I packed my bags for a trip I never thought I’d take, to a place I never imagined visiting.
Three months earlier, on a Sunday evening in early January 2019, my 22-year-old daughter, Maggie, walked into our living room and sat on a loveseat facing my wife and I as we watched TV.
“I’m getting married,” she announced.
I panicked. Recently graduated from the University of Connecticut, she had met her boyfriend on social media four months earlier. He was an intelligence analyst in his second year in the military stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. They were planning to get married soon at the Bell County Courthouse in Killeen, Texas. Was she mature enough to get married? I would miss that first moment looking into my daughter’s eyes in her wedding dress, something I had dreamed of since the day she was born.
My wife remained motionless.
“Maybe you could move in together,” I suggested with as calm demeanor as possible. “Maybe get to know each other a bit more.”
“We want to engage and be together before he’s deployed,” Maggie replied calmly, sitting up straight with her hands on her knees.
I grew up in Connecticut, the land of stable habits. My wife and I followed the custom. We dated for 10 years before we got married, bought a house, gave birth to two children, and created funds for college. Maggie’s surprising wedding plan shattered all the principles I had lived by all my life.
They were married four weeks later, the day after Valentine’s Day, in a civil ceremony that we were unable to attend due to the unpredictable schedule at the courthouse. They were hastily given an appointment at the end of the afternoon with the justice of the peace. Even then, they weren’t sure when they would get married because the justice of the peace – also the county coroner – was called back right before their vows. Two hours later, they were standing in a quiet courtroom, about 1,800 miles from our home, vowing to love each other in a quiet but joyful ceremony. They sent us their wedding video, taken on a smartphone by my new son-in-law’s army friend, his witness and witness.
Two weeks later, Maggie returned to Connecticut for some of her belongings.
“We need a car in Texas, Daddy. Would you like to drive with me? she asked. “We’re going to make it a vacation.”
“Ship the car,” I said. “It will be cheaper to get there by truck, including gasoline, hotels, food and the return flight. “
A few days later, Maggie left for Texas with her laptop, chargers, shorts and t-shirts. I parked at the end of the airport runway to watch his early morning flight take off, still trying to deal with anything that changed so quickly. It was dark in the morning stillness and I felt my hold on her disappear as quickly as the twinkling lights of her plane faded in the distance. The little girl I once held so close when I was a baby – our only daughter and youngest child – was out of my reach, out of my reach, out of my safe zone.
“I’m up for the road trip,” I told my daughter on the phone the next day.
“Impressive!” she said.
“There is one condition,” I replied cheerfully. “I would like to stop for a few days in Nashville. I have never been there and I think it would be fun.
Music has been woven into the fabric of our family. I had been a DJ for a decade after college and my daughter played three instruments. Visiting Nashville would be part of our musical DNA.
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Maggie returned to Connecticut in early April to help pack her car. We have agreed to share the driving duties and not to be on the road for more than eight hours a day, in the light of day. I ordered a TripTik from AAA, an old-fashioned 8 ½ by 5 inch spiral-bound booklet made up of 61 pages of paper maps, personalized for our trip. According to the booklet, the trip would be four stages, 1,847.8 miles in total, taking 27 hours and 52 minutes of journey time.
“Ridiculous,” my daughter said dryly when she saw the old-fashioned booklet.
We left early in the morning, choosing the scenic drive over a freeway that ran along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Vast green hills were dotted with black cows. Dogwoods planted along the highway in Virginia and Tennessee were singing in all April glory, their welcoming pink blossoms bowing in the gentle breeze and pointing south toward our destination. And there were crosses of all sizes and colors, the symbol of the Bible Belt to keep on hoping.
Two days later, we arrived in Nashville around supper time. Maggie spotted a tattoo parlor as we walked down Second Avenue.
“Dad, do you want matching tattoos?” She asked jokingly, as she had done several times in the past. I was dismissive, I never really thought about getting a tattoo, thinking that only rowdy bikers get tattoos. But once we were immersed in the aura of Nashville, I realized how bonded we would be forever in our own way. We had to do this. It was the perfect moment.
The next day, after a few slices of pizza at Luigi’s City Pizza, I asked, “So what kind of tattoos do we have today?” “
“Alright, daddy,” Maggie said, thinking I was kidding.
“Let’s do it.”
“What were we going to get? His eyes widened.
“I’m thinking of musical notes, since we’re in Music City,” I said.
