The Princess — also known as Erin Alexa Puskas — graduates from college in exactly a week.
That doesn’t seem possible, since it was mere moments ago — or so it seems — that I held this beautiful and impossibly tiny human being for the first time in a recovery room at ACMC.
OK, so it was really June 2, 1998. But you get my point.
As luck and a scheduled caesarian would have it, I actually held Erin before her mother got to do it. I’m pretty sure Darlene still secretly holds that against me.
(Advice to future fathers: If your wife is delivering via C-section and you are in the room, you will likely be seated below the level of the operating table. THERE IS A REASON FOR THIS. The doctors and nurses will tell you that you can stand up to watch. DO NOT DO THIS. YOU CANNOT UNSEE YOUR WIFE’S INTESTINES. Trust me on this. Just wait for a nurse to tell you the baby has arrived and it’s time to cut the umbilical cord.
A few minutes later, the nurses directed me to the recovery room, where I sheepishly stood around waiting for the stork to bring Erin to me. Instead, a nurse entered the room and handed me our 8.3-pound daughter.
All I could think was, “Don’t drop her, you idiot.”
I didn’t, thank God.
The ensuing years were a blur of diapers, birthday parties, dance recitals, softball, volleyball, intermittent tears (some hers, some mine), cats and a slew of report cards that might have made me question her paternity if I didn’t know better.
The years flew by. One minute she was a newborn. The next, she was my best pal and fishing buddy. The next, she was rolling her eyes at her mother and I in pre-teen disgust. The next, we were watching the Browns beat the San Diego Chargers — a Christmas Eve miracle — from the stands at FirstEnergy Stadium. Later, we were freezing our behinds off at the Browns’ 0-16 parade.
And then I blinked and suddenly our daughter was a grown woman, about to graduate with honors from Youngstown State University.
Watching Erin grow up and mature into the person she has become has been the highlight of my life. She is beautiful, smart, caring and funny. She’s the best of her mother and I and, of course, she comes with the stubborn streak we both have. No getting around that.
I just wish I could have slowed the process a bit over time and savored it more as it was happening. But — with apologies to Harry Chapin — there were planes to catch and bills to pay.
The good news was that she didn’t learn to walk while I was away. I got to watch those first steps and so many more along the way.
Then — out of nowhere — the cap and gown came in the mail last week. A YSU Honors College medallion followed. And it suddenly got very dusty at home.
It’s not going to be the graduation you dream about as a parent when you’re holding your daughter and imagining her life and how things will play out.
The coronavirus pandemic means that YSU will conduct a “virtual” graduation online a week from today. Erin and her boyfriend Eric — himself an honor student bound for law school — will graduate from behind their laptop screens.
It isn’t the way we would have planned it, but that doesn’t diminish their accomplishments in any way. In fact, given that the children of their generation effectively started their lives with 9/11 as toddlers and then finished college amid the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic, I’m not sure anything can stop them.
We knew early on that Erin had a drive that was uniquely her own. At 3, she would frown and her lower lip would curl into a full-blown pout if she accidentally colored outside the lines.
In those same days, she attended preschool with a wonderful woman named Margie Curry in Girard. Margie had all her kids reading and doing worksheets. Erin was two years away from kindergarten, but Margie had her doing older children’s worksheets. One day she showed off her work and made sure to tell everyone who would listen about the one answer she got wrong.
That perfectionist streak served her well all the way through the Howland schools and at YSU. In a matter of days or weeks, she’ll land her first teaching job somewhere — hopefully nearby — and begin a new life.
It seemed almost fitting that Erin ended up at YSU, since her father often dragged her along to football practices and other events there. I can remember an office interview with then-Penguins head coach Jon Heacock, who shared a package of Skittles with her.
Jim Tressel, another former YSU coach of some note, may have done the best recruiting job of his career when he convinced Erin that YSU was the place for her. Tressel was YSU’s president by then and I’d contacted him about a story of some kind. During the conversation he asked if Erin had picked a college.
It turned out she had, but not YSU. Erin had her heart set on Kenyon College (read: $56,800 per year) and no amount of explaining why the numbers didn’t work by her dad was going to convince her to go anywhere else. Tressel, however, did the impossible in one phone call and an ensuing campus visit.
Thanks, Coach. There is no telling how many years of student-loan payments you saved Erin. And thanks for watching over our little girl for the last four years.
They went so fast. Just like the first 18.
ED PUSKAS is Editor of The Star Beacon. Write him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @Ed_Puskas.