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Sunday, August 11, 2013

On Telling Your Daughter Good Bye

I do not often write about my family, it is not that kind of blog. No one needs their lives publicized and available for anyone to read and discuss. However, the recent experience of taking my first born to college has some universal content....

The trip though uneventful and ordinary was packed with deep meaning and significance. It is a true turning point. The days were what you would expect. We ate. She diddled with her cell phone. We went shopping for the things she needed; then we went again for what we had not found (or overlooked--lamps need light bulbs). Four young women, now room mates, were all going through their own transitions, even as we their parents were negotiating our own life changes. Friday afternoon our own time came to an end as we kissed our firstborn goodbye: literally and figuratively.

I always wanted to be a manly man, but it just wasn't in the cards. I am emotional. Sometimes I choke up leading prayers or preaching. Funerals almost always makes me cry, especially when it is a friend. So, as I held my baby girl in the hall way I cried. I turned and left, but in the elevator I texted her, "wave out the window."  As we looked up to the top floor I could make her out. It was a nice picture to keep in my head. "Bye, my angel girl!" I had prayed in her room for quite a while and gave her one last silent blessing. God, Who entrusted me with her care for most of the last two decades, would continue to be her primary care taker. I just had to come to grips with that....

Some 2,000+ others were doing the exact same thing at Alabama over those days. What I am experiencing is not unique. It is also not a tragic loss. It is an emptiness crowned with fullness. It is pain seasoned with pride, excitement and gratitude. It is a good bye which will open hundreds of hellos for her in the days ahead. It is, in middle America, a developmental stage and part of life. It is awesome. Yet for all that, it is also sad for a daddy who loves his little girl (and already felt like he saw her too little and talked with her not enough).

Today at eucharist I had a lump in my throat. I missed her more intensely, because going to church is like steroids for emotions. Being 'nearer to God' seems to make everything more intense. It did not help that three other young ladies were making their final appearance at church before their departures to college. I have been their priest since they were in primary school. Love means never being able to say 'good-bye' without a sense of loss!

Now, like anyone suffering a loss I have received lots of words of wisdom. By far the most common is, "she is only a few hours away, you can go see her anytime." I did not see her today, as I usually do on Sunday. It was not awful and the rest of us enjoyed a nice meal together. I imagine we could have driven down to eat with her tonight and turned around to drive back. It just did not seem reasonable. Truth be told, it is only a few hours drive. Truth be told, I will have to drive for almost four hours to see her. In either case, she is gone. I will not see her today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. She is far enough away to make me miss her...

Like many dads I know, I made a decision to be a different kind of dad then was popular in other times (my grandpa for example) and in other places. I sunk my life into my kids. It was a choice. I spent lots of time trying to educate, comfort and guide them. I do not hunt, golf or engage in hobbies. I work. I exercise. I spend time with family. Lots of men do that now. It is remarkably rewarding. [She is a National Merit Scholar and she told me that watching her mom with her baby brother made her realize how much she owed her mom for that early education.] I took great delight in her successes (there were many) and suffered with her in failures and wounds (more than a few). But choices create behaviors, action beget habits, a way of life forms a character and role, and identity. In other words, you get used to being dad. Part of you is gone when the children grow up and move away.

I know this is not the end of her life (or mine). But do not kid yourself; it is a dress rehearsal. It is a "type" of funeral. It is a small "d" death. Just like I can see the upside of her going off to school, in the Final Good Bye there will also be an upside. We do not weep because they are in a worse place. We weep because we miss them. I guess some people do not care if their kids are gone. Maybe some people do not enjoy seeing them on a regular basis. Maybe some parents never went upstairs and sat and talked about things, or held them when they cried, or comforted them when they were afraid. Maybe some parents just are happy to see their kids gone. Not me. It is sad and difficult, just like it should be.

And for all those people who feel compelled to explain to me (and those like me) that it is no big deal all I can say is. I buried my mom. I buried my dad. I understand that moving away is not death. I also know lots of my friends have kids they see once a year, if that, because they are spread out all over the USA and beyond. I know you can learn to live with it and get used to it. I do not miss my old friends and family as much any more. I am just not sure that is always a good thing. It is not "abundant life" it is just getting accustomed to the absence.

I repeat, facing and feeling the loss is a dress rehearsal for death. The distance can be bridged now with phones or mail or cars. But at this given moment the distance is sufficient to cut us off temporarily from each other. Death is a permanent experience of that distance. Trusting the unknown future to the Lord we worship is the same be it first day of school a mile down the road or 213 miles down several roads. All of life is a "type" of deeper reality. All of it. We can choose to go deeper and make the connections or stay on the surface and avoid sad feelings. We can avoid any feelings at all...

Part of why I am sad is because it is over. She has left behind the life we knew for eighteen years (a life which had been disappearing for much of the last four years). And that, in the end, is what death means. But looking at her perched and ready to dive into all manner of opportunities I am happy and excited for her. Just like God's Kingdom gives consolation to us as we bury a casket. Jesus said blessed are those who mourn. Mourning a loss, even a happy loss, is part of life. I do not regret being sad about saying good-bye. Nor do I have any illusions that she is not really gone in a significant way, even if I will see here again from time to time. And I know in two years her brother will also make his leap into the next stage. And I guess the baby will some day as well... And some day, one by one, we will all "graduate" and head off to the "last stage" of life as we enter the Kingdom. Having learned how to accept loss (face it full on, meditate on it, and suffer it with joy and hope and then continue with the journey) will be excellent preparation for that day. Until then, we do well to take advantage of each dress rehearsal.

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