No amount of tragedy could prepare the father for the sadness of Saturday.
Not fatal fires, not car crashes, not even a plane crash.
Nothing was ever as sad for the short rumpled guy with the big nose and the clueless manner as watching a daughter wave goodbye after dropping her off at college.
August in Columbia, at the University of South Carolina where dreams are made for the young, is supposed to be hot with a sky so blue it shimmers with the possibilities of learning and life.
But this Saturday it rained. The temperature was about 66 degrees. Maybe the coldest day on record for the date.
The father carried in plastic bins filled with stuff, a tiny refrigerator, suitcases and boxes and clothes, posters and pictures.
He believed the cool rain that chilled the bones was only falling on him.
There was a checklist for the dorm room, one of the quadrangles of fame at this school, to mark off the dings and chips from past teens dropped there by generations of fathers.
The checklist read, “walls, floor, lights,” and more.
The lights provided the same maternity-room-fluorescent glare of 18 years ago, when the daughter came squalling and screaming into life. A boy became a man that day when he realized that it was possible, it needed to be possible, to love someone more than he loved his selfish self.
The father that day was proud and bragging, while the mother did all the real work.
It would remain that way, too.
What walls really meant were the first pictures on a pink and blue wall 18 years ago. The baby stuff, the mobiles over the crib, the blankets that covered such a tiny person.
The breaths watched breathlessly by a father to make sure that the child still breathed during sleep.
The floor was the floor where the first steps were taken toward a father who deserved nothing in life, yet received all. It was the driveway where the bicycle first rode past without him pushing, and the daughter’s face filled with freedom.
The doorways were doors at the first grade and middle school and high school, where the child did so well, made honors, far exceeded the father’s ability to comprehend that a child could be so smart with a father like him.
The rooms on the dorm hall were quickly occupied, the laughter of teens and the worry of mothers who had done so much more than the fathers in almost every case for so many years. The mothers who fed more and changed more and taught more.
Yet still carried on.
The fathers carried and moved the stuff because fathers have to stay busy so as not to fall in a heap at the idea that the daughters in just moments would not need them to carry anything.
The child becomes an adult on this day. The father cannot do any more now.
The father slips extra cash into a hand, as if that is what fathers are for. Every father does it. It changes nothing.
The dorm was filled with boys and girls and mothers handling the lists. And fathers shuffling feet, hands in pockets, as the rooms took shape from box into new home.
Out back of the building, the father sat on a step near a dumpster. He smoked a cigarette against all rules. His hands shook. His shoulders heaved as he wept.
A lady in a blue smock, a cleaning lady, came up. She had a big gold tooth in the front, and her smile filled the quadrangle. She pushed a cart.
“Don’t cry, your baby will be just fine,” this angel with incredible knowledge said. “I sent five of them off to college. Paid for it all with this job. You did your part. You taught her. You helped her. She will be just fine. You have to let her live her life. You have to let her go.”
Then the lady patted the father’s shoulder, smiled once more and vanished with her cleaning supplies.
The father gathered the courage to take a last look at the room. The daughter came back down with him, from that tall dorm’s high floor, and walked him to the car.
The daughter hugged the father and said she loved him.
The father hugged her back and said he loved her.
The daughter waved as the father drove away.
She walked down the sidewalk with a friend. Her step was lively and quick. She floated. Two young friends, laughing.
Her future stood before her, limitless. Her future started despite that cool misty drizzle.
For daughter, a beginning. For father, the end.
The father waved back.
He drove away as the windshield wipers flicked on and cleared the daughter one last time in his vision.
The father looked in the mirror. His face was flushed, his eyes filled with tears.
The father was me.