I saw a father last summer. I saw him park a modest car on Hillhouse Avenue as his family peered wide-eyed out the windows. By the way he adjusted the mirrors and looked down at the gear-stick, it wasn't his car. It was a sunny, still day and regal Hillhouse lay there, soaking it all in like a lion stretching in the afternoon.
His son shot out of the passenger door towards Undergraduate Admissions with a piece of paper clutched in his hand. The boy must not have been 18. His wife tore the airport baggage tag from her handbag, clasped her young daughter’s hand and called to him to wait. The boy turned around and shrugged his slender shoulders in disappointment. I think they were speaking Spanish, but it was melodic enough to be Portuguese. I couldn’t tell from the other side of the street. They were not American or European. They were not dressed that way. Father put money in the parking meter and walked back to the car. His wife looked at him. His son looked to him. His daughter looked past him, at the majesty of the oak trees behind him. He nodded, ushering them on ahead. He put the parking slip behind the windshield of the rental, closed the door, turned around to face Hillhouse and sighed heavily.
I’ll never forget that sigh. It was not weariness or weight. He was his son’s excitement. He was his wife’s curiosity. He was his daughters stoic silence. This was no patriarchal nadir, no crisis of masculinity. This was a father feeling his pride, perhaps for the first time in a long time. He closed his eyes for a second and breathed deeply again. I think he was thinking about all those long nights, all the forms and the doubt. All the tax forms. All those times his son had looked to him for direction. Who did he look to? How was he supposed to know what to do? Could they afford the extra classes? Had he made the right decisions? Yes. He enjoyed his moment alone on the pavement, free from burden and from aspiration – soaring over some imagined chasm. He looked left and right and his shoulders finally settled and his chest swelled out. The man looked down at his watch like he belonged in that moment.
When his son got in, he got in. His whole family got in. Maybe his whole country got in. It seemed like that to me. There was no entitlement. This was new to him. Maybe he had been responsible. Maybe things were going the way he dreamed.
It felt like he was whispering to himself. “OK. OK. I’m here. We’re here. OK? OK.”
I thought I saw a smile. But then he turned back towards the building and strode purposefully toward it. He wouldn’t allow himself the shame of celebration. There was much work to be done and he was responsible for it all.