The first few weeks after my daughter was born, I remember now as a single night’s dream.
These first few weeks after she left for college, I expect I’ll remember the same way.
And so I’m writing this down, to remember it better.
She was gone three weeks, on Sunday.
Here’s how my days are different now:
I wake up calm: not racking my brain to remember if she’s sleeping over somewhere, or if she’s here and might be late for school or soccer practice or work and whether it’s the right thing at this stage to wake her up, or should I let her suffer the consequences of staying out late or … I haven’t slept this well since my twenties.
Work feels the same in the daily doing, except I can already sense a subtle migration in the place that work has in my life. It should be now more central, based on the physics of displacement—but the poet Mary Oliver is whispering to me just a little more insistently than she did during the 18 years when Job One was being Dad the Essential Economic Engine, rather than just David the Fifty-Three-Year-Old Rando Writer Guy: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do. With your one wild and precious life?”
My daughter was immediately immersed in the overwhelming excitement of campus life and college soccer, so the text messages my wife and I receive from her are mostly good news. And even the problems are fresh and novel and seemingly solvable—by her! As opposed to the texts we used to get from her, which were usually requests for money to be added to her account, permission to stay out later or forgiveness for having gone to a place ominously called The Ledge, at dawn.
Everything seems lighter around here. Even arguments with my wife have a nearly whimsical, winking quality about them. We’re like actors who have been performing a musical on Broadway 100 nights—now just performing the show for one another. We aren’t being watched, as a marital example, or even as individual examples. Nothing we say can or will be used against us in a court of law. “We can do whatever we want!” we keep exclaiming to each other. “You don’t have to be good now,” a colleague summed up the other day cheerfully. “You just have to be yourselves!”
There’s a lot of talking to myself and a lot of talking to the dog, who receives his extra turkey slices and head pats with guarded optimism. Last night I dreamed I had a pet rat that kept biting me, but I didn’t mind.
I’m disciplined about how often and on what basis I send my daughter text messages. I honestly want her to go days without thinking of Chicago. My own parents were getting a divorce while I was a freshman at Kent State, my mother went off to an in-patient mental health treatment place in Arizona. It’d be unfair to say I didn’t care: But I do not remember those circumstances drowning out my daily discoveries at college, both social and academic. And I think it would have been a shame if they had.
(Okay, I ran across this in my desk drawer yesterday and sent it to her. How could I know she was in anthropology class?)
On our much sunnier home front, I spend my days meditating on a kind of prayer, which comes in handy when we get the odd concerning report about an injury or a rough soccer outing: May many good things happen to her—and may all the bad things be an essential part of her wild and precious life! So yes, I guess I find myself praying all of a sudden. Praying to Mary Oliver. Praying to a dead poet feels at least as practical as what I was doing a month ago to try to hold things together, which was mostly hollering at my daughter.
I’m relieved to be able to say that I am much more happy for her adventure right now than I am sad for the loss of her company. She texted me the other day on the team’s first road trip, to Pittsburgh: “It’s a tradition for all the freshmen to sing and perform a song on the [team] bus. All of them want me to go first. Maia and I are practicing.” Fills my throat with happiness.
There’s also the occasional reminder of the magma chamber of anxiety and longing down below. The other day her game was on ESPN+ and I had to work; the knowledge that she was on my TV and I couldn’t see her had me feeling apoplectic and acting epileptic.
The evenings are endless—inexplicably so. Our daughter was rarely home the last year or two of high school. But it seems her mere presence in Chicago and our simultaneous ignorance of her movements and responsibility for their consequences—that Gordian knot apparently took up space our heads, and stole a great deal of phantom time from our lives. Having all that time and space back is disorienting.
Now? I’m under the usual work yolk and training for a half marathon, and I still feel like picking up a shift at the new restaurant down the street. I could fill these hours with more social outings, but that’s not my impulse. Instead, I read with a cocktail, watch documentaries with another, try with mixed results to talk myself out of a nightcap, and go to bed by nine in any case.
And I sleep.