Actually

I recently came across a video of my daughter at age two. She was playing with a children’s laptop, working on her alphabet. Whenever she got the letters correct, she clapped and shouted with joy, following it with laughs and cackles. That video happens to be one of my favorites of her. As I’m unlikely to have another child, I will probably never again get to experience first-hand those beautiful moments marking the unabashed joy of early childhood. Between pictures and videos, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years looking back to remember the past. There’s a comfort in it.

However, now that my daughter is almost twelve years old, there has been an incredible shift in the timeline. I’ve begun to see the future. Hints of the woman she will become. Looking into the future does not offer comfort. As a father, it’s a little scary. Whereas reliving the past fosters no surprises, the future is nothing but. Still, there is something wholly more potent and satisfying in witnessing the whispers of this unknown woman I had a hand in raising. I don’t know her yet, but those times she has peeked into reality have caused me to feel pride, humor, and just a bit of wonder.

Certainly, milestones occur when our children are very young—holding their own bottles, rolling over, crawling, teething, walking, etc. But these milestones are all physical in nature. They represent the growth of all animals. What separates humans from the others is the blossoming of the soul, articulated by the forming of personality. Like sunlight through clouds on overcast days, I saw brief hints even at age three, when my daughter began using the word “actually” in abundance. As in, “Chicken nuggets are my favorite. Actually, pizza is too.” At the time, I thought it was simply an adorable quirk that made me giggle whenever I heard it. A tiny girl playing dress-up in adult attire and accessories.

Because she was still a baby in my eyes, I failed to recognize that her regular use of “actually” was one of my first glimpses into the crystal ball. My child was not playing dress-up. This wasn’t makeup covering her true self. It was her brushing her own hair—guiding something seemingly unkempt and wild into something beautiful and refined. It wasn’t new. It was always there. My daughter today is incredibly calculating and reflective. Like one of Tolkein’s Ents, she rarely decides or acts quickly (abundantly clear when trying to get her ready for school). She looks at the big picture. She weighs her options. She sees both sides. There is this. Wait…There is also that. Actually.

Small intimations are coming more frequently and discernably now.

Months back, when picking Madison up from school, she hustled out to the car far behind the other children. Granted, she’s rarely at the front of the group when school dismisses (if she ever joins track as a sprinter, my head will explode in surprise). However, that day she was further behind than usual. After tossing her bag into the back seat and plopping down winded into the passenger seat, she sighed as though utterly exhausted while putting on her seat belt. I asked if she was okay. The tone of her voice when she responded that she was “fine” set off alarm bells in my mind. I am a grown man and have been in plenty of relationships in my life. That “fine” is never a good sign. Unlike with women in past relationships, I can play the dad card and call her on it. She explained that she had gone to her locker to gather her things, had made it most of the way out before realizing she’d forgotten something, had to run back to get it, and then dropped papers on the way back out. A junior high student’s equivalent of a shitty end to the work day, just when it should have all been looking up. The exasperation in her voice and body language wasn’t that of a pre-teen girl. Sitting next to me was the specter of a woman telling her friends or loved ones why she needed a glass of wine this evening. And just like that, she evaporated while the girl talked about the comic she was working on with her friends. I heard little of the comic discussion. I was still in awe of the strong woman with whom I had just had a conversation.

Shortly after the beginning of the year, my baby girl asked me one of those questions that breaks the hearts of most parents. Is Santa real? Out of the blue. No warning. It wasn’t even much of a question. It was a challenge. A career in interrogation techniques seemed plausible for her at that moment. Naturally, I stalled. That’s a weird question. Why would you ask that? On the other side of the coin, if being interrogated for criminal activity, I would be doing hard time very shortly. The answer to my question came matter-of-factly in the form of evidence. Presents from Holly the Elf on the Shelf had accidentally been purchased in her presence. A big present from Santa had been placed unwrapped in a closet where parents had the strange intuition to check Christmas morning during everyone opening. Santa’s presents at Mom’s house and Dad’s house had different handwriting. It wasn’t feasible for a fat man to fly everywhere in the world on a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer in such a short period of time. Likewise, how could one person (even a fat one) eat snacks at every single house without getting sick? And, clearly, all the Santas at all the different places were different guys.

