“They’re only little once,” an older friend told me when my daughter was a baby. But they do seem to stay little for quite awhile. I used to hold Harper’s magazine in one hand while pushing her on the swing, with the other. But I did know enough, when she took her nap, rising and falling on my chest on a Sunday afternoon, to let that painful sweetness into my teeth.
When she was about seven, I hugged her goodbye at O’Hare and sent her down the jetway with a flight attendant. She was only going to visit my sisters in Colorado, but somehow it hit me that it would feel the same way when she would be off to UCLA, and I burst into shocking sobs in front of everybody in the gate.
When she was 10, the two of us took a grand road trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, and drove all the way home on backroads, singing Joni Mitchell at the top of our lungs. Somewhere in South Dakota, I remember looking over at her as she stuck her right arm out the window and absentmindedly let it rise and fall on the wind. And, with nostalgia for the very moment I was in, aching.
So taking her to college this weekend is no big deal, really. She hasn’t slept on my chest for 16 years. And she’s only going to Ohio University, after all. (The other day I told her if she needed anything from me I’d be there to take her to lunch the next day. She and her mother broke out laughing, I still have no idea why.) And she’s no longer the guileless little girl singing passionately about paradise and parking lots without knowing the difference between the two.
She will not always be “Daddy’s little girl.” In fact, she hasn’t been that for a long, long time. And if she ever became anything like that again, it would be a sign that something tragic had happened to her. And if you ever catch me uttering anything like that, you’ll know something tragic has happened to me.
Now it’s up to me, to let her get down that jetway before I fall apart, just like I did the first time. And then to fulfill my next responsibility to her: To make my new life rich and happy, so that her mother and I can be a source of confidence and not concern, pride and not guilt, inspiration and not sadness.
She has her work in front of her.
And we have ours.