The sound as it hit the book was barely perceptible but the small droplet still spread slowly across the page. It penetrated into the fibers, permanently changing the molecular structure of the paper on which rows of smiling seniors were displayed. It would dry, but that small section would never be the same, becoming less durable and indelibly wrinkled compared to before. Lucky for Pam the tear landed towards the bottom and not near where the H’s began, starting with Halpert.
Pam was crying again.
It had been happening more and more ever since the first onset of waterworks back at the beginning of the school year.
Today they came on as she dropped off laundry in her daughter’s room—laundry she insisted Cece start doing herself in preparation, but Pam kept doing anyway not quite ready to give up all of her mom chores just yet. After laying out the piles of freshly laundered clothes, she noticed the yearbook sitting on the edge of the bed and couldn’t resist looking again. Pam was a sucker for yearbooks, fascinated by the stories they told through candid photos and posed for headshots that still revealed so much through expressive eyes and telling smiles, not to mention the handwritten messages kids left to each other as their final school year came to a close.
As she opened the book to the page where she caught sight of her daughter’s curly hair and Jim-inherited, half-smile, half-smirk, a flash of heat burned in her nose and condensation filled her eyes and before she knew it, her eyes were overflowing with tears that fell onto her daughter’s high school annual.
“There you are, I’ve been looking all over for you.”
Pam jumped back at the sound of his voice and tried to look away from him, hastily grabbing and unfolding one of the hoodies she just deposited on the center of the mattress, despite knowing he’d be onto to her the minute he saw her face.
Jim took a few tentative steps into his daughter’s room, navigating through a landmine of clothes and papers scattered on the carpet while sidestepping the bunch of deflated balloons left over from prom or graduation or some other year-end event. As he neared the bed, he naturally noticed his wife’s tear-stained face and red eyes.
It was no surprise to discover she’d broken down again, especially as he spotted the book she tried to surreptitiously push away, pretending instead she was merely folding the piles of clothes beside it.
The whole year was filled with moments like these, where try as she did to not let her emotions get the better of her, she lost the battle every time. Every holiday it was ‘this is our last New Year’s, our last Easter, our last Groundhog’s day, as if their daughter were leaving for colonization on Mars and would not returning back home on her breaks from college.
And with a past month filled with monumental events– the kind that maybe did warrant a tear or two, a heartbreaking, tournament-ending loss in the semis of what was to be Cece’s final high school game, photos before senior prom, commencement ceremonies– Pam’s bouts of crying became more frequent.
But Jim still had not shed any tears. It wasn’t that he was unemotional. On the contrary, he felt things deeply, as much as Pam and sometimes even more so. He wore his emotions like masks on his face, happiness, surprise, exasperation, sorrow, all he felt was articulated through his myriad of expressions, revealing body language and via lively green lenses, which still stayed dry throughout most everything he felt. He just didn’t express himself by crying, not often at least.
There had been a few exceptions, mostly times when his heart was so wounded, the pain pierced through the shield that formed over his irises allowing the saline droplets to penetrate the barriers he worked so hard to form over them.
There was the lone tear he let spill on the night he told his best friend he wanted more than that and she told him, I can’t and left him broken. And later that night the complete and utter devastation he felt manifest itself in soul-wrenching sobs and hot, ugly, tears when all he could remember was how she felt in his arms and what her lips tasted like pressed to his, thinking he would never know it again.
Alone in his thoughts many years later, when he learned achieving his professional aspirations came only with a cost too steep to pay, he mourned what he thought was the loss of a dream, tasting salt water on his lips as it dripped from his eyes.
There were also happy tears that no one witnessed, as he drove home from New York, a delayed reaction to the flash of gold that gloriously burned his retinas while he interviewed with David Wallace. A similar, joyful wetness filled his eyes two more times, once for each of the lives borne from the love he once though he’d lost.
But so far, he’d been somewhat stoic about the fact Cece would be leaving home soon. Pam was doing enough crying for the both of them and someone had to wear the brave face.
“Aw Beesly, again?”
