Are you getting ready to help your teenager head off to college? How are you going to react with that departure? What will you say once your son or your daughter leaves the nest? Are you going to offer any advice? Here is my first letter to my daughter, Skyler, after dropping her off for her freshman year at college. Maybe you will experience some of the same feelings? Regardless, I suggest you share your feelings, trying to improve your relationship despite the geographic distance. It worked for me; and I think it can work for you. Just remember: geographic separation does not have to lead to emotional separation. Share more, not less. Then watch how your communication can bring the two of you closer and closer.
It is 10:50 pm PST and I have been up since 6 am EST, so my bones are tired, my head is throbbing, and my cognition is more than disjointed, but I would be remiss if I did not make the effort to write you my sincere thanks. Thanks for just being you. Thanks for allowing me to accompany you to your move-in freshman day at New York University. It has always been a privilege to be your father (after all, your birth was one of the best days of my life!); and it was a special privilege to be part of this historic transition. I have always loved the little girl who you were. The little girl who loved the Snoopy dance. The little girl who entertained me with her conversations on the drive home after diving practice in grade school. The little girl who jumped at opportunities such as the transition from 50+ classmates in middle school at St. John’s Episcopal School to 400+ classmates at high school at Santa Margarita Catholic High School. But I equally love the woman you are becoming. The woman who so easily engages others. The woman who embraces new opportunities (“shall we try something new each day, Dad?”). The woman who has the strength to leave the safety of home to face the unknown, always with a smile on her face and a positive outlook fixed in her expression. In my eyes, you have been terrific; and you are growing better and better with time.
After spending the weekend with you, I also want to thank you for having the courage to choose New York University. What’s the line we love from Garth Nix? Does the walker choose the path, or the path choose the walker? I can’t answer the question, but New York is a great fit for you. In a strange way, we are indebted to, of all people, your junior year physics teacher. Are you nauseated at the mention of him? Think about it for a moment. For the first 3 years of high school, you were on my path, not yours. You were a straight A student; you were number #1 in your class; and you were being pushed, by me, toward the rigors of Harvard or Princeton. With that first “B+” in honors physics at the end of your junior year, your path changed. It gave you the freedom to look at different options. It gave you a step toward autonomy, which is always good. Your college choice became yours, not mine. If that first “B+” was one cornerstone for that changed path, the other cornerstone was our college exploration trip back east. While I was still busy making plans for you to apply to the Ivy League colleges, you discovered your own, different vision of Manhattan and New York University. At first, I was resistant to your vision. Academically, you could have competed at any school. But watching how you fell in love with Manhattan and NYU, my resistance faded. You morphed from a girl, still dependent on her parents, to a woman, ready to face the world of her choosing; and you jumped from my forced path to your own path, with a growing sense of self. For the courage to make that leap, and the courage to forge your own identity, you have earned my respect.
Better yet, your ability to see your future has far exceeded my own. It’s a lesson for all parents who struggle with dependence versus independence. Now, on your own, you will be taking the courses you like; you will be participating in those activities that enrich your spirit; and you will be having fun with tons of friends, not isolated in some library. It’s what you see for yourself, not what others see, that is so important. But, as I sip my green tea and munch on my gluten-free chocolate chip cookie, can I still offer advice? Or share some of my hopes? Over these next four years, I hope you find a career that fuels your passion; I hope you head into a world that gives you a group of wonderful friends, a family for life; and I hope you find one special person, at some time far in the future, who makes your life complete. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, a character retorts: “That’s a tall order!” And the other character, with whom I agree, replies: “Not so tall that you can’t reach.” So, with this first email, that is my message: Don’t underestimate yourself, and your own vision, in any endeavor. To accent that point, I am going to include my fatherly perspective on you, which I wrote for your high school counselor at the start of your senior year. It was one of those required parental assignments, but I believed every word I wrote in my description of you; and I think every observation still applies to you today. Dream, Skyler, dream, as if you were still that little girl, ready to face any challenge.
A Father’s Perspective of His Daughter
When Skyler was conceived in June and born in July, as a test tube baby frozen in cryofreeze for 4 months, from the beginning I sensed I would be dealing with someone special, someone different. When the much awaited pregnancy test came back positive, one of the happiest days of my life, I remember having this mental image of an embryo grabbing on to the uterine wall, hanging on for dear life, and beating the odds, fueled by an inner power of spirit, an inner power of will. With no rational explanation of why she survived and was born while our other embryos failed, I have maintained that image over the years. In fact, over time, that belief has strengthened. Why? Because Skyler has always had an internal spirit, an internal level of energy, with which I am not familiar. It’s one thing to face a challenge and emerge victorious; it’s another to approach that challenge with an optimistic view, a core level of confidence, and a rock-solid equilibrium, unruffled by minor, and even major, setbacks. Skyler, for her entire life, has always been that special type of person.
