Danny Heitman’s “At Random”: Father gives daughter to the world

It’s time to fetch from the shelf my childhood copy of “Robinson Crusoe,” a book I’ve read each summer for many years now. My favorite chapter includes a scene in which the castaway Crusoe comes across some footprints, then wonders if they’re his own. I like the scene because I’ve lived in the same place for a long time, which means that I’m always retracing my footsteps, circling back to the same lives I’ve touched, the same lives that have touched mine.

I had such a moment this month when I attended an honors program for my daughter, who was graduating from high school.

At her all-girls academy, fathers escort graduates across the gym stage on honors night. While arranging ourselves in a hallway for the procession, I spotted Liz Seiter, the pediatrician who’s treated our daughter since Eve was born.

When Eve entered the world, I couldn’t have imagined that the doctor examining her in the maternity ward would also be attending Eve’s send-off from high school.

Seeing Liz collapsed the years into an instant, and I was once again back at the hospital in 1996, starting my life as a father with a baby no bigger than a bread loaf. Liz examined our tiny girl with a jeweler’s eye, tapping her here and there as if testing her for ripeness, then pronouncing judgment.

“She seems fine,” Liz told us, those three simple words flooding our faces with relief. My wife had endured a hard pregnancy, and our only hope had been for a healthy result.

A few feet away from Liz at the honors program, Mark Waggenspack, one of Liz’s pediatric partners, stood with his own graduating daughter, Kathryn. Mark treated Eve at the clinic when Liz could not, and he prescribed an injection when Eve was a toddler. Eve came to think of Mark as the man with evil needles, and one day, hearing him outside the examining room, she uttered her first complete sentence: “I hate Doctor Mark.”

Eve and Mark are friends now, and I credit him for nudging her into active speech, a gift she now expresses in a hundred daily text messages.

All of this came to mind as the music started and the parade of girls and dads snaked toward the stage. Eve laced her arm in mine. “Just follow me,” she said, “and I’ll show you where to go.”

I had, for most of our years together, been the one to take her by the arm and guide her — to her first day of school, her first trip to the library, her first dance.

Now, she was leading me. We emerged from the curtains at the back of the stage and into the waiting audience.

Through a small ritual, we fathers were being told that our daughters now belonged to the world.

As Eve took her seat among the graduates, I felt a lump in my throat as I tried to remember what Liz had told me nearly two decades earlier:

“She seems fine.”

Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny—Heitman.