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Together, on the Road to College

THERE are days and there are days.

This one's bright and hot. Road's sticky. Sky a washed-out blue. Ice-water weather. Sunglasses. Snow cones. Maybe a stop at the Dairy Joy on the way home. It seems we've both been waiting for this day for some time.

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"Let's roll the windows up and use the AC, Sarah," I suggest, glad now for the choice I made months ago. There was a time when AC would have been out of the question. Too expensive. Too decadent. In my youth, AC was not PC. Still gives me a twinge to turn it on.

My daughter's not saying much - nervous. Concentrating on a list of questions she has drawn up. On the thick handbook of American colleges in her lap. On what lies before her, today ... and then some.

How pretty she looks in her "casual" dress: pastel flower print, sleeveless, neither long nor short. Hair combed neatly. She's so precise (always has been). Organized. Smart. Many other things. A parent's list is endless.

To quiet my own nerves as much as anything, I tell her about a few of my own times - the funny ones - as a 17-year-old interviewing for college. Like when I was asked if I had any "vices" and answered "mysteries," who knows why. Or when my father mistakenly drove us in rush-hour traffic to the wrong airport ("Buddy, you want LaGuardia"). Or mid-interview, when I forgot exactly what college we were visiting.

She has heard these stories before. Laughs anyway.

"So, what are your questions?" I ask her.

She rattles them off. Academic programs. Course load. Computers. Dorms. Sports. Fun. It's a good list.

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"Do I have to memorize them," she asks, "or can I bring in my notes?"

I advise the latter, turn down the AC. We're getting close. Off the highway and onto a country road. Where'd they say the admissions building was? We find it, no problem.

"What'll you say if they ask you why you want to go here?" I ask her. "Or ... why psychology? Or what your strengths and weaknesses are?"

She has her answers down pat - more evidence of care and thought.

The admissions building is one of the oldest on campus. Colonial clapboard. Pure New England. Gypsy moths fly about the green. Ducks crowd the ponds. Lots of trees and shade and space. But overall, smaller than I imagined.

Inside we are asked to take a seat, find others - parents and kids - here on the same business. Clean office. Soft lights. Comfortable chairs. Coffee warms a pot beneath a HELP YOURSELF sign. It's all so friendly.

As is the woman interviewer. "Sarah."

I like her at once - quiet voice, strong eyes.

"Sarah and I'll talk for about a half hour," she tells me. "Then we'll come back for you. You may have some questions."

The two of them disappear down the hall. I take a seat, notice a mother across the room whose son is gone as well.

"They grow up so fast," she says with a shrug. It's all I can do to nod. Is this supposed to be easy?

There are days and there are days.

My thoughts go back to a time many years ago (Sarah was two) when I took a year off from work to stay home with her and write. Not a common thing to do then.In fact, my male friends thought I was crazy. ("Give up all that income!") Even my father kept sending me the Sunday New York Times employment section in the mail - a not-so-subtle hint.

But I considered myself lucky, and was.

It was quite a year. Days spent in various pursuits. Trips to the library, neighboring towns by train, bicycle outings, picnics. Lots of books, simple art projects, backyard games. The Blizzard of '78 had us out and about on sleds.

What a chance for me to see the world through a two-year-old's eyes. What a chance for a father and daughter to get close.

Not that it was all easy. All fun.

Laundry. "No nap" days. Tantrums. Minor catastrophes of one sort or another (like the time I thought she'd swallowed the pills). Fits of boredom on my part. Isolation - a trip to the playground meant me sitting by myself while Sarah played with children whose mothers sat together talking among themselves.

But as she grew and learned, so did I.

Always bring extra diapers. Always anticipate the unexpected. Never offer a two-year-old too many choices. ("Oatmeal or eggs, Sarah?" "Oatmeal, no, eggs, no, oatmeal, no, eggs, no ... .")

More than that I learned what it was to be a father, to be more sensitive of a very young child's wants and needs, to be more appreciative of the whole act of child rearing. (On some levels she took care of me as much as I took care of her.)

No easy job.

The bond the two of us formed that year was, unquestionably, to last. Seed became shoot became flower.

And now this: down the hall with a stranger.

It's not that the day makes me feel old. Oh, maybe a bit. Or more responsible - I'm already enough of that. Or potentially "pocket poorer," which is inevitable. Or that I have the reins drawn so tight that it's hard for me to let loose, neither of which, to my mind, is true.

Or that I think Sarah's unprepared to meet the demands of college and beyond - I don't. Or that I fear for her safety (I fear for everyone's, but that's my hang-up).

Or that as a young woman she won't have the opportunities she should have - times have changed. Or that I think she'll "leave," in all manner and form, and not return. No, it'd be unlikely for us not to remain close, father and daughter.

So if it's not all that, then what does have me short of breath, sweaty and discombobulated? Has me leafing through a college yearbook by rote? Has me back in the past? Empty nest? No, there's Sarah's younger sister, Becky, future veterinarian. She'll be home for at least four or five more years - whew! Then what? What?

"Hi, Dad."

They're back. A half hour has come and gone. The two of them wait for me to get up, shake out the cobwebs. No easy task.

"How was it?" The question's superfluous. I can see by their smiling faces and relaxed manner that the interview has gone well. Had I thought otherwise? Worried that this ... stranger wouldn't quickly see what I know for sure about my daughter? My first-born.

What a great kid she is. Perhaps. After all, a parent's a parent.

DO I have questions? Yes, about deadlines. Financial aid. Teacher-student ratio. Safety. Co-ed dorms. (Decidedly adult questions.)

"Did Sarah ask you all hers?"

We all laugh. Guess she did.

"Bye, Sarah. Good luck."


On our way home, AC going full blast, U2 on the radio, it hits me - the reason for my shortness of breath and sweaty hands at the admissions office. Yes, I'll miss Sarah a lot. Lots and lots. Will look forward to her visits. I am glad she has decided to attend a college within a day's drive, wherever it may be. Yes, I do worry about every little thing. Don't most fathers?

But what I've been overlooking is the plus side. The good. Deep down I'm excited for her. Happy. Proud. My child on the brink of a new world. Places. People. Experiences. Challenges. All those possibilities about to open up. A real feast for her creative eye. Her energies and intellect. How lucky we are - she and I.

Lucky enough to make me want to... .

"Hey, Sarah, how about a Dairy Joy?"

"Hey, Dad, sure."


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