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Letting go by hanging on tight!

A new JMU parent writes about the day his first daughter left for college
By Joe Alexander ('09P) of Richmond, Va.

Shannon Alexander ('09) and her dad Joe Alexander.

Shannon Alexander ('09), a 2005-06 freshman from Richmond, and her dad Joe Alexander.

You cannot hug another person harder than I hugged my daughter yesterday.

In 19 years, I had averaged at least two to three hugs a week — taking into consideration more when she was a baby and, of course, less in her teen years — that's over 1,500 hugs.

Not one had ever approached this level of "hugness." I didn't just squeeze her. I wrapped myself around her and held her tight, like a vice.

Her tiny little shoulders — my nickname for her has always been "Bones" — never felt so delicate as I wrapped my arms around her and grasped them together. I smelled her hair. I rested my head next to hers. She hugged me back. I was holding on. As a wave of emotion rolled over and over me, the tears started.

"I'm so proud of you," I said in that voice you make when the muscles in your mouth are heavy, and you can barely get the air through your voice box. "I don't want to let you go. I love you. I don't want to let you go."

I wanted to remember this moment and this hug forever.

(I will.)

And then I let go. I let go of my little girl who, it seemed to me, just learned to talk last week.

I know it's a cliché to say "Don't take a day for granted. Your children grow up fast." But there's a reason it's a cliché — it's true. I have always been conscious of the passage of time. I inherited my father's sentimental gene. I take a lot of photos. I make albums. I love traditions. I write notes.

But yesterday took me by surprise. Nineteen years. Poof! Yet, I know they aren't gone. They are inside her and being played out right now as she goes to her first dorm meeting, makes her first new friend, goes to her first party and breaks her first campus rule.

All those years are inside of her ready to sustain her as she takes her first solo flight.

Maybe that's why I squeezed her so hard. Subconsciously, I was sealing up all those memories, lectures, love, tears, family dinners, groundings, laughs, emergency room visits and vacations so they would stay inside and not coming spilling out before I left.

So I let go.

Today, I'm sad/happy. I'm sad that she's no longer in the house making all of us crazy with her irrationality. I'm happy she's no longer in the house making all of us crazy with her irrationality. I'm sad when I look at the TV and don't see her lounging around watching a cooking show. I'm happy when I look at the TV and don't see her lounging around watching a cooking show. I'm sad her nice little car is parked outside. I'm happy her nice little car is parked outside — I get to drive it.

It really hugs the road.

When I take a turn, it will remind me of the day I let my baby go by hanging on tight.

About the author

Joe Alexander is senior vice president and creative director for The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. Shannon is the oldest of three daughters — the first to go to college.