He spoke gingerly as he joined her on the bed and gently took the book Pam unsuccessfully pretended she wasn’t looking through and placed it on the night table next to the stack of recruitment letters from others schools that still hadn’t been thrown out.
“I can’t help it; she’s leaving in less than a month. Remind me again, why did we agree to let her go away to Penn State instead of making her stay in Austin to be a Longhorn.”
“Because she got an amazing scholarship to play D1 volleyball at my Alma Mater.”
Of course she had. Cece, known as Queen of the Kills on both her high school and club teams was a volleyball phenom. Having inherited an early love of the game from her mom but unlike Pam, she had the vital height thanks to her father’s genes that gave her an instant advantage. Of course, it wasn’t just her tall frame or her natural talent that won her captain status, many trophies and the interest of numerous D1 coaches. It was her long hours training, hard work not only on the courts but also in her studies and commitment and drive to be the best. The reward came in the form of choices and great offers from top schools all over the country. But there was only one place she ever really wanted to go.
“and because it’s what she wants.”
Cece was born with a strong will, the trait intrinsic, in contrast to her mother, who had spent years working to gain the confidence to say what she felt and go after what she wanted.
Her innate tenacity and free-thinking nature meant she was not only confident but also filled with sass, another Jim-like attribute, and had the tendency to be quite outspoken, most often with her family. Their unalike personalities made for a sort of push and pull between mother and daughter at times and their relationship, like many of those between teenage girls and their moms, had its moments of friction but despite it all the two were still extremely close.
"But it’s so far and I’m going to miss her so much, Jim”
“I know. I am too. But this is life. This is what we want for her, for both of them. We want them to go off on their own and follow their passions, go after their dreams. This is where she starts making her mark, finding what she’s going to do, whether it's volleyball or the mechanical drafting or something she doesn’t know she even likes yet. And she wants to find it in Pennsylvania.”
Jim’s words made sense, Pam knew but it didn’t change how she felt at the moment, thinking of her baby so many miles away from their family.
“Think of it as she’s going home...to the place where she came from, where we became us and made her. And besides, she’ll be back for holidays and summers and I can’t imagine that the two of you won’t be talking and texting, Facetiming or Aurascoping daily. Plus, from all those miles away, she won’t be able to tell us to give her some space.”
A half-chuckle, half-snort emitted from Pam as Jim wrapped his arms around her and in that second, while he held onto her in order to be her comfort and let the anguish she felt be transferred to him, a small sting pierced his own heart as he thought about how much he would miss the feel of his arms wrapped around the not-so-little-anymore girl that would always be his baby. In that moment, a sudden ache in his chest traveled upward, reaching his eyes filling them with water that threatened to spill.
But just as suddenly as it came on it stopped, as the sharp words of their daughter standing in the doorway of her room boomed into the air.
“WHAT are you two doing in my room?”
The month leading up to Cece’s departure for college went alarmingly fast.
Move-in day went even faster. With only two hours allotted for unloading and carting up all the boxes and bags they’d pre-shipped to Helene’s and then loaded into their rented Chevy Suburban before the hour drive to State College, there was no time to waste reminiscing or shedding tears.
Pam and Cece kept Jim occupied with trips to the car for the heavier stuff and tasks hanging high strings of lights and artwork to Cece’s precise specifications while the two women worked to transform the cold and bare 12 x 15 brick-walled room to a cozy home for the next two semesters. Midway through the renovation, the roommate and her family made their appearance and they all took a small break to greet each other. When most of Jim’s chores as moving man, electrician and human ladder were completed he took a few minutes to chat up the other dad. While they talked about what they did for a living and where they were from, he learned the family had once lived in New Jersey, not far from where his own brother still resided but not before he was quizzed on the many sports figures Jim’s company represented. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the prideful smile come over Cece’s face. Jim’s job and sports connections, it was something he knew she was proud of and she loved to share what he did and who he knew with all her friends. Though Jim always tried to make light of it, that it made his daughter beam like that when she talked about his job always brought him great pride himself.