When she was 2 years old, sitting in her crib, and being threatened by a tired mother who was loudly proclaiming she was going to get ‘Dad’ who was going to deliver some real punishment, what did Skyler do? Retreat to the corner? Start following mom’s directives? No! Instead, she rose to her feet, clutched the side rails, and screamed, “Dad! Dad!” That attitude, that willingness to face life’s challenges, even when they are cast as something horrific, is one of Skyler’s trademarks. Better yet, that attitude comes with a sense that nothing can stop her. In grade school, when a teacher would assign a massive assignment and the kids would scatter with worries and complaints, Skyler would emerge from class with a smile. The bigger the project, the better she liked it; and the bigger the project, surprisingly, the better she did. Why? How? Even from a father’s perspective, I am not quite sure. I do not know whether to call it confidence, or optimism, or simply an inner spirit. But whatever it is, she has it; and to this father, it is something she was born with and something she will always have.
There is the saying that people are derailed not from the walls, disasters, in life, but from the pebbles, minor irritants, in life. That is another area where Skyler seems so different, so special. Through the years, from preschool to grade school to high school, each of us has witnessed kids who have become unraveled by some unkind remark, some offensive statement, or some unfair treatment. Skyler’s path has not been easier than other kids. I remember her being teased for her curly hair, or criticized for something by one of her peers, or excluded from some desired group. Yet, she has never seemed overly fazed. Better yet, I have never seen her react with anger or bitterness or unkindness. There has never been moping or depression or anger. Again, I am not quite sure how to explain her equilibrium. But I find myself coming back to her inner spirit, her inner confidence, and her inner outlook on life. She always manages to stay positive, constantly believing that she can make it. In some way, it’s that same spirit that brought her into this world; and it’s that same spirit that seems to be carrying her through life. In my eyes, it’s as good as gold. In fact, in my eyes, she is as good as gold.
With those same sentiments, as strong tonight as when I first wrote those words, I hereby promise to support you, regardless of your path and regardless of how much that path may be different from my expectations. I also promise to support you, regardless of your success on that path. I promise to move away from my own deficiencies as a father. Or were they mistakes, not just deficiencies? You do not need to send me any grades. I have pushed you too hard, with too many external rewards, for those grades in high school. Forget grades. I will love you for just being you. In Sabriel, the father has a moment where he acknowledges: “I have not been an ideal parent, I know” … “but behind everything, there was always my love”. That’s how I feel tonight. I have made my mistakes. In that same Abhorsen conversation, the father bemoans the distractions that have come in his way, blocking parts of their relationship. I feel a certain kinship with that line. I wish I could have worked one job, not two jobs. I wish I could have had more free time at night and on the weekends, not constantly working 24/7. As a long-term planner, I have to accept some of the blame. I did not foresee my father’s dementia and its impact on my weekend time. I did not anticipate the subsequent conflicts with my mother. I did not see her, with her gaining control of my dad’s financial plan for us, holding on to every family dime. I did not see her as opposing any contribution to your education. My own misconceptions, or missed assumptions of my mother, cost me a shot at a reduced work load; but much more importantly, they cost me valuable time with you during your final years of high school. For that I am sorry. More time with you would have been far more valuable than any of the additional income.
Someday, I hope I can make up for my mistakes. I hope, as I head into my older years, we can have more, not less, time together. I hope we can enjoy many more trips, establishing them as golden moments. I hope we can keep our ‘tide’ in, never going far out. Unlike some of the individuals in our lives (like my mother), I intend to keep my promises. For me, my first goal is to become a better father. My second goal is to try to create an even stronger family, one that will last for the rest of our lives. With these goals, there are underlying steps for each one of us, especially me. To break free of old ways of thinking. To focus on greater acceptance and appreciation of all new opportunities. To become independent of society’s opinions and expectations, even if they were once my own. To embrace change and risk. Better yet, to embrace the challenge of developing a new sense of self with improved self-love and self-respect. On that note, I am going to end this initial email, welcoming you to New York University. Do what you choose, not what anyone else chooses for you. Not even me. Just don’t lose the little girl in the emerging new woman. And follow my only dictum that ever made sense.
Be safe. Be good. Be you.