Rebecca leaned into the driver’s-side window while I let the engine idle. Her brown hair had lengthened over the summer, and some strands fluttered into the car. The constellations in the ink-black sky and two lampposts illuminated the gravel parking lot. Hugging me, she said in a voice raspy with fatigue, “Thanks for coming with me, Dad.” I waited while she crossed the lot—the pebbles crunching underfoot interrupting the rhythm of the frogs and insects on this rural New Hampshire night. As she approached the road to return to the summer camp where she worked, she took out her cell phone and started texting. I leaned my head out the window and shouted, “Don’t text while you cross the road!” She looked back, gave me her “I’ll-indulge-you-this-time” smile, and put her phone in her pocket.
I had picked her up the previous day to drive to the Manchester airport for the flight to Philadelphia—which was a half-hour from the University of Delaware—so we could attend her new student orientation. At the airport, she passed the time doing crossword puzzles, which I had no idea that she enjoyed, and she allowed me the pleasure of helping. We laughed as we consumed the airport’s Asian salad, which we both—lovers of Asian food—found wanting. On the plane, we discussed her course selection, with me doing more listening than advising for a change. When the rental car we wanted was unavailable, we upgraded to a new, fully loaded, leather outfitted, Lincoln Continental, which Rebecca enthusiastically proclaimed as “sick!” On the way to campus, we detoured to search for a place to get Rebecca some personal products she had forgotten to bring. It was dark, and I must have been nervous, so I joked that we had no idea what type of neighborhood we were getting into but, when she became anxious, I backed off rather than pushing my humor to its predictable conclusion.
The next day, we shared the excitement of being in a large auditorium filled with other accepted students and their parents, welcomed by a most enthusiastic student delegation. We then split up and reunited after Rebecca had met with her advisor to pick her courses. Strolling on campus that afternoon, Rebecca expressed doubts about the courses for which she had registered. I mentioned a course in Criminal Justice I had heard one student speak about in the parent information meeting, which I thought would interest her. She became angry at me for not telling her sooner, surprising me that she would seriously consider my recommendation. Rebecca was tired and began to display some of the emotional vulnerability and irritability that she had often found hard to control. Rather than becoming frustrated, I reassured her that we could deal with any course changes when we got back. I let the matter drop rather than forcing her to see it my way, which would have achieved, for both of us, an outwardly calm but inwardly distressing stand-off. On the drive back to the airport, Rebecca slept the sleep of the exhausted, slumped over like a doll in the passenger seat. After returning the car, we enjoyed a pleasant dinner and flight back.
It had been eighteen years and seven months since her harrowing premature birth: since all four pounds, five ounces of her spent her first night towered over by blinking and beeping steel behemoths, ensuring her safe transition to her second day of life. It had been three years and six months since her grand mal seizure landed her in a hospital across the street from where she had been born, and one month since she graduated high school, a high honors student and competitive dancer with an infectious laugh and gregarious personality.
I remember holding her as she was wrapped in a doll’s dress in the special care nursery, telling her, “best friends for life.” And maybe my “friendship” spoke too much to her vulnerability, as I tried to parent a child as emotional and as headstrong as myself. There were years of emotional storms, hers and mine, as I struggled to handle her and she struggled to survive me, and years of her shutting down at the onslaught of my questions and shutting her door to preserve her independence. But, there were also moments when I got to be there as a parent and a friend, like when she called in tears after rear-ending another vehicle and totaling my car. There were no arguments that day, just holding and reassurance – offered and accepted. There were sweet moments, too, like dancing the tango to the juke box in the Martha’s Vineyard ice cream parlor when she was five, and her understated appreciation of the day I had just spent with her at the college she was to attend in the fall.
If only there was a little more time before she left home; if only a bit of her childhood remained in which I could finally get it right, now that I seemed to know what to do. The tragedy of youth is the ignorance of how limited your time is; the tragedy of adulthood is your awareness of that limitation while the swiftness of time outpaces your ability to change.
As Rebecca walked away, I wondered, How will she cope without me reminding her not to text when crossing a road? Then I wondered, How will I?
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