Ten minutes before their two-hour window was up and after a visit from the RA to warn them, they scrambled to set up a few last-minute décor items, took a few photos of the room and each other for Instagram and then all three head back downstairs to the car to move it out of the loading zone. Despite the massive campus, finding an empty spot took longer than they thought and cut into the time they had for lunch before Cece’s first team meeting. The plan was to say their goodbyes in private back at her dorm but since the meal was rushed and the car was parked by the sports complex, Jim and Pam each got to give their daughter one last hug at the “We Are” sculpture inhabiting the busy corner leading towards the Intramural building.
While her glossy-eyes could be easily attributed to glaring sunshine radiating off the reflective surface, Cece swallowed back any tears that were forming as she noticed the swarms of collegiate athletes milling about, only bringing her hands to her eyes to shield them from the rays that bounced off the letter A they stood in front of.
Just as they promised each other, both parents took their cue from their daughter and fought to likewise keep their own eyes dry as they each gave Cece one final hug.
Well, Pam fought. Jim didn’t need to work quite so hard, as the excitement his daughter displayed was contagious and just like the reflection in the giant sculpture, he mirrored back her smile as they said their goodbyes.
Though Pam held it together better than he expected during the farewell, she immediately began weeping again in the car as they drove off the campus and started the trip to Scranton where they would stay with Dwight and Angela who were hosting a mini-reunion with their old Dunder Mifflin friends the next day.
Keeping one hand on the wheel and the other on her knee he did his best to lighten her mood with small talk, jokes and speculation on what madness would be in store for them at Schrute Farms. Pam tried to carry on her part of the conversation but the tears continued through intermittent sniffling and occasional chuckles and when she let out a wet snort, they both burst into uncontrolled hysterics unsure if the noise that came out was a laugh or cry or something else altogether. Of course, as he teased her about how disturbingly loud and indelicate it was, she fell into another undeterminable eruption of happy sadness or sorrowful mirth.
Not some 10 minutes later she was fast asleep.
When she awoke again, they were pulling into the property of their old friends.
“Did you have a nice nap?”
Pam blinked to try and bring her eyes to focus. More than usual after a car nap, they felt irritated and dry, a lot like they used to back when she’d left her contacts in too long, but she knew it was all due to her earlier crying. Years before she’d successfully underwent the latest vision-repairing surgery and her days of wearing contacts were a thing of the past.
“Feeling better? Cause we are entering the land of who knows what.”
It was the impending stay at the beet farm, Jim was referring to but his comment had Pam thinking about what things would be like when they got back to their life in Austin with Cece no longer there.
As they drove along the road that led to the main house, they passed a strapping teenager they knew to be Phillip tending to a field of distinctive forked-leaved plants. Of course, Dwight would be growing, the crop one of the most lucrative there was now, never mind his past dogged crusade against its use.
He waved at the car as they drove by and they half expected to see him drop what he was doing and start running along side it just as Mose had done the first time Pam and Jim ever visited the Schrute homestead.
They turned heads back to make sure he hadn’t and then back to each other, both wearing the same curious expression, their open mouths each ready to begin a sentence with I wonder if. No words passed between them and yet both knew the other was speculating the same thing, did Mose, Dwight’s very odd cousin, still live here too?
They got their answer when they arrived at the main house, Mose was standing a few inches behind their friends, jumping up and down like an excited 4-year-old as Pam and Jim exited their vehicle.
After hugs all around, including awkward ones for Mose before he was dismissed to go fetch Phillip, the four friends began catching up.
“And where is your Phillip? We were looking forward to seeing him and having the old best friends get to know each other again. Is he spending some extra time with Gram-ma-ma?”
Angela had changed over the years, no longer judgmental or competitive so Pam knew her comment was genuine but she may still have been a bit out of touch. The boys were never close. They were forced to play a few times as toddlers and over the years had to endure each other during visits, but despite the closeness their fathers had developed over the years, she had never considered them friends. In fact, it was the idea of having to stay a few days in the company of the other Phil, that had their own son insistent he didn’t want to make the trip with them.
“No. He’s back in Austin. Between his required pre-season daily practices, part-time job and full-time girlfriend, we figured to let him stay home for the few days.”
Angela nodded in understanding and the two went on to talk about how the drop off at Penn went but it was Dwight who took on the judgmental role once proudly maintained by his wife.
