Well, it wasn’t the first day that I had met her. That happened about 25 years ago, in a hospital, after my wife’s emergency C-section. It was all a bit scary, really, careening in the ambulance from the obstetrician’s office to the hospital, with no fetal heartbeat to be found. And then the gurney wheeling down to the operating room, my wife already passed out from the anesthesia, as I sat sadly on a bench, wondering if I would emerge from this terrible night sans wife, sans child, or sans everything.
A few minutes later, I heard the crying of a baby, which I paid little attention to. After all, I was in the obstetrics ward of a busy hospital. Then a nurse popped her head out the operating room door. “Hey, Dad,” she said to me. “You want to come meet your daughter?” First I had to process the “Dad” part. Then I processed the “daughter” part. Then I rushed down the hall to see her.
After that first scare, things settled down. It was a quiet childhood, as those things go. She went from being an only child to the first of two daughters. She discovered archery, fell in love with the sport, and spent every spare minute shooting at the range or in the short private range I set up for her in the basement. To get as much distance as I could, I set up the target butt in front of the basement door exiting into our back yard. That led to broken panes of glass — not because she missed the target, but because she hit the bullseye exclusively so many times that she wore the target out there, and her arrows started going straight through into the glass window behind it.
A girl and a sport
She shot all through high school, garnering both national and international championships, culminating in an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic Archery team the summer of her senior year in high school. If she tried out, the odds were that she would win a berth, meaning that she would move to California and practice full time with the team.
Or, she could go to college. She had been accepted to a prestigious school that she had fallen in love with.
It was a tough choice, and as was her way, she retreated into herself for a couple of weeks, not speaking to us at all, while she made her decision. Finally, she told us she was giving up archery and going to school.
She put down her bow, and has not picked one up since.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that all was roses during those years. She was, after all, an adolescent girl, and going through all of the turmoil and strife typical of that stage of life, including friction with her parents.
Unfortunately, that normal friction was compounded by my own problems. In the winter of 2008, I was hit on the head by a falling oak tree while cutting the firewood needed to heat our house. I was alone. I ended up unconscious, on the ground for an undetermined period of time, finally obtaining enough consciousness to extract myself from the woods and drive myself to the hospital, though I remember none of it.
I recovered from the acute injury well enough, but what nobody thought to look at was whether I had any longer term ramifications of that injury. I did. It’s called Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI), and its symptoms range from cognitive difficulties to emotional changes.
I had both. My language capabilities were, to an extent, broken. As a writer and a reader, I had long prided myself on my extensive vocabulary. That was gone. Even, sometimes, the simple words escaped me.
But the emotional alterations were worse. I became mercurial, quick to anger, suspicious. That, combined with the pressures of the cognitive losses and still being in the building years of my private practice, made me a difficult man to deal with. It took a year for me to understand what had happened, and many more years to heal.
That was the father that she grew up with.
So it wasn’t always a happy relationship we had during those years, though we both tried. She reminded me then — and still does — of my deceased father, who was a good man and an exemplary father to me. But in ways we were also very similar, and during the teen years, such similarities are more often sites of painful friction than of familial bonding.
Still, we found interstices of connection. During her college years, she loved to send me the rough drafts of her papers for me to read and offer commentary and light editing. I loved reading them, and seeing how her mind was expanding, gaining knowledge and skills beyond my own. Still, though, by that point we had the habit of grating on one another, and each would often preferentially keep our distance.
Love you and goodbye
Until, after graduating and not having a firm direction to take at that point, she decided to travel. She worked like a dog for half a year or more, saved her money, and then with an “I love you” and a peck on the cheek for her mother and I, she put on her backpack and took off to see the world.
We kept in touch, by all of the social media methods at our disposal today, though most of the communications were between my daughter and her mother. I would just get filled in with the summaries, and the beautiful pictures she took.
Between college and world travel, it had really been 33 countries and 6 years since she and I had spent any extensive time together. That’s when the invitation came. She had spent a year in Australia, working and saving money for the next stage of her journey, but before she left for good, she wondered if I would like to come visit her, maybe bring my bicycle and ride through Tasmania with her.
It was a brave invitation, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Still, I was hesitant. I remembered the arguments we used to have, the the retreats into guarded, injured silences. Though I greatly wanted to see my daughter, I was afraid of experiencing that all over again, while under the stresses of being on the road, in a strange land. My first instinct was to say thanks but no thanks. My wife, and daughter #2, prevailed upon me. Go! They said. You’ll have fun, you’ll see!
After a few weeks of my own silent cogitation, I made the decision. “I’m coming,” I texted her over What’s App. “Getting the ticket this weekend.”
I bought a nonrefundable round-trip ticket to Melbourne. My fate was now sealed.
We aren’t who we remember
The trip there was mostly uneventful. After 20 hours of flying, I was deposited in Melbourne. I let her know I had landed, and hopped on a bus to take me to the train station where we would meet.
I got off the bus and looked around. I was in a clean city, and even the train station was tidy. Then, sitting on a bench reading a book, I saw her. Her hair was messily twirled up on top of her head, with strands looking to escape left, right and center, as always. I yelled her name. She looked up, came over and gave me a hug. Here was my daughter, but something was subtly but substantially different.
You see, during those past few years on the road, she had matured.
During the next two weeks, I got to see how much. An old hand at maneuvering about, she led the way during our travels. I let go of the wheel, let go of being in control, and followed her lead.
Not a girl but a young woman now, the world is still very alive to her, with sentience endowed to all things in the range of her concern, including the tent which let her down on its promise. After a rainy night, she got up in the morning, and gazed sadly at the puddle inside her tent.
“You had one job to do, Tent,” she said, “and you failed.”
On our miles in the saddle, riding down the coast of the Tasman Sea, she would invariably get excited at the sight of sheep in the pastures, of which there were many. She’d say hello, and they would all run away. She looked at me seriously. “They’re having a business meeting,” she said.
She has that innate ability that I recognize as my father’s, the ability to make anyone feel at ease and welcome in her presence. After completing our check-in at an out-of-the-way hotel, she’d look at the front desk person and ask, “So what’s the gossip today?”, a question which always brought a return smile and sometimes a giggle. It wasn’t a fake question. She genuinely wanted to know, and that honest interest showed.
Another thing that struck me is the care she took of me. Traveling when you have lost most of your hearing can be vexing sometimes, and when she saw me having trouble speaking with someone, she would deftly jump in and repeat what they said. And though I’m not quite in my dotage yet, she was cognizant of how I’ve aged, and would often check in to make sure I was doing ok as we cycled down the road together.
Those aren’t things that children do. Those are things that adults do with their parents. And I realized that the woman I was dealing with now was both much the same and greatly changed from the girl who had left home so many years before.
We spent the time off our bikes talking, laughing and seeing things fantastic and glorious. Tasmania is about as south as you can go before hitting Antarctica, and its grasslands, seashores and promontories are both grand and primitive. As I would tell people when I got home, “I was at the end of the earth looking at the beginning of time.”
My time there came to an end all too quickly. I left early in the morning, to get a 9 a.m. flight to LA, and I hugged her tightly, wishing her good fortunes on her trip to come.
On the way to the airport, I looked out the cab’s window, tears of pride and joy and sadness streaming down my cheeks. For the first time, I had seen the results of our parenting and her own drive to learn and stretch and grow and test her limits. I remembered that nurse’s call to me a quarter-century ago. I had met my daughter, once again.