The view from the shore

In a few weeks, my oldest daughter is leaving for college. Almost every day, someone asks me: "How does it feel?"

My usual answer is a pained smile and a shrug. What do you call it when you're equal parts heartbroken and relieved? It's complicated.

Maddie's been leaving for years now. She turned on the booster rockets at about age 15, and you could feel the pressure building up beneath her as the launch date approached. I tried to be the solid ground for her jets to push against. But sometimes I was more like scorched earth.

I know – it's a tired old complaint. Parents of teenagers have been whining since the first young pterodactyl soiled its nest and took to the sky. But really, how could we feel any different?

When your kids are first born, you find a way to make them a part of you. You slice your heart open and sew them up inside. Then, in the blink of an eye (two seconds, two decades – what's the difference?) they rip themselves out of your life and take a chunk of you with them.

The other day, Maddie and I had a strange argument. We were driving home after a long, difficult day, and both our fuses were pretty short. She started saying snarky things (or maybe just normal things in a really snarky way – how do they get so good at that?) and I decided to draw the line. I told her I didn't want our relationship to be this way.

"What are you talking about?" she said. "Our relationship is fine. I'm supposed to be like this with you – you're my father."

I pressed on. I told her that her words cut me, and that her coldness shut me out. But it seemed like she couldn't hear that. She interrupted, and protested, and tried to make me stop. At one point, she almost got out of the car and walked home.

The whole thing left me shaken and confused. In a way, I was relieved to know that she thought our relationship was "fine." But what about all of my knife wounds? Maybe they weren't knives at all. Maybe they were shrapnel, and I just happened to be on the bomb squad. Maybe I should have kept my big mouth shut.

But since that day, things between us have been much better. Like I said, it's complicated.

So that's where we stand as these last few weeks slip away, and I try to imagine life without her. My term as her limit-setter and rule-maker-in-chief will finally be over. The difficult rhythms of our blended family will get a little less difficult. My shrapnel wounds will start to heal, and soon I'll be able to see the floor of her room again. And, oh yeah – there'll be a gaping hole in the middle of my chest.

Years ago, when she was just a baby, I took a songwriting class. On the first day, the instructor asked us what we wanted to write about. I told him I was a little overwhelmed as a new parent, and that I was struggling to get some perspective.

"I'll tell you what," he said. "Write a song about driving your daughter to her first day of college."

A few weeks ago, I dug up that song and dusted it off, and I've been playing it since. I'm surprised how close it comes to the way I really feel. The bridge goes like this:

Used to wonder when
There would come an end
To all your needing
Now I wonder why
That light is in your eyes
And where it's leading

It seems like I've been preparing for this her entire life. In my head, it gets all mixed up with the other "firsts" we've been through together. Her first laugh. First words. First sleepover. First home run. First boyfriend. Each new step was another step away from me.

I used to imagine I'd have all kinds of sage advice to give her when this day arrived. We'd sit down and have a heart-to-heart. I'd tell her all the things I've learned about life, and love, and what's really important. She'd hug me and promise to cherish my words forever.

Then there'd be a commercial break about other Hallmark movies, now available on DVD.

Now that we're finally here, the only thing I really want to tell her is that I trust her. She doesn't need my advice anymore. She can do this.

Someone once said that a parent's job isn't to get in with our kids and steer the boat. It's to stand on the shoreline and wave, so they know where they came from. So they know how far they've sailed.

I'm waving, Maddie. Can you see me?