I just dropped off my little girl at college.
She’s grown a bit since this picture was taken. Yesterday her now darker red-gold swoop of hair stylishly fell across a white top above a swirling violet skirt. The shoes were less practical than the wee sneakers she wore while, as a toddler, she studiously absorbed what her dad taught her about plants.
But she somehow is the same bright, beaming, sunny, fearless girl who came into our lives seventeen years ago.
Before moving into dormitories for the first time, three of my children received from their prospective universities a copy of a book that each incoming freshman was to read during the summer. All of them would be ready to discuss it when they moved in, as one of many bonding rituals for new students.
Before my youngest opened the package this summer, my fingers traced the outline of the easily recognizable small hardcover inside it: The Last Lecture.
I wasn’t surprised: the last lecture at issue was given at the school she is now attending, by a professor in a discipline she will be studying. He died of pancreatic cancer, as did my children’s father.
Was she ready to read this? I asked myself. This was followed by a fairly quick figurative head slap: Is she ready to read this? She already lived it.
And yesterday there was my little beauty, ready to be on her own, hauling up the bins of belongings her dad would have carried for her. (OK, maybe not quite so little–I had to lean up on tip-toes to give her a goodbye kiss.)
Getting her to school involved a ten-hour drive I have little doubt her dad would have made while I stayed behind and tended to work, the beagles, and whatever assortment of children and causes might need oversight at home.
I wouldn’t have heard her in the car, excited about her prospective roommates, telling me about upcoming concerts and identifying new music for me. I wouldn’t have seen wind turbines lined up along the edge of a blue mountain in Pennsylvania, or seen her calmly take over the wheel when I needed a break. I wouldn’t have known there’s a “Pleasant Gap” and wouldn’t have refueled at a place called “The Promised Land”….which has a live bait vending machine. (But I think it’s safe to say both her dad and I would have remarked on the redundancy of a sign that listed a place called “One Mile” as being one mile away.)
In the past two years, while three older siblings had started college in three different states, it often has felt like the two of us against the world. Teenagers are capable of displaying a bit of attitude. So are grieving adults. But as much as she tested me, my daughter’s presence made so many things easier for me. She understood when I needed to sell the only house she’d ever lived in. She pitched in and went to work painting and assembling furniture. She even learned to cook (which makes one of us).
She had to be the one to witness the times when I felt I couldn’t do any more; when I was sick and exhausted; when I screamed out and needed to be picked up after falling and cracking a bone; when I said the wrong thing and know her father would have said the right one; when I couldn’t even speak during a bout of such inexplicable sudden bottomless grief that she thought I had grievously injured myself (again). We both have felt the sting of each other’s frustrations and displaced anger at the universe, and I’ll always regret that she had to deal with so much, so early in life.
But she has much of her father’s grace, and assuredly his compassion and forthrightness. She has brought so much into our family life, including rescue animals her father loved, and seemingly endless music.
When she was nine she stood alone on a stage at The Player’s Ring and sang “On My Own.” It was entrancing to hear that powerful voice coming with assurance from a little girl in a fluttering violet print dress.
Afterwards, our friend John came over to her and told her he had watched Jim while she was singing, and that no one could have looked as proud as he did.
“I know,” he told her on bended knee, looking directly into her amber eyes, “because that’s the way I feel when my daughter sings.”
Not so many years later, our daughter began performing Evening Prayers at Phillips Church–the church at the high school she attended and the same church where Jim’s memorial service was held.
At one of them, the season after he died, she dedicated a song to her father:
Hey, little girl
Black and white and right and wrong
Only live inside a song
I will sing to you
You don’t ever have to feel lonely
You will never lose any tears
You don’t have to feel any sadness
When you look back on the years
How can I look you in the eyes,
And tell you such big lies?
The best I can do is try to show you
How to love with no fear
My little girl
You’ve gone and stole my heart
And made it your own
You’ve stole my heart
And made it your own
My little girl. You stole his heart. And we are so proud of you.