Those cords are worn proudly in the photos that have been seen in the media of Natalee standing in our front yard with her friend Liz. The two of them are in their graduation gowns. They were planning on being college roommates.
Only partly joking, I always told Natalee she could be anything she wanted to be as long as it was a doctor or a lawyer. Postgraduate work was already a given. Because she was so driven and hungry for achievement, she expected Matt and me to be the same. Sometimes we didn't measure up. I knew it was pointless to argue with her when we got into disagreements. There was no yelling involved, but it might be best described as passive-aggressive behavior on her part.
She could be tough, and very strong-willed. Matt and I always joked with one another about knowing when to stay out of her way! But in my eyes she always made good decisions. There were never drug, alcohol, or boyfriend issues with Natalee. It sounds too good to be true, but that's just who she was. She was unique.
In the weeks leading to graduation and the trip to Aruba, we also shopped for dresses for her to wear for sorority rush at the University of Alabama. Greek life is a big deal there, and Natalee was excited about getting into the sorority scene. We found two beautiful little sundresses that would be perfect for her to wear at the social parties. I vividly remember one afternoon about two days before she left on her trip when we were out shopping. I was looking for the opportunity to have a woman-to-woman talk with her about the nature of this trip, and our outing provided the perfect chance to remind her of the things that all parents tell their children as they transition into young adulthood. These are the same lessons parents teach their children all their lives: stay with your group and don't go with people you don't know, don't leave your drink unattended, and don't get into a situation or condition where you can't choose your free will and make your own decisions. Students Natalee's age are somewhat caught between that healthy fear of danger their parents teach them about as they're growing up, and complacency. They're too old to be guarded by adults all the time, but too young not to be reminded that there are dangerous people and dangerous places in the world. Natalee was almost grown. She was about to leave home. But I still reminded her to keep her personal safety as her first priority.