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Another father's day, past and present

She's out of the house now, has been for two years, and more settled in her new community than at home. She's thriving among peers, growing more curious intellectually, and beginning to take the world's measure.

Her first year away she called home regularly, filling us in on the details of her new activities - her courses, friends, frustrations. This year she calls less frequently, usually on the run, just for a quick word, a question, a need. Last year her absence was palpable, a dull ache induced by the constant surprise of her empty room. This year that emptiness has become an accepted feature; surprise is evoked instead by her sudden appearance, the floor again strewn with books and blue jeans.

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Transience is now a permanent condition of our relationship. She's here only to depart. After 20 years of on-site parenting, my wife and I are once again on our own as we adjust to a new, and former, freedom. What became of all that past? Memory is so easily overwhelmed by the present moment. We remember yesterday in great detail, last week vaguely, last month hardly at all. We preserve only those moments of celebration, fulfillment, or trauma that crystallize into milestones of personal history, quickly forgetting the general terrain, the background noise, the everyday detail that ruled our days.

Unless, of course, what you were writing about was that very moment.

Keats, ever alive to the poetry of simple gestures, famously paused in a long letter to his brother to describe himself at that very moment: "The fire is at its last click - I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet.... Could I see the same thing done of any great man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began 'To be or not to be' - such things become interesting from distance of time or place."

So a rediscovered sheet of paper recently provided a portrait of a rainy September 20 years ago, reminding me what it once meant "to be." This is what I found:

"While the rain runs in long, narrow fingers from the roof, I sit typing at my desk with Elizabeth on my lap. She is strong enough now to hold her head up. but every few minutes I have to hoist her back into a sitting position. Her spine is still weak and either she gradually keels over to one side, her head coming to rest in the crook of my elbow, or she slowly melts into a puddle of fingers and toes between my knees. She seems to enjoy the tapping of the typewriter keys,... occasionally craning her neck around to study me with blue-eyed curiosity. Whenever she does, a shiver of gratitude ripples from my heart to my fingertips, forcing me to stop typing and kiss the top of her fuzzy head. Ask me at such moments what more I need to feel fulfilled and I will answer, 'Nothing!' If I have any wish it is that time stand still so that I might drift off into eternity, forever writing about my daughter while she nestles contentedly between my typing hands....

"Lately, the future seems a curiously mixed blessing. Every day of Elizabeth's growth leaves me one less day of her becoming. The more past she accumulates the less future remains to me before she declares her independence and makes her own way. I try not to dwell on events as remote as her leaving for college. The present moment fills my thoughts....

"Friends tell me the delights of her growth will more than compensate for the losses.... That is already true, for as wonderful as the past moment was, it cannot compete with the present. I am hugging her now as she nestles under my chin and suddenly, for the first time, she giggles."

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After 20 years, the music of that giggle is no longer in my ears, but I can still summon the rapture her infant voice once produced, and for a moment the decades vanish, along with any memory of adolescent conflict and subsequent independence.

I felt again like that besotted, fledgling father and picked up the phone. She answered, breathless, hurrying from one class to another, surprised by my call, concerned that something might be wrong. I had been so lost in ancient history that I hadn't considered the effect of my unexpected summons. I quickly assured her that all was well, that I had just read something that reminded me of her and simply needed to hear the sound of her voice.

"Oh, Dad, that's so sweet," she said. And then someone called to her. She asked me to hold on a moment, and I realized the folly of trying to recapture our shared past. There was no way she could ever be the child she had once been, though I was more than willing to resume the lineaments of my former self.

"Get back to your friends," I told her, "I just wanted to say hi."

"I'll call you later," she replied. "I love you, Dad." And she hung up, leaving me suspended between a past saturated in the sweet union we had once enjoyed and my present, still-unfinished weaning.


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