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Daddy's Girl Chapter 3: Two Arteries, One Heart

Every weekend for a month now, my family has attended graduation parties for our friends’ children (now young adults), many of whom I’ve known since infancy. From backyard picnics to catered affairs, it is surreal for me to see them as grown up, bright-eyed high school graduates preparing to take their next steps as college students. And in our family, we celebrated not one, but two graduations this year: my oldest daughter’s graduation from college, and my youngest daughter’s from high school.

On May 11, right before Mother's Day, I drove to Kent, Ohio with my husband, younger daughter, and mother to attend my older daughter's graduation from fashion school. Being able to watch her walk across the stage to receive her diploma was truly meaningful because we didn’t get to have that experience for her high school graduation. Having graduated in 2020, her ceremony took place over YouTube. At the time, we sat in our basement, watching a beautifully-rendered video her school put together, and clapped loudly when her picture flashed across the screen. Later that day, we stood outside as all the graduates drove down the main street of our community, waving from their cars to the loud cheers of families who stood 6 feet apart on the sidewalk. It was special and unique and meaningful, and a moment that captured the reality of that time. Yet there was a sense of something missing. There were no packed auditoriums, no large gatherings. There were no group hugs, no communal throwing of the caps in the air, no graduation parties. So, four years later, as my family sat in a crowd of thousands, I was one of the loudest to cheer when my daughter's name was called. I was overcome with joy and pride. Yet there was still a feeling of something missing . . . or more precisely, someone missing.

My daughter as a prospective student, and as a graduate of the Kent State Fashion School

After the ceremony, as we took photos throughout the campus, my mind returned to the first time I visited Kent State with my daughter. It had been the summer before her senior year of high school, and I had come to Cleveland with both her and my parents. We had scheduled a tour of Kent State, and on the day of the tour, while my mother spent time with our Cleveland family, my father and I drove my daughter to the university. The first time I laid eyes on the campus that would become my daughter’s home, I was sitting beside my father. While I was the parent of the soon-to-be college student, I still felt a sense of security having my father there with me. His presence was always calm and reassuring. Together, the three of us attended an information session, then followed the young tour guide across the green lawns and rolling hills of the campus. We took a moment to commemorate those who were killed in the Kent State shooting (my father later shared with us where he was at that turbulent time), and finally ended up at the fashion school. We passed through the doors my daughter would pass through so many times over the coming years, and took in the two-story lobby with its marble floors and dual winding staircases, sunlight streaming through the skylights overhead. The space was a cross between classic and contemporary architecture, with mannequins in the windows of the classrooms, rows and rows of high-tech sewing machines and looms behind the glass walls, and student work displayed throughout. We spent the later part of the day touring the museum located in the fashion school, and afterwards, we walked to Bricco for a late lunch, a restaurant that would become a regular spot for us to eat at over the next four years. I could see the enamored look in my daughter's eyes. I think my father and I knew in that moment that she had found her school.

Visiting the fashion museum housed in the fashion school.

Also on this trip, my dad, daughter, and I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland.

Having my father with us on that special day meant so much. From the moment my daughter was born, my father was wrapped around her finger. She was his oldest grandchild, and he doted on her (and all his grandchildren) in a way that made her feel special and loved . . . the same way he always made me feel special and loved. I valued my father's advice, so having him there to share in our conversation about how to choose a school, whether to go away from or stay close to home, and whether or not to pursue a practical major over following your dreams, was priceless. Ultimately, just as my parents had supported my passion of becoming a writer, my father encouraged my daughter's desire to pursue the world of fashion. We were three generations together bonding on a lovely afternoon. One I'll never forget.

A week later, I was again sitting in a stadium for another graduation ceremony, this time for my youngest daughter. I was brimming with excitement and school pride as I watched her march in with her class of almost 1000 students. She had been able to experience all the things my oldest daughter hadn't . . . the senior bike ride, senior breakfast, senior prom, parade of graduates at the elementary school she had attended, and last "official" day of school (my oldest daughter had no way of knowing that fateful day in March 2020, when schools across the country closed due to the pandemic, that she would never walk the halls of the high school as a student again.). Sitting beside me at her ceremony were not only my husband and oldest daughter, but my mother, brother, sister-in-law and nephew. As I glanced over the row we occupied, a pang touched my heart, twisted slightly, then stronger, a feeling of both joy and sorrow at the same time. The happiness I felt in that moment was tempered by an underlying sadness, because my father wasn’t there to witness this.

As his dementia progressed over my daughter's high school years, he had still been able to come see her receive awards for her art and perform as part of the color guard. He had been present, even when he lost the ability to verbally communicate. His pride for my daughter's accomplishments was evident in his expression . . . he never lost his expressive lift of the eyebrows or his easy smile. But now, his absence was viscerally felt by us all.

My father with my daughter as a baby and on her first day of Kindergarten. My father attending one of her high school performances and seeing her off to Grand Nationals. My father with the family, only a year before his passing.

He wasn't there to see both my daughters, girls he had cherished with his whole heart, meet these next milestones in their lives. And it was so unfair, because I know he would have been brimming with as much pride as I was.

My tears began to fall.

I had joked to so many of my friends that 2024 was going to be a monumental year for my family. It was the year both my girls would graduate, the year my husband and I both turn 50, the year we celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary . . . all good things. All milestones to be met with joy and celebration and happiness. Yet a part of me knew, especially as my father’s health declined and he entered hospice, that 2024 was also going to be a year of hardship, stress, and most likely, loss. That has proven to be the case. And so often, these feelings coexist in a confusing mix of emotions. Some nights I laugh until I can't breathe with my family around the dinner table, then, as I'm emptying the dishwasher, I'll hear a song that reminds me of my father and I'll start to cry. Or a memory of my father will come to mind that at first fills me with joy, then I get a pang of sorrow and try to push it away. Or I'll think about all the things we used to do and I'll be overcome by nostalgia, even as I'm excited about future endeavors.

As this quote says, it is possible to hold both joy and pain at the same time. It is possible to look ahead with hope to the future while still feeling grief about what has passed, and who is no longer with us. Someone wise once told me our grief never lessens, but our lives continue to grow and expand over the years, so we bump into that grief less as time passes. But when we do, the pain is still the same. In a way, I was comforted by this thought. I know that to feel that grief means I loved (and still love) my father so very deeply. And that is something I will always hold close to my heart.


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