October 28, 2013

GUEST ROOM: Fifty Shades of Grief or: A Father Drops His Daughter off at College

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Last month, in an annual ritual performed by millions of parents around the country, my wife and I brought my daughter to college. Her new home is nestled within hundreds of gorgeous acres in upstate New York — Cornell has a fine reputation and most important, it was Jessica’s first choice. As we exited the campus after our visit last spring, Jesse asked me what I thought of the place and if I thought she had a chance of getting in.  “I wish I could go here,” I replied, and “of course you have a chance.” Jesse applied early decision and her acceptance spared us the anxiety of multiple applications and a prolonged waiting period. This trip should have been joyful, so why did I cry the whole way home?

As we pulled away, I made the mistake of glancing in the side-view mirror. There stood Jesse, waving solemnly. I tried to focus on the five-hour drive ahead but instead recalled Jesse’s birth and the silent vows I made as I cradled her, to strive to be a good father as well as a template for the other men who would enter her life. Gentle weeping ensued. My wife glanced over, asked if I was ok and I said no.

An image of Jesse at age four entered my mind next, and that’s when the floodgates lifted.  I remembered leaving the hospital with Jesse three days after the birth of her sister. Jesse reluctantly said goodbye again to her mother and new sibling, but when we got to the elevator she refused to get in. Instead she crossed her arms, stamped her little foot and screamed at the top of her lungs, “Why can’t my family just be together?”

As we turned onto another of the major highways home, I recalled Jesse’s first fall from a horse at age seven and the tears continued. She had just learned to canter on Reese and as they approached the railing he stopped abruptly, launching Jesse into a somersault. As I raced to her, imaging all types of bone-crunching injuries, Jesse popped up from the ground with dirt smeared into her helmet and face. She held me at arms-length when I reached to embrace her announcing, “I lost a toof.”  After a brief search during which Jesse wiped her face and spat turf, we found the tooth and Jesse remounted without a word. I never had a chance to console her because she cantered away.

Fatigued by grief, I napped for a while as my wife drove, gaining respite from all the manifold forms of crying. When I awoke, an image of Charlie appeared, Jesse’s first boyfriend and tears filled my eyes again. There’s nothing more taxing on a father than his daughter’s first boyfriend, particularly if he’s unkind. My heart broke for Jesse with each of Charlie’s acts of disdain, but I knew she’d have to weather this on her own. Jesse eventually mustered the resolve I knew she had and told him to take a hike.

Next I recalled Jesse’s first nice boyfriend, with whom she remains friends. I remembered her returning home after bidding him goodbye when he left for college, tears streaming down her cheeks. I assumed he had broken up with her but as Jesse told me otherwise, and that she simply missed him already, my heart paused lengthily.  Daughters can induce profound arrhythmias in their dads.

As we approached the Whitestone bridge, I recalled the day Jesse received her Cornell acceptance notice and I suppressed a chest convulsion. Normally phlegmatic, Jesse’s jaw dropped and she repeatedly shook her head in disbelief. It was five minutes before she uttered a sound and only then in her self-effacing way did she say, “Must be a mistake.”

But it wasn’t a mistake, nor was it a mistake for me to choke out another “no” when my wife asked if I was ok upon our arrival home. In Jesse’s absence our house seems desolate. I find myself repeatedly wandering into her room, struggling to understand the chasm in my chest.  Then I realize it’s because my heart now roams untethered in Ithaca.

Steven Friedman is a professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College. He may be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.