Greg Philby, Global Gals’ “writer guy,” shares what it’s like for a dad to watch a daughter take flight. He and his daughter both took photos of this bicycle while walking the streets of Bruge, Belgium: not realizing the symbolism, but just liking how it looked.
My smile rode like a small listing boat atop an ocean of black fear as my daughter boarded the plane, heading off alone to whatever it was calling her to the far side of the world.
Her backpack gleamed sky-blue.
Her face glowed as though still candle-lit from a childhood birthday party,
her adventurous spirits burst open like happy confetti…
I felt as though she was already far away from the world in which I was sinking.
A lot goes through a dad’s mind in the time it takes an airplane to slowly reel its way out of its stall and roar away into the uncertain future. It’s hard to know when a plane disappears, exactly. Am I still actually seeing the speck of it or is it just the hope I am clinging to? Eventually, I realize that no matter how long I stare, the sky is blank and my daughter is gone into it.
It’s a hard thing to explain, and dads usually aren’t very good at it. We’re trained to blow up party balloons and make bad jokes (they’re pretty funny, actually) and push daughters on swings to a height that makes them scream. We set up plastic dollhouses and tea parties as though they’re the most regal things ever made. We let our daughters paint our toenails. We act gruff when she gives a hug although secretly melting. Dads climb out on a rickety tree limb to save a favorite, ratty doll, sternly assess boyfriends, or get down on hands and knees to bravely peer under the bed to prove there are no monsters. Dads take care of things. Dads calm fears. They aren’t supposed to have them.
I remember when she learned to ride a bike. I unscrewed the training wheels and supported her with a hand gripping the back of her seat as I ran alongside. She madly pedaled, believing that I still held her firm, even though I had let go. I remember the fear that she’d tip over, maybe shatter a bone or, worse, shatter her faith in me that I’d keep her world safe. And there was initial sadness when she gained her balance and pedaled without me, leaving me standing there rooted alone on the island of pavement. But there was pride, too, as I saw the happiness in her new freedom, a grin that stretched as far as her helmet chinstrap as she swooped in big circles around the parking lot.
The years gush by but nothing really changes. The little girl turns less little and then she’s a young lady and then she’s boarding an airplane to go across the globe. It’s the same little girl, only more.
It didn’t help that I have seen the coarseness of the world. As an investigative reporter, I have covered the cops beat, seen political corruption and murder victims. I know what is out there. And now, my daughter heads into it with nothing more than a backpack and resolve. I can’t fix things for her over there. I feel a loss of control, a loss of being a dad. A loss of grip on her bicycle seat.
A few days go by. She texts. She posts some photos. Then come more. Like a slowly forming mosaic, a new picture of her emerges, one I’d never before seen.
It’s a picture of her picking up another language. Of her taking an afternoon to guide a lost visitor around Lille, France. Of her making friends of one nationality after another. Navigating train systems and local customs and touring handfuls of countries. Discovering the impactful nearness of history: Normandy and its bunkers and grass-covered craters; an ancient stone church in Budapest half standing and half gone, and an operating Budapest bar left in its ruined state so the past is not forgotten. Her new favorite meal: moules frites. The eerie birdcage prison of Vlad the Impaler. Photographing the impossibly happy colors of the water and buildings and sky on Burano Island in Venice. The gold-gilded castle and sprawling gardens of the Palace of Versailles. Riding unique, small Icelandic horses across the country’s incredible black lava shores…
In the photos, she looked alive. She was learning. She was changing. She was confident. She was living. She was my daughter but now she was also herself, and I saw how much more beautiful the two things, together, can be. How they add up to so much more. I realized that she had what she needed of me and it was OK. She was living on behalf of both of us.
She came home independent, more historically and culturally compassionate, and so much more world savvy.
I still worry, even when she’s home. I worry that her car won’t start or that she gets home OK in bad weather and I ask her to let me know. That’s what dads do.
But there are some things bigger than fear.
One of them is joy.
I realized that as much as I worry and as much as I miss her, I want her to travel. I want her to travel more. I want to see that aliveness. I want her to conquer more things and discover new. I want to know that as I’m sitting at home looking into the silent stars at night, she’s off someplace around the planet, living life in a day that hasn’t yet begun here.
Though I will always be here for her, I have let go of her bicycle and let her pedal away. And it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
– By Greg Philby