Rain splattered the windshield as our dented minivan, one hubcap shy since 2012, sloshed north up I-5. First day of Fall, indeed.
"You better slow down." I could feel my wife's eyes. "There are always speed traps here."
"I know." I said (which I always say, even when I don't know). "It's kind of funny that eighteen years ago, this was the same stretch of freeway where we sped back to Seattle in the middle of the night. It was the one time I actually wanted to get pulled over."
I can't confirm this fact empirically, but I'd say most men harbor a secret desire to roll down the window and say, "Sorry about going eighty-five, officer. You see, my wife's in labor...really? I can follow you all the way into Seattle? Yeah, this Kia can definitely keep up with your Crown Vic. Great, yeah, go ahead and flash the blues and I'll pull out."
And now my wife, our firstborn daughter and I were headed back to the northwest corner of Washington, our destination twenty minutes away from where my wife's water broke that April night in 1995. She wasn't due until May, but like a dawn belly flop into chilly Lake Holyshit, our little pot roast had apparently decided she'd been basting long enough, and still eighty miles from the hospital, the carrots and potatoes were ready.
During the silent moments of the two-hour drive to her new home, I worked myself to the brink of tears a couple of times. I focused on anything else—the tightening band around my bladder and kidneys brought about by the huge coffee I'd just finished, an optimal intermittent setting for the windshield wipers—because the only thing more unsettling than seeing the driver next to you texting is seeing the driver next to you blubbering like Jimmy Swaggart.
This trip up to the college stirred up emotions that weren't unfamiliar:
That morning she started daycare after my paternity leave ended, I felt like Joan Crawford, only with the guilt and without the expensive face cream. It felt terrible leaving my daughter with these people who knew nothing about her. Would they let her beat on a stool with a spatula while listening to Nevermind? Probably not, which made them incompetent and untrustworthy childcare providers.
When my wife and I dropped her off that first day of kindergarten, we peeked into the classroom with its tiny desks and tiny chairs and tiny humans.The boys were shaggy little mop tops or perfectly parted with product. The girls wore so many shades of pink and purple, it looked like an undulating Barbie aisle at Target. On the way out, most parents avoided eye contact o keep the throat lumps from exploding into salt water bombs.
Dropping her off at college was different though. It was joyous. Nervous at first to meet her new roommate, her happiness kept seeping its way into my leathery carcass. I understand that the future promises a few teary phone calls, maybe some "I just can't do this" moments, but yesterday was a triumph for all of us. We parents can be hard on ourselves. I'll often look at the undesirable traits my daughters exhibit and blame myself, but I'm going to try not to do that anymore.
My daughter has earned the right to own her quirkiness; her tool box still needs a few crucial items, but it belongs to her.
It's probably going to hit me at strange times. She and I have bonded over sports since she was old enough to bat a tennis ball with her dimpled little fist. We always watched football together on Sundays, bantering incessantly and covering scads of non-football topics. I always looked forward to it.
We liked talking about Harry and Ron, Hermione and Snape. And Katniss, of course.
One of our family's favorite dinners is French Dips. Saturday at the grocery store, I swooned slightly as I stood holding the plastic tongs, realizing we only needed three French rolls.
I won't hear the sounds—heavy, lanky footsteps trudging around the house, pulling milk out of the fridge and dumping a million goldfish into a plastic bowl, always a few scattering on the floor. Her toothbrush won't be pounding the sink too hard and spraying water onto the mirror.
Okay, I know she's two hours north and not locked up in a penitentiary or shipped off to a war zone. But there's something primal, something ancient, about a child leaving her parents, and I haven't sorted it out yet at all.
I guess there's some time now to do that.