The shadow has been looming for months. But it’s just a few days away now, and there’s nothing in my power that can change it. I wouldn’t want to change it even if I could, not really. I don’t want to stop it from happening. But I wouldn’t mind the ability to push it down the road, just a little. Not forever. Maybe take these couple of days and spin them into a couple more.
I feel this pressure, a need I can’t pin down. It scurries and hides whenever I shine a light to see what it is. A vague idea that I should send her off with some kind symbol, some gesture. But what gesture could possibly come close to saying everything I’m feeling? That I’m proud, that I love her more than I ever thought it was possible to love someone, that I’m amazed at the person she’s become, that I know all parents say that but that I’m really for real amazed at the person she’s become, that I will miss her.
That I hope when she moves forward, that she won’t forget to look back once in a while.
All my plans are laughably inadequate. I settle on something simple. It kind of threads the needle between silly and serious. Tries to. It’s hard to hold the needle still with my fingers quivering.
Moving day arrives and it feels like it must be a dream. She’s lived with us for eighteen years, enough time that I’m now no longer the same person I was before she came into our lives. But I focus on the tasks, the mundane and the physical: carry boxes, find a parking spot, wrestle the battered dorm furniture into the place she wants it to be. My token is in one of her suitcases, tucked away in secret the night before after she want to bed. I don’t say anything about it as we carry cardboard boxes up the convection-oven stairwell. Maybe she’ll find it later that night, alone in the silence after I’ve driven away, and it’ll be a little reminder that she’s not really alone.
We take a break from carrying things for a while. I enjoy the comforting mundanity of Target. Batteries. Buying batteries is a normal dad thing to do, something that happens on a normal day. I’m still not sure how I’ll be able to leave when the time comes. I feel the shadow brush cool against the back of my neck. I don’t think about it. Look, they have ice cube trays. You need ice cube trays.
Campus is sunny, quiet, like an outdoor library. Most of the kids won’t move in for a few weeks. Moving her in early has robbed us of some time with her, but she’s doing it because she already got hired for a job on campus and her training happens before the main move-in day, so it’s hard to be too upset. How dare she have a plan and act responsibly? I tell myself that at least it makes for a more relaxed move in: parking was a breeze. Parking. That’s a very normal dad thing to think about.
We walk past a fountain and under a shady canopy of trees. She’s got a bounce in her step, despite all the loading earlier. Look, she says, that’s the business school. The bookstore. The library. There are benches under the trees, collecting a dusting of tiny pink petals. I wonder which bench will end up being her favorite place to study. Which tree she’ll sit under and laugh with her friends in the twilight of a warm fall evening, which greasy diner with a dirty counter and abundant fries she’ll think back on when she’s older, wondering how she survived college eating at places like that.
I feel unexpectedly peaceful. I look for the shadow, and wonder why it’s so hard to find. I haven’t done the hard part yet, not the really really hard part. I don’t look for it too hard. It's not like I'm really eager to find it.
Back in her dorm room. She’s unpacking the suitcase and finds my token. She glances at it, laughs, gives me a hug, and goes back to looking for the pants she needs. A twinge of disappointment: my gesture didn’t make much of an impression after all. But only a twinge. And then a tide of realization: my token never needed to be anything more than a token. Of course it couldn’t capture with crystalline clarity all the condensed feelings of all the years we’d spent together, and it didn’t need to. She didn’t need an object to know that I loved her. She’d been there for all those years, too, and she knew that I loved her because I’d been showing her all her life.
But it made her smile, and that’s not nothing.
The time comes. I keep expecting the shadow to loom up silently behind me, but it’s gone. We’ve worked hard, all of us, for the past eighteen years to get to this moment, and now that we’re here, it doesn’t feel like the end. It feels like the beginning. I’m so happy for her that there isn’t room for sadness in me.
I give her a hug, and just for a moment, I see the little girl superimposed on the young woman. She looks sheepish. She tells me she’s not sure that she’s ready.
But she is.