“OK, you pick the design and I’ll pick the placement. Same place on both of us.
“Done,” I said, nervous but excited.
As a Whac-a-Mole arcade game player at the County Fair, she started pounding websites on her iPhone to find designs and stores in the area. Within minutes, she had all shapes and styles of musical notes to show me along with a few tattoo shops within walking distance. I was impressed. The research and deliberation would have taken me at least two weeks.
We settled on three musical notes – a quarter note, an eighth note and a sixteenth note – in a triangular group. We agreed that they would be inked on the inside of our right arms, just above our elbows.
“Remember, dad, I’m going to inspect the store to make sure it’s clean,” she told me. “If I’m not comfortable I’ll give you the signal and we’ll book there.” Do like me.
I followed Maggie to a small, dimly lit store, like a 5-year-old getting his first bike. The person at the front desk gave us forms to fill out and took our driver’s licenses. We walked over to the back where the tattoo artist set up our table.
He worked the design on a ragged notepad, its worn pages curled up in the corners, printed the design on transfer paper, cut the group of three notes, and attempted to place them on my daughter.
“I don’t want them to be separated,” she said. “I would like them together so that the placement is exactly the same for both of us.”
“Same. Post. To. Both. From. You. No. Worried,” he mumbled.
They started arguing over the placement on his arm. Her smile disappeared and she looked down.
“We’re not going to get a tattoo today,” she said, standing up abruptly and heading for the door. Disappointed, I followed, picking up our papers.
“I felt disrespectful and didn’t want to be a part of it,” she said outside. “And I think he was high.”
“I’m proud of the way you stood up for yourself,” I said.
Maggie had another store lined up. We passed a vintage Indian motorbike in the small wood-paneled lobby and up a flight of stairs. The studio was brilliantly lit with a line of client chairs and sparkling clean steel trays, each containing tattoo pens and needles.
By sizing our design on a shiny iPad, our artist printed the pattern to be traced on our arms. My daughter sat down first while the design was neatly placed on her arm. Then it was my turn.
“First tattoo? The artist asked, seeing my forehead wrinkle. “It won’t hurt. Pinch just a little.
I closed my eyes and listened to the hum of the electric pen, feeling the tingle of the notes engraved in place.
I slipped two folded $ 20s into her hand as a tip as we walked out, each of us beaming in our newly inked bond.
On the last leg of our trip, we left Little Rock, Ark., Under overcast skies and light rain. In the afternoon it was dark like midnight, matching the apprehension I felt about leaving my daughter. I struggled with the steering wheel in the wind, trying to stay in our lane as quarter-length raindrops bombarded us.
When we drove through Dallas with just two hours to our destination, Sigrid’s “Home to You” derived from the Spotify playlist my son had created for our trip. Fluffy white clouds floated across a bright blue sky.
Arriving in Fort Hood, my daughter closed the last page of the TripTik that we had been following every day. She ran breathlessly into her husband’s open arms. In the sweetness of the moment, I witnessed their love for each other.
During my five-day stay, my son-in-law was promoted to private first class. We were invited to the ceremony on the base, the only civilians present along with 30 of his military peers. When he reached his third grade, I realized how serious he was in keeping his commitment to his comrades.
The day before I got on my plane, Maggie and I were sitting in the parking lot of a convenience store, tears streaming down our cheeks.
– I don’t want you to go home, she said. “I had so much fun with you. I don’t want this to end.
Me niether. We had come to know each other as adults in a whole new way. She would be fine. I could say goodbye to my little girl who had grown into a confident young woman.
Life could be as unpredictable as turning “shipping the car” into an unexpected road trip, and as surprising as my daughter kissing paper cards. Sometimes I had to break with tradition. I could be – and had to be – more open-minded.
I gained more from our adventure than I would have in a rushed day at a wedding reception. Instead of walking down the aisle with flowers adorning each bench, I led my daughter down a scenic drive lined with pink dogwood blossoms to her new husband, a man I could trust and admire. Instead of a wedding toast, I celebrated the promotion of my son-in-law. We never had a father-daughter dance, but our shared tattoos represented the synchronized beauty of our bond.
I hugged her at the airport, thanking her for the gift of knowing she’ll never be far. It will always stay as close as the three little musical notes that I will always carry with me.
Stan Gornicz is a writer, husband and father who lives in Connecticut. He is working on a thesis from which this essay is adapted.