“Are you kidding, Jim? Fact; leaving your teenager unattended at home is an invitation to disaster.”
“Relax, Dwight. He’s staying at a friend’s for the week. And he’s going be too busy to get in any trouble. Besides he’s a good kid and we trust him.”
Dwight crossed his arms with indignation.
“Trust him?!? Fact; you can’t trust a teenager. Not for a day, much less a week. In the time you are gone he might try and hybridize your beet crop…”
It had been years since there were any cameras recording them but muscle-memory had Jim wide-eyed and forming a closed mouth smile to flash as Dwight rattled off the various forms of trouble he knew his son would not be getting into in their absence. But with nowhere to direct his incredulous look he instead foolishly answered Dwight.
“Not likely as we don’t grow beets.”
“or throw a paint ball party and permanently stain the vintage barn doors…”
“Not the kind of party I’m worried about but we’ve got party-prevention covered.”
“or burn down the house making a cheesy pita.”
Was that a joke?
He noticed the huge grin blooming over Dwight’s face.
It was and it was a good one.
Now he really wished there were cameras around to catch his reaction. Dwight told a joke. And Pam missed it since although standing no less than 6 inches away, she and Angela were already deep in their own conversation. He’d have to remember to share it with her later, tucking it away mentally to bring out for a laugh from her when she had her next weepy incident since he knew there would be more crying to come.
Meanwhile, Jim rewarded Dwight with an honest to goodness laugh and a pat on the back.
“Good one Dwight. Really Funny.”
Dwight beamed with pride and something in his face reminded him a little of the way his daughter would often catch his eye after a strong attack or monster kill during her games. The thought brought a slight tingle to his nose thinking on how he would no longer be in the stands at her competitions. But Dwight’s continued lecture prevented the fleeting sensation from going further.
“But seriously Jim. What were you thinking? Mark my words, you’ll be sorry when you get home, if you still have one.”
“Dwight, I told you Phil’s staying with a friend, we’ve got the house completely monitored with our Alexa device…”
All of a sudden, at Jim’s mention of the name Alexa, a booming, god-like voice resounded from what felt like the heavens above, thunderously echoing across the entire 1,600 acres.
At your service master. How can I help you today?
The resounding voice startled Pam and Jim alike but neither Dwight or Angela reacted at all, except to both tell the Amazon device to never mind.
The interruption at least served to get them headed inside. Dwight and Jim each grabbed a bag and when Dwight asked if he intended to take their regular room, Jim’s response was, “Absolutely, I do.”
It was her bad ankle, the one that constantly gave her trouble, ever since the sprain she incurred at the Dunder Mifflin picnic. This was the one that she turned a second time that day while taking the stairs up to where the bedrooms were located.
That morning, she’d missed the curb during one of the trips from the car to the dorm, her arms loaded with boxes taller than her so she couldn’t see the step up.
Jim had noticed her cursing under her breath as it happened that morning, but trooper that she was she blew it off and limped her way up the flight of stairs. But it obviously was a worse sprain than she had thought at the time because when she twisted it again going up the Schrute's staircase much later, she winced in pain and almost lost her balance.
A closer inspection showed it to be slightly swollen and red, so she and Angela returned to the kitchen so she could ice it, while Dwight went to retrieve an ace bandage and crutches, overreacting as usual.
Pam insisted she’d be fine after a little ice and sent Jim the rest of the way to put their bags in the Irrigation Room before their plans for dinner.
The room was pretty much the same as he remembered when they first came to visit, back some twenty or so years ago. He set the bags down and plopped down taking a moment to look over the room before laying back on the bed and shutting his eyes for a moment.
The memories of their night in this room sprung to life in his head. It wasn’t a particularly romantic trip, and they’d gotten little sleep and not because they were busy engaging in other activities, but still it was one of the experiences he cherished from those early days with her. In this room, where they’d enjoyed a bedtime story delivered by Dwight and shared with Mose, they had their first conversation about the kids they one day would read stories to. Pam had predicted it right, first a curly-haired girl followed by a boy who would one day grow taller than his father.
