Story by Dave Isay
From Ties that Binds.
It began as a small oral history project in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, then blossomed throughout the United States: People from all walks of life recounted their true stories in pop-up recording booths. Over the past ten years, almost 100,000 people have participated in StoryCorps; often family members interview each other. One theme that keeps emerging: love and gratitude. We chose these heartwarming tales of connection.
He Took His New Baby to College: Wil Smith, 43, and his daughter, Olivia Smith, 16
Wil: Four weeks after you were born, I was deployed. The hardest thing for me was leaving after spending just a few weeks with you. And I knew, had I stayed in the Navy, I would always be leaving you. So I left the Navy and applied to Bowdoin College and was accepted—though, at 27, I was considered a very nontraditional student.
Your mother had told me she was pregnant with you about a month after we stopped dating, and I had let her know that I would do whatever I had to do to care for you. And when you were 10 or 11 months old, your mother was having a difficult time. She reached a breaking point, and it just became clear that being with me was the best thing for you. So I took you to school with me.
It was very chaotic in the beginning. I actually thought that if Bowdoin knew I had you, they wouldn’t let me come, so I didn’t mention it to anyone. I missed orientation because I was moving. I jumped right in with no books, and I really didn’t know how I was going to pay for them.
For the first semester, I lived off campus with a roommate and worked at Staples at night, cleaning. I had to take you in to work with me sometimes and hide you in the closet. [Laughs] Working, taking care of you, and playing basketball was wearing on me. I think I lost something like 27 pounds just from stress.
To be quite honest, I was not prepared for college. Had I not been able to kiss you good night every night before studying, I would not have had the strength to do it. There were times when the only way I could get through was to check in on you and see you sleeping and then go back to my studies.
I thought that I could do it on my own, but it was getting very difficult. A woman who worked at Bowdoin reached out to me, and I told her all the things that were going on, and she helped me move to campus housing during the second semester. I was definitely the first single father raising a child on campus, but that was the beginning of my college experience taking a turn for the better.
Olivia: Were you ever embarrassed bringing me to class?
Wil: I don’t think I was ever embarrassed—that’s one of the few emotions I didn’t experience. I was just glad you were with me and that you were safe. I was very fortunate in that you were a relatively healthy child. You were quiet, didn’t bother anyone—you were easy. And you adapted to school right away. I would take you to classes or give you crayons and things to do, and you would just sit at a desk and do them.
My basketball teammates were your first babysitters. I remember coming from class, and there were four giant guys and this 18-month-old who was tearing up the room. [Laughs] Those guys on my team were the first people I trusted with you.
My graduation day from Bowdoin is something that I’ll always remember. I carried you in my arms to get my diploma, and they called both of our names. All my classmates stood up and cheered—they gave me the only standing ovation of the day. It confirmed what I had endured for the past four years. But it’s no heroic thing that I did; I’m your father, and it was the right thing to do.
Olivia: So, technically, I’ve already graduated…
Wil: Nice try. [Laughs] The degree has only my name on it, so you’ve still got to go on your own.
Having you was a drastic change to my life, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I felt like before you came along, my mother—my guardian angel, who passed away on my 15th birthday—was looking down from heaven and got tired of me drifting through the universe and said, “God, please do something. Send that boy someone to take care of!”
I was so close to her, and I felt so empty when she passed away. And I’ve never really been able to explain this, but when I was in the delivery room when you were born, I physically felt something go into my heart. It was a feeling of completeness that I hadn’t felt since my mother passed.
I was diagnosed with colon cancer two months ago, and now I’m watching you take care of me as if our roles were reversed. You’ve watched me at my weakest point—where no father wants to be—and you’ve been mature beyond your years. No matter what happens to me, I know you’re going to be fine.
Olivia: It’s hard for me, because I know you don’t want me to be the one to take care of you, and you’re probably scared about what’s going to happen to me if I lose you. But that first week when I was home from school, I would cook you dinner, and it made me happy being able to care for you, knowing that my whole life, you were doing that for me. You’re my rock.
Wil: I draw my strength from you.
Being around you is what I’ve always lived for. And that’s what’s going to make me beat this.
I’ve oftentimes referred to you as my complex joy, and you’ve never stopped being that. I want you to know that you are the most important thing in my life, and you always will be as long as I’m on this earth. Everything else is a distant second. You were my mother’s gift to me, and I believe that to this day.
Editor’s note: On February 22, 2015, Wil Smith passed away after this battle with cancer
Recorded on April 24, 2012. “I am blessed and very pleased to report that my body responded well to chemotherapy,” Wil said. “I am feeling much stronger and relatively healthy.”
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