Separated by space, but not distant in spirit

There would be no tears, I told myself. After all, she'd spent last summer traveling through Europe, the summer before touring Israel, and for four years had attended sleep-away camp. We were used to her long absences, had even come to enjoy the idea of eventually being on our own after so many years of child confinement – no needy kids to rush home to, no expensive baby sitters, just two places to set for dinner and our own wishes to fulfill.

So as we packed the rental van with our daughter's most prized possessions and prepared to drive her to college, I figured it would be easy. "She's eager to begin the next phase of her life," I told myself, "and we're delighted she has reached this milestone." Then, too, our nest was not yet empty; Her younger brother and sister were home for another two years. She'd even be near enough to return for the weekend, if she cared to, and there was always the telephone. No, this wouldn't be difficult at all, I reasoned. What I hadn't counted on was my heart.

Did I mention she's my firstborn, that for the first six months of her life she was out of my arms only long enough to nurse, and even then I hovered nearby, in thrall to the miracle of her existence? That the moment she entered our lives, everything paled to insignificance beside her infant accomplishments and well-being?

This was the child I was going to send from home for the next four years – if not for a lifetime – without a pang, without a tear, without a terrible wrenching of my heart? Oh, silly man!

Still, I got almost as far as "goodbye" that afternoon before I realized my mistake. We made the drive in high spirits; unloaded the van with the help of a small army of exuberant upperclassmen; unpacked suitcases; hung pictures and posters; installed the computer; and kept up our cheerful banter, delighting in the newness of her environment and the echoes it evoked of our own college experience 30 years ago.

The day ended with an address by the college president in the university chapel. We listened as he recounted separation tales of his own, smiling at the universality of our experience. But when he said, "Soon you'll be saying goodbye to your son or daughter," it finally hit me: This wasn't just another exploratory campus visit; this time she wasn't coming home.

Soon it was time to load the empty suitcases back into the van and say our goodbyes. I succeeded in maintaining my composure until my daughter clung to me as she hadn't clung since childhood, with a palpable longing for the protective embrace of her father and for a past that was ending at that very moment for us all.

"I love you, Dad," she murmured into my chest. The hand that stroked her hair was the same palm that had cradled her infant head just moments ago, it seemed. I blinked away tears and managed a crooked smile, uttering cheerful words of reassurance meant as much for me as for her: "You're going to love it here: so many new people to meet, ideas to explore. And we're just a phone call away." Then she embraced her mother and the two of them dissolved in tears.

All around us, young men and women were saying goodbye to their parents, looking less like confident college students than bewildered children. Finally, in a moment of bravery, our daughter released her mother and stepped to the curb. "I love you guys," she called as the car backed away, then waved until we were out of sight. "She'll be fine," I insisted, trying to ease my own ache as well as my wife's. "She'll be just fine."

But how would I be? I kept wondering how it was possible that her 12 intense years of schooling had come to a close, that she would no longer call at 3 p.m. asking to be picked up, no longer keep the phone line tied up half the night, no longer set the wall between her room and ours vibrating with her music. Her bedroom, far too tidy now, had become the vague cipher of a former life, lacking the energetic disarray of her exuberant personality. And every time the young father down the street passed with his infant daughter in his arms I longed for the past.

Instead of lessening with time, the pain of separation seemed to intensify. Late one night, feeling particularly bereft, I began searching the Web for an old song. I had heard it only once but remembered the occasion with particular vividness. I was driving my daughter to school, listening to her complaints about excessive homework and burdensome tests when a new version of the old Sam Cooke song, "What a Wonderful World," came on the radio. In an effort to brighten her mood I began to sing along. At first she turned away, annoyed by my antics, but then as she began to take note of the lyrics – "Don't know much about history, don't know much biology" – she turned back and smiled.

Why it came to me this night so many years later I don't know, but I needed to hear it and with the help of the Internet was able to play it. Wistfully, I e-mailed her, telling her how much I missed her and reminding her of the time we had heard the song together. I attached the music file to my electronic note and sent it on its way.

Several minutes later, my computer rang with notice of incoming mail. My daughter had written:

Dear Dad, that song you sent me was so nice! I've been thinking a lot about how weird it is that I don't live at home anymore. I'm actually on my own, but not really, because I know I can always call you or go home whenever I need to.

School is getting better all the time but I can't wait to see you next weekend. Tell everyone I say hello. I love you!!!

Your first born

She seemed, if not quite back in my arms, very close to my heart, sharing not only my wistfulness but also the comfort I took from an old song and a memory of our shared past. I realized in that moment how close we remained, how deeply connected despite the miles. What had seemed an unbridgeable chasm was nothing more than air. Our separation was one of distance, not of spirit. And for the moment, that was solace enough.

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