He got up from the bed and walked over to the same small bookcase that had been there back then and smiled as he pulled the Harry Potter book from the shelf. He planned to take it back downstairs to insist as a gag, that Dwight read it again to them tonight.
He started for the door with the book in hand but something stopped him. He’d had a thought before he went in search of the old book but now it was gone from his head, replaced when he came up with the idea of having Dwight read to them, and he struggled to make whatever it was he was thinking come back to his mind.
It was the kind of thing that had been happening more and more. At first it had concerned him, concerned him a lot. He wasn’t even 50 yet. He felt much too young to be to be losing his memory. But in his conversations not only with Pam but other friends around the same age as them, he realized he was not alone. Short term memory lapses were just one of those things that happened more often as they got older. And he knew he was getting older, not just because of the grays that he noticed in his beard, or the way his back ached after a day of lifting boxes and too much walking or that he couldn’t quite understand the expressions his own son used, overheard as he hung out with him and his buddies in the backyard pool.
Still, it bothered him that he could start a sentence or get up from the couch to do something and if anything interrupted his train of thought, poof, the thought was gone. But what was even stranger was the many things he knew happened in his life that he had entirely no memory of anymore. Yet there were just as many moments that were as crisp in his mind as the instance they first occurred. Sometimes out of nowhere he’d get the sensation of being on a boat overlooking Niagara Falls or walking over the Brooklyn Bridge on a weekend morning with Pam or would feel the weight of carrying a sleeping Cece in his arms after a RailRiders game at PNC field.
But right now he was straining to think back to what it was that was in his mind only moments before. As he often did, he backtracked his thoughts, trying to recall the things that he noticed or had occurred in the time before the thought vanished.
The book…, nope that’s what caused the loss of the original thought…
the bed…, still creaky but not what he was struggling to remember,
the pipes, the photos in the hall, the walk up the stairs, Pam’s turned ankle.
All at once he was transported, having another of those moments, the ones that made him feel like his mind had time-traveled back to an earlier time and place even while his body remained rooted where it was. He was at a hospital, calling Dwight to update him on the status of when they’d be returning to the picnic and the game, about to get news from the doctor.
Once again he felt the hairs on his arm prickle and his eyes moisten as the realization he was going to be a father connected in his brain. It may have been news from over 18 years ago but to Jim it was happening right at that moment.
Somehow, he found his way back to the bed while his mind kept traveling. His eyes saw images of Pam’s growing belly, his hands felt little kicks, his ears heard the heartbeat through the fetal doppler.
Next thing he knew, he was aboard a boat, like the one in Willy Wonka, but the tunnel his Wonkatania took him through didn’t have visions of horror and Slugworth appearing on the walls but instead featured the sights and sounds of his daughter, beginning with the moment of her birth and her fierce first cry as she entered the world.
Mental pictures splashed on the walls, a peanut dressed in a tiny Dunder Mifflin onesie, first smiles, first steps, a shrieking toddler on the lap of an oversized bunny at Steamtown Mall.
Faster and faster the images appeared, his mind racing through the imaginary tunnel.
Bathtime and bedtime stories, recitals and birthday parties. Dancing around while getting dressed for school.
Moves and moving up ceremonies. Daddy-daughter dances, school plays and braces.
More images filled the space and sped by on the walls.
Trips to Disney and trips to the mall where he served solely as chauffeur. Slammed doors and screams when her brother got on her nerves. Tender moments when he caught them sharing a story or singing together in the back seat to one of his and Pam’s favorite old songs.
Family holidays and movie nights and awful fights with her mom followed by apologies and hugs where all was forgiven.
Boys and volleyball, broken curfews, parties and proms. The images moving so fast they collided against each other, blurring together like the patterns formed in a kaleidoscope.
And then, just like in the movie it all came to a screeching halt at the last image, the one where she wrapped her arms around him and whispered into his ear, goodbye Daddy. I love you.
And there in The Irrigation Room, while surrounded by old fashioned pipes and water conduits, gate valves and wall mounted spigots, books about magic and a million memories, Jim’s tears finally spilled.