but having rekindled the fire of Christian Education through countless conversations with Charming who holds Wheaton in the highest of esteem, I thought it might be fun to visit the campus with him this summer. Maybe we could reclaim some memories together.
So last week, we began a road trip, planning to hit eight cities in nine days, packing in baseball games at some parks Charming hadn’t seen yet, a Lindsey Stirling concert in Pittsburgh, a musical and architectural boat tour in Chicago, visits with friends of his and mine along the way, and of course, a day spent walking the grounds of a place I hesitate to remember, Wheaton College in Illinois.
When we parked his car at the dorm we lived in my freshman year, I jumped out excitedly to take a selfie together in front of the building, deserted in the summer months, absent the steady revolving door of passionate, hopeful, aspiring Type A personalities that will return in a couple of weeks for the fall semester. It was surreal, holding Charming’s hand in a time portal to an age where he was just a handsome face across a crowded residential lobby.
The campus has evolved. It’s not the same as I envision it in my memory. There are new buildings and pathways, and some buildings, like the French House where Charming spent much of his time, have been torn down to make room for more new additions. But Williston is still there, the dorm where I lived with my roommate sophomore year, the year I fell apart. It smelled the same. And it brought me to tears.
I knew in that moment why I’d really left Wheaton. Yes, I loved Nashville, but that wasn’t enough of a reason to leave behind the college I’d dreamed would be the start of my always and forever. At nineteen, I’d had my first taste of loss – friends who had met unexpected, tragic deaths that tested my young faith. I’d brought along my old college journals, reading some entries to Charming that reflected common events or experiences we’d shared there while on separate journeys.
But the struggles penned in those books, honest prayers and outpourings locked away for more than a decade in the confines of lined papers, concealed beneath hard covers… they reflect the inner dialogue of a young girl searching hopelessly for meaning and purpose amidst senseless tragedies that taunt the woman I’ve become in my thirties. They’re a volume of wrestling with God, of the restlessness of my spirit, detailing a spiritual darkness I wouldn’t encounter again until my divorce.
Crossing the quad with Charming yesterday, hand in hand, I could see the truth in the outlines of the chapel and the bell tower. I left Wheaton because after just two years there, I’d lost myself in that hopeless search. Nashville was a chance to start over, to remake myself. It was easier to start over than it was to face the place where I’d already accumulated so much regret.
We’ve spent some time with Charming’s closest friends that still live in the area. They’re all celebrating ten year anniversaries, raising three kids in beautifully decorated suburban homes. They’re living the life that I believed would be mine when I first stepped on Wheaton’s campus fifteen years ago. They talk about their formative college years with Charming, reminiscing together about people and experiences I might have shared if I hadn’t left to start over.
Charming’s roommate lives close to campus, and we had dinner with his family tonight. He joked that he wanted to be called Felipe in my blog. Truthfully, I didn’t expect to write about him, but tonight, with his two-year-old daughter in my lap, Felipe said something that struck me out of context. His six-year-old son had to get six stitches above his eye. Felipe told him, “Scars build character.” I asked why.
Felipe didn’t have to pause to think. Traumatic experiences define us, he said. They alter our perspective of the world. They give us stories to share. They change us. I am not the girl I was when I stepped on Wheaton’s campus for the first time. My journals detail the scars of a spiritual darkness, searching for meaning and purpose that I wouldn’t find until many years later.
Though I grieve for that lost, broken girl, those scars remind me how far I have come since then. Charming and I didn’t ring any bells in the tower, but we did climb the stone campus wall bearing the college name. There, looking down at the pathways I had left behind, I was grateful for scars born there, and even more so for the meandering journey in the thirteen years since that brought me to this moment, with his arm around my waist.
Scars build character. And it was the sharing of the stories of our scars that brought Charming and I together last fall. He rang those bells with another woman, and he believed when he married that it was the start of his always and forever, that he’d have three kids and a ten year anniversary like his friends. He could never have predicted that his Wheaton romance would eventually break his heart. The scars from that relationship shaped him spiritually, morally, and emotionally. Yet, he still cherishes that place and his time there. His perspective is different now; it’s changed, like the campus has, with losses that make room for new additions.
Like Felipe said, traumatic experiences define us. The broken girl I was at nineteen wouldn’t have been capable of the kind of love, devotion, admiration, and respect that I now I have for this man of God. The kind of woman that he could partner with to reclaim his youthful hopefulness.
Wheaton wasn’t my alma mater, but it was his. I didn’t fall in love and get married after graduation, but he did. Nevertheless, we bear similar scars that put us both on a pathway to build character and prepare us for the next book in our stories. One we started writing together last fall. And it’s a tale of redemption and second chances, of grace and change and hope.
When I left Wheaton to start over in Nashville, I buried a dream that Charming unearthed after time had so distanced me from its memory. As it turns out, I did meet a man of God at Wheaton all those years ago. Then, I knew just his name and his face. Now, I know his heart, scars and all, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. How can I regret a past that brought me to this moment, looking down at the pathways that would eventually lead us to each other?