As I turned the corner, I saw her standing on the steps. Frustrated and tired.
Tired of waiting for me, tired of getting disappointed every time I failed to show up. Her eyebrows furrowed in anger as she saw my car, a frown began forming on her distressed little face and the medals hanging around her neck limped less, with nobody to appreciate it.
Almost all her friends had left with their parents, and she had waved them goodbye, one by one.
She had probably glanced up, scanned the crowd and then looked down at the starting line once again.
Or maybe she hadn’t bothered to do that.
It was not like she expected me to be there. She had stopped hoping, but the disappointment still lingered on.
“I’ll try and make it next time, I promise!”
She just rolled her eyes. Even a 5-year old kid wasn’t naive enough to believe that.
She was five years old then, not anymore. She’d moved on with her life and I had moved on to mine.
Compulsory expensive gifts each year for her birthday, apologetic telephone calls from the car while travelling to a meeting and a customary call every month enquiring about how much I needed to deposit in the bank for the next month.
One day she had asked me to stop apologising if I did not mean it and I did not have the heart to argue with that. So the gifts and the apologies had stopped. The only times we spoke now was when she needed me to deposit some more money into her account.
It had seemed convenient to the both of us seeing as I didn’t really care back then and she was more than willing to cut off ties that didn’t even exist in the first place.
She had wanted to move out and she hadn’t bothered asking for my permission.
Meanwhile, I had moved on from my small cubicle to a plush corner office away from all the commotion, away from all the mediocrity. Yes, I was ambitious and it was my ambition that had moved me up the ranks faster than anybody else. I was willing to work hard, put in the extra hours and miss a few birthday parties if that is what was needed of me.
The extra hours just kept turning into more extra hours, until I stopped keeping count. And they never stopped, the shiny office was just an excuse to hand me some more extra hours. The harder I worked for them, the more they pushed me.
One fine morning, sitting in a room full of pompous, self-satisfied people I realised the futility of my hard work all these years. I realised that I had become one of them, my ambition had blinded me. Nevertheless, I sat through the meeting, and as I sat there I realised that it was exactly three days away.
She had not bothered to inform me; I had looked through their college website and found out. My daughter was about to graduate in three days and here I was, feeding the fancies of a bunch of smug show-offs.
That day, after a very long time, it seemed to me that I had got my priorities correct. I had waited upon their whims and fancies for way too long and it was time they gave me my three-day break when I needed it. And if they couldn’t, then too bad, they’d have to find themselves someone else who’d fall for the temptations of the corner office.
Turned out they couldn’t figure out a way to insert a three-day break in my schedule. Like I said, I just quit my job and moved on.
The corner office had lost its hold over me.
Three days later, as I parked my car I couldn’t gather the nerve to get out of it. So I just kept sitting in it, waiting for her to come out. And when I saw her it was the same little girl who had stood on those steps so many years ago. She was surrounded by her crowd of friends, determined to not let her feel bad about the dad who ‘never showed up’. But the look of wistfulness was still there as she looked around at all the other families. Then she glanced towards me, as she scanned the crowd, and she turned back to get a proper look again.
The realisation, that I had been able to make it to her graduation and the broad smile that followed, was totally worth it. The expressions on her face played over and over like a slow-motion movie and I knew at that moment that I had finally done something that I should have done a long, long time ago.