Letter to my Daughter on her High School Graduation
If you are a father of a daughter, this will likely strike a cord with you. I wrote it in June of 2002. Still gets me.
Your high school graduation day has come and gone . . . probably none too soon for you; in a flash and a blur for me. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I wore a similar cap and gown, waiting through what seemed like endless speeches until my name was called and someone I had spent my high school career avoiding shook my hand, mumbled something congratulatory, and handed me a diploma that I can no longer find on a bet.
It seems like a heartbeat ago that I sat with you in my arms—in my hands really—the day you were born and cried at how beautiful you were. I promised you then that I would always be there for you, that I would always protect you, and that I would never let anything happen to you. This was a young father’s prayer, a father’s oath, a father’s most fervent wish for his newborn daughter.
One of the seeming cruelties of life is that parenting is left to the young, because let’s face it, who at twenty-four knows anything about raising a child? I certainly didn’t. I barely knew what to do with myself during those early years, yet alone what to do with you. I took comfort in the fact that your mother seemed to have such a clear idea what to do, leaving me to occupy myself with trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.
That part about figuring out what I wanted to be seemed to take an awfully long time. While I was working that puzzle, you were busy just being. It’s one of the features of childhood that we give up too soon, usually at the behest of our demanding parents. In this case, that would be me.
You crawled, walked, talked, and went off to pre-school before I could catch a breath. I took comfort in the fact that someday I wouldn’t be so busy trying to figure things out and I could spend more time with you.
Sometime later you stunned all of us with your newfound interest in springboard diving. This surely must have come from your mother, because while I love taking a good hot shower, I’ve really never been much of a water person. That interest turned into a competitive fire—or was it a performance fire?—that has in many ways defined you to this day. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud as a peacock at your prowess and all those blue ribbons and gold medals you hauled home. My only regret was that I didn’t have more time to watch you practice and work out, but I always figured I could when I got a little less busy.
We were equally awed with how quickly you took to fencing. I think the part that impressed me the most was your unflagging good cheer. Win or lose, it always seemed like you were having such a good time. Maybe it was because you had no expectations. Maybe it’s because you were just so well adjusted. Whatever it was, I think I was secretly jealous that you always seemed to be beaming afterwards. I’ve always taken competitive sports so seriously and for years moped horribly when I lost at something. Where did you get your calm I wonder? I only wish that I had spent more time learning that lesson from you. The young have so much to teach the not so young, but we older people don’t see that until much later.
It wasn’t but a heartbeat more and you were a teenager and champion swing dancer. Yet another endeavor that you picked out for yourself. Other parents haul their kids off to play team sports like soccer, swimming, basketball, and T-ball. For whatever reason we didn’t. Instead, you selected for yourself diving, fencing, and swing dancing. This last was a mixed one for your parents.
On the one hand, watching you turning and flying and tearing up the floor to the tunes of the great big band classics is nothing short of sublime. You were and are breathtaking on the dance floor, what with your dazzling smile, terrific performance presence, and snappy moves.
On the other hand, you were never around. Weeknights, weekend nights, and soon entire weekends disappeared under your feet as you danced, and danced, and danced. I’m not sure who was gone more by this time, you or me. By then I was launching yet another business adventure, all the while harboring this vague sense that I was missing the last few years I would have with you in my house. I was consumed with trying to get rich or whatever it was that I thought I was doing then. You were consumed with your dancing. But we both thought there would be time later.
And now you’re ready to go. Oh, you’ll be around this summer and you’re only going to the other end of the state, but the time that I thought I had to spend with you is nearly gone. You went and grew up. It’s not that you aren’t ready for what’s next, because you are. You astonish me with your grace, your presence, your energy, and how solid you feel emotionally and spiritually.
It’s me. I’m the one who’s not ready. I’m not ready to admit that I’m old enough to have a daughter going to college. I’m not happy with myself that I didn’t spend more time with you these past eighteen years. I’m not ready for you to go.
I wish I could say that I was sending you out into a safer and better world than the one you came into eighteen years ago. I don’t know that that’s true. The world you’re heading out into feels like a dangerous place. I can’t tell if it’s any more or less dangerous than the 1930s or the 1950s or any other decade you can name. But it’s hard not to feel that there are events ahead of us that may have cataclysmic consequences. At the very least, there will be life-changing implications.
It is a world that needs love. It is a world that needs caring. It is a world that needs to feel a whole lot less separation and separateness than it feels right now. It is a world with way too much yang, and not enough yin. It is a world that needs women like you to share both your dazzle and your depth and to leaven the loaf of rampant, testosterone-crazed decision-making with compassion and acceptance.
The only thing I can tell you with certainty is that your future won’t be anything like you imagine. It never is. But that’s okay. If you had it all figured out at eighteen (and you don’t), what would be the point of journeying through whatever years you have on this planet?
Whatever is ahead of you, I know you will do it with grace and style. It’s a journey for sure. One that will have its share of struggles and setbacks as well as triumphs and glories . . . or so it will seem at the time. Later, you’ll look back at those events and see that they are simply threads in an ever richer tapestry called your life. To this point, Dan Millman (from the Way of the Peaceful Warrior) says:
There is no need to search; achievement leads to nowhere. It makes no difference at all, so just be happy now! Love is the only reality of the world, because it is all One, you see. And the only laws are paradox, humor, and change. There is no problem, never was, and never will be. Release your struggle, let go of your mind, throw away your concerns, and relax into the world. No need to resist life; just do your best. Open your eyes and see that you are far more than you imagine. You are the world, you are the universe; you are yourself and everyone else, too! It’s all the marvelous Play of God. Wake up, regain your humor. Don’t worry, you are already free.
That probably seems like loony advice, but in time, maybe it will make more sense. I’ll add one piece of advice of my own, one you probably won’t take because I know I didn’t. Don’t rush. Don’t strive. All you have is time, and not nearly enough of that.
Someday you too will sit down to write a letter like this to your child. Will you too fill it with wistful thoughts of missed opportunities to spend time, to give attention, to show your love? If I am to be allowed one regret—and I don’t want to think of my life as having anything to regret—it is that I’ve spent so much of my life rushing around in search of things that proved to matter little, while I walked past the things that matter much. Like spending more time with you.
You are always in my thoughts. You are always in my heart. I will always be there for you. I will always be with you.
I love you.
June 16, 2002 (Father’s Day)