Education

‘I’m not supposed to be here’

Stuck in limbo at home, two sisters fought loneliness, loss and each other. Then they had to say goodbye.
Lilly and Allie Church hug goodbye as their mom, Julie Church, and brother, Andrew, look on.

The sisters stood in the driveway, not looking at each other.

In a few minutes, Lilly Church, 18, would climb inside the light-brown SUV with her parents and drive to Virginia Tech to start a freshman year of college that looked nothing like she had imagined. Her sister, Allie Church, 22, would walk back inside the family’s home to finish packing for her own return to school later that week, for a graduate program in education at James Madison University.

So much was uncertain about the future — if or how socially distant school would work, despite the dozens of masks and hand sanitizer dispensers packed alongside Lilly’s dorm decorations. Now, though, neither girl was thinking about that. They were both wondering what to say.

“It’s only two hours,” Lilly ventured in a soft voice. She had long ago mapped the distance between their campuses in Blacksburg and Harrisonburg.

Allie nodded. She dragged a toe across the concrete.

Before the pandemic, the two girls and their family had eagerly anticipated twin graduations, along with every American milestone they’d grown up counting on: caps and gowns; prom for Lilly; a booze-filled, responsibility-free last week of college for Allie. But, like millions of Americans their age, Allie and Lilly found their high school and college graduation ceremonies converted to Zoom calls and yard signs. Just when they should have been starting independent lives, they found themselves stuck at home.

They would not confront seismic challenges suffered by others: No one in the Church family would get sick, lose loved ones to the pandemic or lose their jobs. They knew and appreciated this, and when an argument blew away their perspective, their mom reminded them: “You’re in a good spot. No need to get angry.”

Still — sometimes, they did. Over whose turn it was to use the car. Over the best way to prepare lettuce. Over whose missed graduation was a greater loss. Like many households, the family struggled to reconstitute itself around a bizarre, second version of childhood: one in which everyone was an adult, even if they were sleeping in their teenage bedroom.

Driving every conflict, no matter how small, was the same uncertainty: The sisters’ lives had been put on pause, and no one knew how long that pause would last.

And now, they didn’t know how to say goodbye.

Craig Church checked in with his daughter Allie about her plans for graduation on May 7.
Allie, right, was supposed to be graduating in the James Madison University football stadium the following weekend.
Allie's sister Lilly, who saw her own high school graduation scrambled by the pandemic, helped decorate Allie's graduation cap.
TOP: Craig Church checked in with his daughter Allie about her plans for graduation on May 7. BOTTOM LEFT: Allie, right, was supposed to be graduating in the James Madison University football stadium the following weekend. BOTTOM RIGHT: Allie's sister Lilly, who saw her own high school graduation scrambled by the pandemic, helped decorate Allie's graduation cap.

Before the novel coronavirus, the Churches rarely ate dinner at the same time or table. Allie was away at college; Lilly had soccer practice; 14-year-old Andy had homework. The fourth and eldest child, Emily, 24, had a job — and her own apartment.

But their mom, Julie, was determined to snatch at every silver lining, including the opportunity for nightly family meals. In some ways, as she told herself repeatedly, these unplanned months at home together were a gift.

Her faith was tested most during fights, which were frequent early on. The biggest one came one night when Allie complained that Andy was failing to stay six feet apart from his friends.

“This is ridiculous,” Allie said. “He’s not being responsible. I should be able to go to school and see my friends. I can’t believe he gets to do this and I don’t.”

Lilly bristled. She sensed silent criticism: She, too, had been visiting with friends, twin girls in the grade below her who lived just around the corner. She saw them almost every day, for socially distant walks or ice cream on the front lawn, where they talked about going off to college.

“If you were at school, no way you’d social distance,” Lilly told Allie.

Allie spun in her seat. Did Lilly not realize how much it hurt to watch her pass by every day, laughing and chatting with her high school friends? Did Lilly not understand how much Allie wanted to be back in Harrisonburg, Va., how much she missed her college roommate?

