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Loving a Daughter and Letting Her Go

[Religion News Service, September 19, 1995] 

The heat wave has broken hundred‑year records, and now the wave is broken with rain pounding the asphalt and whipping the trees around. This morning I tried to pick my way toward church around the yawning puddles, with an umbrella held down tight enough to function as an awkward hat. At last I sacrificed dignity to common sense and ran barefoot through the parking lot with my sandals in my hand.

It is cold in the air‑conditioned building and today is a somewhat melancholy day. It is Megan’s last Sunday with us worshiping as a family; she’s going off to college. I can recall her as a six‑month‑old, sitting propped up in the pew next to me at our first church, a jolly, beaming child. I picture her sitting with her little legs stuck straight out, with tiny, lacy socks and shiny black shoes at the end.

No lacy socks and shiny shoes today, but sopping‑wet Birkenstocks, her slim rayon skirt topped by a knit‑silk sweater of dusky blue. This particular shade of blue has always looked good on her. I recall a pinafore dress in about size 4, and a Christmas velvet a little larger with a pink ribbon at the neck. Funny how they seem still fresh, part of a continuous clothing story, as if I could have gone to her closet this morning and picked them out.

I’ll bet she doesn’t remember them at all. I ponder the miniature transfiguration I’ve been privileged to witness, from a baby to a child to a young woman. It is marvelous and beyond full comprehension. It also feels incomplete, as if I missed so much, or neglected so much; it runs infuriatingly through my hands like sand. How to call it back, and do it more thoroughly? Do it right? How to capture every moment and read it to the end? But she’s going away from me, already gone.

We have a couple of visitors. Father Robert, a retired priest and widower, is here with his new bride, and I’m delighted to see them both so happy. There’s also one of our classmates from seminary days. Ted has had some unhappy days; he and Mary divorced, then their daughter was killed in a car accident. A conference has brought him to the area, and he braved the thunderous weather and unfamiliar roads to be here today. Ted hasn’t aged at all, though he’s slimmer, a trick that strikes me as very unfair. He always had a quiet presence; to be near him is to be somehow stilled. He’s a little amused and a little sad, in almost equal measures.

A new icon is leaning up against an altar candlestick; it shows the Virgin wearing a look of breathtakingly sweet sorrow. She holds her child in her right arm and her head is bent over his protectively. Her eyes are large and dark, full of thunderclouds, at the brink of streaming tears. Jesus has passed an arm around the back of her neck and with the other hand reaches up toward her cheek; his face is pressed against hers in a child’s gesture of comfort. But she is sad.

When we go into the coffee hour I greet Ted more thoroughly and we bring each other up to date. Father Robert comes over, and I ask how his children are doing. His daughter, he says, is better. She’s joined Alcoholics Anonymous. She never did finish college, but she’s got a job. So things are looking better there. The son, well, he’s still a problem. "I never expected my children to turn out like this," he says. "This is not what I ever expected for them, when I was imagining their future."

I look from Father Robert to Ted, who is nodding in sympathy. I bet Ted would love to have a living daughter, even if she was in A.A. I have sorrow because my daughter is leaving, is taking one more step away from me on the journey that began the day she was born. But my sorrow is not like the sorrow Father Robert has for his daughter, and it’s not like the sorrow Ted has for his. It’s not like the sorrow of the Mother in the icon on the altar. How can we compare the weights we bear?

Megan, across the room, is chatting with the other teens and picking virtuously at the non‑fat offerings on the table. It’s the last time I’ll see her here a regular member of this community.

All of parenthood is letting go. I am glad that my loss, so far, has not been as brutal as other parents have had to bear. I can loosen my grip gradually. Letting go breaks my heart a little, but it hasn’t broken my fingers.

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