Off she goes to college with one last big `ouch'

September 06, 2001|By Scott Shane

THE DAY we dropped our daughter off at college, I slammed the car door on her hand.

Fortunately, her fingers were only slightly injured. The upper door of a Windstar is equipped with a thick rubber gasket to protect fragile hands, as well as the assets of the Ford Motor Co.

Feeling like some hapless sitcom father, I ran into the motel and retrieved a bag of ice. My daughter forgave me. An hour later I banged my thumb with a hammer I borrowed to attach screw-eyes to the new Ikea mirror she bought for her dormitory room. That set things right, I guess.

At this landmark moment, her entire almost 18 years of life seem to compress into a few eventful weeks. The car-door mishap brings back other moments when my lack of vigilance put her at risk, nuggets of memory that still glisten with fear.

When she was about 6 months old, sitting on my lap at breakfast, she pulled my steaming coffee mug over and scalded her tiny foot. When she was 5 years old, in some riverside park on the Eastern Shore, I obeyed her orders and pushed her so high in the swing that she flew off, disappearing out of sight down a hill and reappearing with scraped elbows and knees. When she was 7, I told her, sure, she could ride her bike on the pot-holed street, which she did, and crashed and split her chin.

A decade later, it's hard to remember the precise number of stitches. It's easy to remember the guilty pain of your child getting hurt on your watch.

Now she's on her own watch, a wonderful person with a knack for poetry and programming and an infectious curiosity about the world. But old habits fade slowly.

My wife lies awake in the middle of the night and worries about whether our daughter is getting enough sleep. I lie awake in the middle of the night and remember that I forgot to configure her new, used laptop for e-mail before we headed tearfully back down I-95, just in time to hit rush hour at the George Washington Bridge.

Sometimes, in the new, fast-forward version of her life, the tape goes all the way back to the beginning. I picture the rain on the windshield at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning in 1983, driving to Greater Baltimore Medical Center while my wife tried to time her contractions. After the birth the hospital seemed to forget about us, so we enjoyed a quiet hour as a family of three, snapping pictures of her in a tiny light-blue skull cap. A couple of weeks later, when we were trying to decide whether she had actually smiled, the O's won the World Series.

Every parent is an amateur, especially with the first child. We didn't know what we were doing when she was born. We didn't know what we were doing when we took her to college.

Good luck, kid. Sorry about the car door, the bike, the swing, the coffee, the laptop. But you'll be OK.

Just possibly, we'll be OK, too.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun since 1983, is on leave writing a novel.

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