It was so unfair. All of Lilly’s friends were right here, when Allie might never see her college friends again. Certainly not all in the same place at the same time.

Unspoken, as the sisters glared at each other, were the deeper things.

Like how Allie felt she had it worse than her sister. At least Lilly wasn’t being thrust into the adult world in the middle of a pandemic.

Or like how Lilly was sure that she had it worse. Didn’t Allie understand that Lilly was missing all the rites of high school and might never get to experience “normal” college?

Dropping her fork, Allie told Lilly she would pack her things and drive back to JMU in a second if their parents would let her. How she’d be thrilled to trade her sister’s company for her friends’, for people who understood —

“Well you can’t, can you,” said Lilly, and Allie ran upstairs.

Lilly Church and her T.C. Williams High School teammates had a makeshift senior night.
The event was a surprise arranged by Lilly's mom, Julie Church.
Like every high school athlete, the girls' spring season was canceled by the coronavirus.
TOP: Lilly Church and her T.C. Williams High School teammates had a makeshift senior night. BOTTOM LEFT: The event was a surprise arranged by Lilly's mom, Julie Church. BOTTOM RIGHT: Like every high school athlete, the girls' spring season was canceled by the coronavirus.

Technically, it was supposed to be a surprise.

But as she sat beside her sister in the car, taking the familiar turns to the Minnie Howard soccer field, Lilly thought she could guess what was about to happen.

If the virus hadn’t canceled the season, tonight would have marked the final game of her high school career: a 7 p.m. match against her high school’s biggest rival, West Potomac. The younger players would have brought posters and flowers to honor the seniors, who would have posed with their parents beneath stadium lights.

Before Lilly got in the car, her mother had told her to put on her soccer uniform. Someone, Lilly suspected, had arranged a socially distant version of senior night.

Lilly pulled into a parking lot empty except for six signs, made from bedsheets and tacked to the tall fencing that rimmed the field, one for each senior. She parked and walked to hers: “LILLY #1,” it read in red and blue.

Lilly turned accusingly to her mother, who had just arrived in another car with her father, brother and eldest sister. But Julie insisted “the soccer fairies” were responsible.

Even though she urged the family to remember their relative good fortune — and tried to follow her own advice — Julie still woke some mornings feeling awful for her two girls, forced to graduate over computer screens. The pandemic had hit them at such an inopportune moment. Sometimes Allie and Lilly asked whether the future would look anything like they’d planned. She didn’t know what to say.

But there were some things she could control, and one of them was how her family celebrated its missed milestones. She had crafted an elaborate living room setup for Allie’s college graduation, complete with purple and gold balloons and three large dolls. Rescued from the attic and propped in chairs, they were meant to represent Allie’s absent friends. (Allie nicknamed one “Rosie,” for her best friend and roommate.)

Now, the soccer celebration. In the parking lot, Julie tried to keep an eye on both of her daughters. The Church family had always been competitive. But it was important to Julie that neither sister believed she was receiving less sympathy than the other.

Allie Church attended a James Madison University graduation ceremony from the living room of her childhood home.
Allie returned to James Madison in May to get a few things she left behind and to say goodbye to friends who were doing the same thing.
She took a moment in her bedroom before heading back to her family home.
TOP: Allie Church attended a James Madison University graduation ceremony from the living room of her childhood home. BOTTOM LEFT: Allie returned to James Madison in May to get a few things she left behind and to say goodbye to friends who were doing the same thing. BOTTOM RIGHT: She took a moment in her bedroom before heading back to her family home.

Lilly was the first to arrive at the field, but other seniors soon trickled in, also wearing soccer uniforms. They took turns posing beneath their banners: masks on, masks off. With family, without. They arranged themselves six feet apart in the parking lot and asked their beaming parents to back way up and snap a group photo.

Lilly was telling the other five about her dorm decor, which she’d picked out but didn’t want to buy until she felt more sure about the fall, when the honking began. One by one, every member of the team passed through the parking lot in a caravan that seemed to stretch for more than a mile.

