Invisible boundaries

Monday, September 6th, 2004

Nothing fills an emotional void quite like the piercing drone of bagpipes. No matter the kids were rolling their eyeballs as they shuffled two-by-two into the stifling field house — this was profound, and I was on the verge of tears.

Oh, there she is. My daughter. Gulp. Eighteen years old. A college student. I stifled the impulse to wave and embarrass her still further. We had fleeting eye contact, then she turned to the business of finding her seat, one of almost 500 reluctant stars of this event.

I sympathized with their reluctance. Ceremony is about the past, not the future; and the past, represented by a thousand graying moms and dads looking on from the bleachers, wasn’t quite ready to let them go. It had them in its loving tangle. They were making the best of it.

I knew how self-conscious I would have been. All weekend I’d been reliving my own undergraduate career. The previous night, after arriving in St. Paul — a seven-hour trek from Chicago — we’d gone to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant and I couldn’t shut up about the old days, and the wonder that I had survived them.

“I totally bombed calculus that first semester. Did I ever tell you that?”

She nodded. “Yeah, Dad.”

But she said this without signaling impatience. She was listening to me — maybe just to be nice, but maybe, glory be, because she was interested in my sudden spill of perspective. I found myself retracing my progress, semester by semester, into young-adulthood: the inevitable, but excruciatingly slow, budding of my self-confidence. Maybe the words had some nutrient value for her. I dearly hoped so.

How odd that, when dinner was over, we got the wrong fortune cookies. I cracked mine open first. It said, “Forget about yesterday. Tomorrow will be a golden day for you.”

Then she opened hers. “All boundaries,” the words informed her, “are invisible.”

Next morning, we were parked in front of her dorm by 8. The time had come. She was moving in. My specialty, on important occasions, seems to be promptness — no doubt a function of being a single dad. What’s to stop me?

I was happy to do the grunt work, to dolly up the boxes and suitcases while Alison put her new room together. Then suddenly, as she was hanging up clothes and affixing photographs to white cinderblock walls, my job ended. The car was empty. The heavy lifting was done. I fussed with the computer cord for a while, but she had it set up right. I had nothing to do except wander outside, where I watched other extraneous dads emerge from the various dormitories looking slightly lost.

I’ve been a widower for six years. That’s long enough to be used to the daily grind of it, but not quite long enough to be used to the transitions — the graduations, the firsts. As I sat idly taking in the sights of my daughter’s new campus, my heart began throbbing with the dull ache of my wife’s absence. I wanted nothing so much as to share this with her, or maybe just lean against her.

The ache stayed with me for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. It was with me when the convocation in the field house got under way at 4 — when the kilt-clad bagpiper rent the air with a tune that sounded like but wasn’t “Amazing Grace” and the color guard, consisting of more than 50 upperclassmen bearing flags representing the country of every student and faculty member at the school, followed in his wake.

It was with me when the freshmen shuffled in rolling their eyes, and when the president told us that we were now a part of the Macalester community and when we stood up and held hands with the strangers next to us and the bagpipes started droning again and escorted us across the invisible boundary.

Later there was dinner for all of us. My daughter was animated. Then she was gone, having drifted away to the student center with new friends. That was it.

I’m not usually one for ceremony, but in that moment I was rocked with gratitude for the one we’d just had — for the bagpipes and the decorum and the seriousness and the official shattering of the heart. Forget about yesterday. Let’s get on with our lives.