Five thousand diaper changes, a thousand rides in the stroller, five hundred trips to the playground, two hundred band concerts, piano recitals and volleyball games, fifty horrid Disney movies, fifteen family vacations, four Great Prom seasons, and it comes down to this: my daughter Emily is leaving for college, for another city, on Wednesday morning. It happens. All you have to do is keep waking up in the morning, doing your part as the semi-dutiful father, day after day. Just be there, quality time be damned. Quantity time is where it’s at. But it still boggles my mind.
Emily arrived on the scene with the fanfare that befits her personality, sirens sounding and lights flashing. And maybe that set the tone for an in-your-face life. She decided to show up on a crisp fall Saturday morning in Columbus, Ohio, amidst 100,000 people all trying to get to the same place – Ohio Stadium, to watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play a football game against the University of Illinois. Two people – Kate and Andy Whitman – were trying to get to the Ohio State University Hospitals to deliver a baby. It was not a happy confluence. I was stuck in college football gridlock, bumper-to-bumper traffic that was not moving, with a wife who was going into labor, and I had visions of Emily arriving in the back seat of our car. Fortunately, we spotted a highway patrolman pulled off on the side of the road, flagged him down, and explained our situation. “You’ve got to help us; my wife is having a baby,” I frantically exclaimed. Wow, that was cool. I’ve always wanted to do that, and I got to do it. And we cruised into OSU hospitals with our own private police escort, sirens and lights leading the way.
And it’s been a noisy, bright, in-your-face life ever since. Born to two introverts, Emily hit the ground running, a strong-willed, fun-loving extrovert, a pint-sized Ethel-Merman with a spotlight that seemed to follow her around. She didn’t sing when she sang; she belted. She didn’t merely talk; she demanded attention. Parents often speak about the need to shape their kids, to provide the right kind of environment and values and boundaries to influence a life. What they rarely talk about is the fact that their kids shape them, turn them into different, hopefully better people than they were before. And I’d like to think that has happened with Emily. Starting out as a rule-oriented control freak, I have been forced to become something different, because the rule-oriented, control-freak approach simply didn’t work with my daughter. The more I dug in my heels, the more Emily dug in her heels. And so, early on, and with lessons that continue to this day, I learned (Kate thankfully possessing a more flexible personality than mine) what it meant to be a parent of someone who was very different from myself, who had her own personality, a personality that I could attempt to bend and break, but which in the process I would destroy. And so I’ve learned to lighten up, to choose my battles, to let a lot of things slide that are against my nature, and to love and appreciate Emily for the unique human being she is.
And who she is is a pretty remarkable young woman. She’s one of the funniest, wittiest people I know, and she cracks me up several times per day. She’s remarkably friendly, and has found ways to connect with every in-group and out-group of people in her social sphere. She is astonishingly indifferent to popularity and coolness, preferring instead to simply like people for who they are, and regardless of where they are categorized and pegged in the unforgiving suburban adolescent caste system. And she is a suburban punk fashion queen, with her nose and lip piercings and her ability to combine seemingly outrageous combinations of clothes into something that often looks stunning and original and uniquely Emily. She is, most of all, herself. I thank God for her. And now she will continue to pursue her interests as a Fashion Merchandising major at Kent State University. It is, umm, somehow fitting. She has a dad who wouldn’t know an Armani from an Armenian. Take after the old man? Why start now?
And yet, and yet … she does take after me. She’s opinionated, like me. When we butt heads I hate this; only later do I realize that she’s acting out the peculiar Whitman obstinacy a generation down the line, and that she’s not going to change her mind just because some so-called authority figure tells her what to think. And in my better moments I am simply thankful to be her dad, and not an authority figure. She’s passionate about music, just like me, and I love the times when we’ve roadtripped to Cleveland together to see a concert and arrived home at 3:00 in the morning, schoolnight be damned, because some things are more important than first period Algebra. And I love the person she’s becoming. As the hormones settle down, as adolescence gives way to young adulthood, I see more and more glimpses of the young woman she is becoming – confident, caring, a natural leader, content to be no one but herself. And I love what I see.
So Wednesday is coming, too fast. I keep reminding myself that this is good. It is what is supposed to happen. I am so happy for her, and so proud of her. But I am dreading Wednesday as well. We will drop Emily off at the dorm, help her unpack, set up the computer, go to the bookstore and help her locate her books. And then we’ll drive home. Emily will be on her own, and we will be on our own, two introverted adults and only one introverted, occasionally obstinate adolescent. And I will have no control over what happens in Emily’s life, and God will remind me that I’ve had precious little control all along, and that it’s worked out fine thus far. But I will miss all the noise, all the brightness in our lives. I’ll probably mope for a few days, sit around the house and listen to the phone not ring, and the stereos not blare. And I’m dreading that, too. For those of you who are the praying types, please pray for Emily. Come to think of it, pray for the three remaining introverts as well.