When I left home at age 18 for college, my 50-year-old father did the unthinkable. He followed me 600 miles away to Portland. Like, really followed me. He showed up at my dorm and announced he was buying a house a few blocks away from my school.
“After the deal closes,” he told me, “I’m going to open an office here.”
“Dad,” I said. “You can’t do that.”
He didn’t listen. My father lets no one stand in his way, especially when you have the gall to object to his compulsive plans.
I should have seen it coming. He’d called me every day since classes had started, and he’d already visited a few times during my first semester. My dorm room was filled with bouquets of flowers and bins of flavored popcorn he’d sent. Instead of hanging out with my new friends, I hung out with my dad, and if I pulled back, he pouted.
Growing up, my father and I had been close, although not in an affectionate, I-love-you kind of way. My parents had divorced when I was three years old, and because they had shared custody, I spent half the week with my dad. As I became a busy teen, with AP classes, friends and babysitting jobs, I could tell how disappointed he was if I canceled plans.
My mother had remarried. He had not. I was relieved when he’d finally found a girlfriend, even if it didn’t last.
One day, I heard the phone in the hallway outside my dorm room ringing. Most of the kids on my floor recognized my father’s voice.
“I got the house,” my dad said. “You’ll live there your sophomore year.”
“Are you going to live there, too?” I wanted to know.
“It’s a great investment,” he responded. He wouldn’t give me a clear answer.
I pictured my father and I as housemates. Would I have to cook for him? And share dinner every night? I hung up and vowed that if I ever had a child, I’d never cling to her like this.
I dropped out of college and ran the other way. Like faraway, to Mexico, where I found a job teaching English.
Over the next decade, I moved around a lot. I kept in touch with my father about where I was, but when he came to visit me every year, it felt like an obligation. Maybe I never forgave him for following me to college. We never really talked about it, except for once when I asked him why he’d followed me.
“The house was a good deal,” he said. Again, he brought it back to money, something he could talk about. He refused to say anything more.
Eventually, I went back to school in New York City and got my degree. When I was 28 years old, I also got pregnant. My boyfriend wasn’t ready for fatherhood, but I wanted to have this baby.
I gave birth to a beautiful girl whom I carried everywhere in a sling. She couldn’t have been close enough. I cradled her and whispered to her. She was my lifeline.
When my father visited, he bought a crib for her. I never used it.
I was alone in a big city, struggling. I need my father, I thought. So, I moved back to San Francisco where he eagerly became the man in my daughter’s life.
When he took his granddaughter to the park once a week, he followed her closely. “Be careful!” he said if she took two steps away from him.
I couldn’t ignore the similarities between us, the way we fussed and hovered over her. I also saw myself in my daughter, as my father tried to keep her close. Too close.It looked desperate and felt weird, but some part of me understood how he felt.
In preschool, the teachers told me how well my daughter got along with the other kids, how happy she was. But she wouldn’t go near the play structure. She was scared to climb up.
Of course, she was. She was used to having me right there to catch her, in case she took a wrong step.
My daughter and I shared a bed until she was seven years old, and if there had been a sling big enough to carry her to middle school, I would’ve used it.
I gave her a cell phone before anyone else in her class had one. I was a solo parent, so while I was at work across the Bay Bridge, I had to know exactly how and where she was at all times.
I really was becoming like my father.
Today, my daughter is a wise, witty, responsible, thoughtful, 17-year-old who’s applying to college. When I tell her about this essay, she says, “I want to read it.”
“How would you describe our relationship?” I ask her.
“We’re close, mom. Like Rory or Lorelai from ‘The Gilmore Girls.’”
I laugh because that’s our favorite show. But inside, I cringe. I hope my daughter never feels like she has to put her needs aside to be there for her mom, like Rory did. Or like my father tried to do with me.
Then my daughter turns serious.
“But you do stress me out sometimes,” she says. “I hate how you check in on me all the time. You know that I’m on top of things. Have I never not turned in my homework?”
Still, an hour later, I’m knocking on her door. “How’s it going?” She’s bent over her laptop, working on her college applications.
“Fine, Mom.” She glances up at me and her blue eyes say, didn’t we just talk about this?
My life at 18 flashes back, with my father calling all the time to keep tabs on me. If you keep this up, she’ll run the other way.
Yet as I sit down to write this, I find myself checking my phone’s GPS locater app — one more time— to see where my daughter is tonight. She has a dog-walking job in the neighborhood, and I text her a little heart emoji.
It’s simple and sweet.Okay, maybe I am a little needy?
“Walking the dog,” she texts back. “Love you.”
I picture her leading the dog on the leash, both of them hoofing it up the hill. She holds on tight, undaunted. It’s time for me to let go.