Some of her teammates began sobbing. When a “VIRGINIA TECH” poster went past, Lilly turned to look at her family.

“Oh, Allie’s crying,” Lilly called to her mother. “Look at how hard she’s crying. Allie, it’s not even your senior night!”

“She’s crying,” Julie said, “for you.”

But she wasn’t. It was too hard, seeing all of her sister’s teammates in one place. Suddenly, she missed college. Being here at this familiar field only made it worse.

She turned to her father.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” she said, because she was supposed to be in college.

“I’m not supposed to be here.”

Lilly Church is joined by her family as they sit on her deck for her virtual graduation on June 13.
Lilly gathered outside with her friends for her graduation, unsure what the fall would bring.
Like many families, the Church family watched ritual after ritual get upended last spring, ending with graduation.
TOP: Lilly Church is joined by her family as they sit on her deck for her virtual graduation on June 13. BOTTOM LEFT: Lilly gathered outside with her friends for her graduation, unsure what the fall would bring. BOTTOM RIGHT: Like many families, the Church family watched ritual after ritual get upended last spring, ending with graduation.

A few weeks later, Lilly looked at her chosen college dorm, a pixelated image on her laptop screen, and felt certain she wasn’t supposed to be there.

The selection process had been rough — and rushed. She and her would-be roommate had FaceTimed as they navigated the online system, which left them seconds to pick their room while competing against hundreds of other students trying to do the same thing.

After a confusion of clicking — with Julie watching over Lilly’s shoulder — they’d wound up with their last choice: one of the oldest dorms on campus. It didn’t have air conditioning.

“That was so stressful,” said Julie, leaning back in a kitchen chair.

“Tell me about it,” Lilly said and pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes.

Allie, standing a few feet behind her sister with a bag of chips, muttered that Lilly needed to relax. Lilly swiveled.

“Don’t say that!” she said. “I knew you were going to say that.”

Allie rolled her eyes — so much drama — but Lilly was indignant: Didn’t her sister understand that the choice of a dorm was much more important this year than it had been when Allie was a freshman?

Virginia Tech was inviting students back to campus, but most classes would be virtual. Lilly knew she would spend most of every day inside her dorm. College — if spiking infection rates didn’t send everyone home immediately — would look nothing like what her older sisters went through.

She had asked Allie what she should expect when she left home. But their conversations always petered out the same way: with Allie admitting she just didn’t know.

After Lilly and Allie Church’s final embrace, both girls broke into tears. (Hannah Natanson/TWP)

Allie worried she was being less than helpful. And she had other worries: She would return to JMU, paying for it with student loans, right after Lilly left for Virginia Tech. So much scared her, especially the fact that she would have to teach in person at a local public school. She pictured herself walking inside a classroom, facing kids who might carry the coronavirus.

As the end of summer approached, both sisters shied from the future, alternately terrified it would happen and terrified it wouldn’t. Wanting to leave home, then wishing they could stay.

When Aug. 18 arrived, the day Lilly was supposed to drive to Virginia Tech, it felt like the coronavirus might still cancel college. It felt like that even after she finished loading the SUV with her belongings.

The fact she was leaving became real only when Allie leaned forward and hugged Lilly in the driveway — and when the sisters broke apart.

“You can drive down any time,” Lilly said.

“I don’t like you that much,” Allie tried to joke, but both girls were crying.

What she would miss most, Allie thought as the SUV pulled away, was walking into her sister’s room, any time she wanted, to say anything she wanted. Even if it was just to ask what Lilly was doing or to suggest a late-night ice-cream run, no matter if it were the fifth of the week.

Inside the car, Lilly was thinking the same thing.

Hannah Natanson is a reporter covering education and K-12 schools in Virginia. She joined The Washington Post as an intern in June 2018. Photos by Toni L. Sandys and Hannah Natanson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Designed by José Luis Soto.
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