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Debbie Downer Says Goodbye

Paul Marcotte 31 August 2007 3 Comments

Saying goodbye to my oldest daughter was harder than I expected.

Like many families in the Chicago area – last week we loaded up our car and headed off to college. For us, it was a trip to Baltimore where our daughter is an incoming freshman at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

As we arrived in Baltimore, my daughter was animated as she talked about the possibilities to learn and grow as an artist. After we toured the area, my daughter asked me to bless her choice of schools. My wife – who also was educated as an artist — shared my daughter’s enthusiasm.

Instead of a blessing, my first words were I feared for her safety living at an urban campus – an oasis surrounded by poverty and homeless street people. In the past, my daughter had nicknamed me Debbie Downer – the Saturday Night Live character who sees the negative side of everything. I was at it again.

Although eventually I mumbled some positive encouragements, I was actually feeling fear and a sense of loss. Later, as my wife and I hugged our daughter and said goodbye, the tears were masked by bittersweet smiles.

On the long drive back from Baltimore and in the days since then that same sense of loss has returned several times. In our daughter’s empty bedroom are photos of her life: as a preschooler riding a tricycle in front of our Chicago bungalow, junior high school band in Elmhurst, and cross country at York High School.

When that ache returns, I wonder if is this how my parents felt when I left or were they just glad to finally see me gone. As an aging Baby Boomer who married late, this is also another signpost of my mortality.

The family dynamic continues to change. Our 16-year-old son convinced his older sister to relinquish her larger bedroom earlier this summer, rather than him appropriating the space the minute she left home. Her 14-year-old sister sees new freedom in claiming clothes from her sister’s bedroom without any consequences.

Our two youngest are learning to relate to each other in a new way, and family dinners are now set for four instead of five. The new situation also brings smaller grocery bills, an extra family tv, less competition for the family car, and younger siblings freedom from not having to live up to real or imagined expectations set by the oldest sister.

Debbie Downer doesn’t handle loss well. I recall my younger brother’s death in a traffic accident at age 29. Shaking off these morbid recollections, I think of Mark Twain’s encouragement of the values to take risks, and wish the best for my daughter:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”


Paul Marcotte is a lawyer and journalist.


  • kathleen kidwell (author) said:

    A very inspiring and thought provoking essay. Many parents can relate to the writer’s experience.

  • Teresa Sullivan (author) said:

    This brought back bittersweet memories and brought tears to my eyes. Well done!

  • Lois lambers (author) said:

    As parents, we want them to grow up and often say that to them, just grow up. And then they listen and do grow up and we are sad. We miss the “kid”.

    Loved the story, because these same feelings are happening all over the country as first time parents deliver first time students to their new place of education, both practical and academic education.

    Time to see if they really listened when you were “teaching” over the last 18 years. You will be pleasantly surprised, I am sure.

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