When she was about seven years old, she came into my room one morning before she left to walk to school. I'd been up late, writing, and was fast asleep. I half-awoke to her voice.
"I'm going, Daddy," she said, and kissed me lightly on the cheek.
I stirred and turned, still nowhere near awake, and grunted, "Drive carefully."
She giggled. I came out of my daze, and grinned sheepishly. She skipped off to school, laughing.
The next morning it was my turn to make breakfast, braid her hair, check her lunch, nip at her heels like a border collie as she got ready for her day. As she opened the door I called out to her.
"Drive carefully," I said, and she giggled as she ran off.
It became our thing.
It was "Have a nice day", "Goodbye", Be safe", and "I love you", all rolled into two silly words. Later, it became "Don't drink and drive", "Good luck on your exam", and, of course, it could also just be "Drive carefully".
I've said those two words to her every single time we've parted. Called from my office as she's bolting out the door to meet with her friends. Leaning over to give her a kiss as I drop her off for classes. Sitting on the edge of her bed as I nudge her from sleep at six in the morning when I have an early flight. Always the same thing.
The movers pulled up around noon today, to gather up the few large pieces of furniture she's taking with her to her new apartment. A couple of bookshelves. A cedar chest filled with towels and blankets and winter clothes. Her piano - well, our piano, but since she's the only one who plays it, we decided (well, she decided) it should go with her. Her bike. An old futon.
The smaller stuff - clothes, pictures, books, and the various and sundry odds and ends that a girl collects over the years - was already at the new place, spirited there a trunkload at a time by her and her younger sister, working together. They had conspired between themselves to shift stuff out a little bit at a time, always when my wife was at work, to spare her the pangs and tears of watching her little girl move out.
I could have helped, but they didn't ask. In the end, I decided this was a sister thing, and let it be.
I saw the new place last Sunday. It's nice - the entire top floor of an older building. Three bedrooms, gleaming hardwood floors, a smallish but serviceable kitchen, a pantry in the dining room that needs some built in shelves. I can do that.
The windows along the front of the apartment are all those lovely arched floor to ceiling jobs. Not much of a view, but lots of light. There's some work to do, painting baseboards and trim, making and hanging curtains, basic maintenance. But all in all, it's a lovely first apartment. I guess.
Her room (how long before it becomes "her old room"?) has never been so clean. The walls are bare, faint outlines of pictures and posters on every surface. A week ago you couldn't find the floor for clothes (clean, dirty, and "I can get one more day out of this"), and the room was a riot of colour. Today it seems drab.
Look, I know this is a good thing. I know I should be happy for her, and I am. I know this is what we've been preparing her for since childhood - to move out, be on her own, be strong and independent and do her own shopping and deal with the phone company and wake up to her alarm and remember that Tuesdays are garbage days and all those other things that adults do and kids don't have to.
So, Mission Accomplished. I'm ... happy. Really.
She called tonight. She'd planned to work in the new place most of the day, then come back to sleep here and finish up tomorrow. But things went faster than she expected. She'll just stay over. She might come by Sunday for dinner.
Maybe something in my voice gave me away. "Dad ... are you OK with all this?"
"Sure, honey, I'm fine."
"OK. I don't believe you, but OK. Bye, Dad."
"Bye, honey. Drive carefully."