Our friend Julie paused as she was walking up the stands to the school pool. She asked how things were going after both her son and our daughter took off to college. I said Skye was doing fine, adjusting to everything, having a blast in her new home.

“It’s not Skye I’m worried about; it’s you,” Julie responded, indicating my wife and I.

I laughed as I sat there thinking about our oldest girl’s absence, as our youngest was out practicing on the diving board. Maybe I’m trying too hard to drink in every moment with Taylor. Going out onto the diving board in my street clothes to give her a hug is, yeah, probably a bit too much. Whereas some fathers are emotionally distant, I tend toward emotionally in-your-face.

It’s hard to stop looking into my older daughter’s blank room. Her door used to always stay shut, a teen girl’s domain being her fortress. It became a comedy routine, me continually telling her to clean up, her attending to much bigger, grander things than the smell emanating from the dirty dishware she’d eaten Indian food from days earlier. I’d give anything to smell that odor these days.

No, not really. Not at all. I leave the door open because I finally can walk by without an anal-retentive cringe. She actually cleaned the place up pretty decently before heading off to her freshman year at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

I look at the composite picture above; Skye going off to kindergarten with Taylor ready for pre-school — then just moments ago, Skye going off to college with Taylor ready for the 11th grade. It seems as though there’s profound wisdom to be had. I should really be making great, laser-accurate correlations between the two. But all I can do is just stare at both pictures with a strange smile.

When we traded Skye and a vanload of her stuff for an empty car ride home and a few collegiate t-shirts, it seemed like a crappy deal. They got so much, we got “machine wash warm, tumble dry.” And yet we’ll soon be making the same exchange for Taylor; an empty, silent house for a couple of sparkling daughters so electric with energy, I can’t even begin to list the items that won’t be part of our void. I’m sorry about the double negative, in more ways than one.

Unless we can convince Taylor to attend the University of Troy and then convince a university to relocate to Troy, we’ll be going through this same thing in two more years.

Yeah, there’s always going to be Thanksgiving, Christmas and the summer. This slow growth toward maturity really stinks though. And yes, I’m talking about their maturity, not my own, which I abandoned years ago.

I hope I savored both the good and the mundane enough. I hope I tolerated the bad without being too much of a jerk. I hope those backpacks they’re carrying have far more than just books and snacks. But I also hope they aren’t carrying too much, metaphorically and realistically. There’s a precedent for that fear; we accidentally loaded up a large, overstuffed bag and made the journey west with it, only to find out the thing was just some of our daughter’s cast-offs, destined for the basement or the Salvation Army.

It helped that everyone on campus seemed to know her and rushed up to hug and say hello for the first time. As Marci and I drove home and paid our umpteenth toll around Chicago, I realized the irony. Everything we worked, saved and hoped for left us feeling a bit flat. Our victory was our defeat.

But then, as if answering some un-wished-for prayer, a bright, brilliant message sung out from our answering machine after the diving meet. “Mom, Dad, even though my audition stunk, I got into the Freshmen Girls Choir!”

Suddenly, everything is better. And my smile when I look at that composite photo of my girls growing up isn’t strange or fraught with mixed emotions. I think my smile is real. I seem genuinely proud and excited for my daughters.

Maybe I’m finally maturing just a wee bit too.