These observations were offered not with pride or malice, but with a quiet reservation. They stated, “I believe I have discovered the truth and I would appreciate you being honest.” Thus, I explained that Santa was real, but not in the way that had been portrayed for her and every other young child. There was no fat man producing toys via indentured labor. No reindeers galloping through the air, spitting in the face of physics. No one creepily breaking and entering to devour pastries. Rather, Santa is a spirit carried on through tradition. I am Santa. Her mother is Santa. Her step-father is Santa. And our parents were Santa, much as theirs before them and so on. Santa is about the spirit of Christmas—giving and sharing joy. When children come of age, they too graduate and are welcomed into the secret society. Now that she knew the truth, she was also Santa, just as her older brother had become Santa when he found out. Her job now was to help her mother keep the secret and to share in the magic with her younger siblings. And that one day she will have children of her own and fully appreciate the wonder of what being Santa really means. Throughout my abstract and probably awkward explanation, she never broke eye contact. She nodded in solemn understanding of her new duties. Whereas I had dreaded taking away the magic of belief from my only child, she instead took a little of that magic into herself with a quiet grace. There again was the woman. A woman who wasn’t hurt by the truth, but rather required it. A level of childhood wasn’t lost. Instead, a miniscule part of adulthood was embraced by this exquisite lady.

These incidents stand out as only a few among many. Her mannerisms while holding casual conversations with her friends as they walk through the doors of the school. Judging and unamused looks when I blame rogue farts on the cats. Tranquil chuckles while watching something amusing on YouTube. Determined focus while writing the next chapter in her story about the cat clans. Pleasant absorption in the pages of a book.

The world hasn’t met this woman yet. But in select moments, she briefly introduces herself to me. I don’t know her well. But I think the world is in for something special.

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What If…?

A few weeks ago, I attended my 20-year high school reunion. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go initially. I had only gone to school with these people for those four years, having grown up in a different town. I didn’t think I’d have much to discuss with them. The crowd I’d hung out with in my early high school career weren’t going to attend—likely because most of them are surely dead or in prison. No, I did not hang out with the honor roll students. My crowd was morally ambiguous at best. My closest friends from my later high school career were unable to make it. Thus, I figured I’d be talking to only a couple others and wondering why I’d given up a Saturday night shift at work.

I went to my 10-year reunion when that had come about. There was a strange pressure to seem vocationally successful. Most of the conversation had revolved around that. What do you do? How much do you make? The prospect of going through that again was less than thrilling.

However, I spoke to a friend of mine shortly before the reunion. He’s slightly older and had opted out of going to his 20-year. He had been going through a divorce at the time of his reunion and felt like he didn’t have it “together.” Now, he wishes that he had gone. He helped make my decision. I would go, but would probably hate every minute of it.

With all of that said, I highly recommend everyone attend their 20-year. First off, we had more alumni show up than had at the 10-year. More importantly, the entire affair was different. We had all reached an age at which what you do was not nearly as important as who you are. I overheard discussions about careers. I even had a few myself. But there was a casual joviality present. My former classmates and I were not worried about who was successful. We were allowing ourselves to bask in the presence of one another. We were learning who each of us had become as opposed to what we had become. We smiled. We laughed. We told stories. We reminisced.

It was in that reminiscing that I began to wonder days later. How am I different from the boy that I was? What events changed me? What decisions did I make that altered my path? If I could go back and change anything, what would it be?

I lost my virginity at a young age. I had no idea what I was doing, let alone the importance and power of that act. Perhaps if I hadn’t lost it back then and waited until I could fully grasp the moment, I would view sex differently. Maybe I would have fallen in love with that woman. Maybe I would be happily married today.

When I went to college fresh out of high school, I majored in English with a focus in creative writing. I felt working long hours to pay for books and housing was too much of a burden on me on top of my classroom responsibilities. I was tired all the time. So, I dropped out. Having gone back later to earn my degree in Criminal Justice while working full-time and being a parent, that earlier workload seems miniscule. What if I had simply stuck with it? Maybe I would have gone on to live in a big city, writing for a prominent publication. Maybe I would be a successful fiction author.

At age 19, I was seriously considering going into the military. However, I began working at a restaurant that promoted me quickly through the ranks. I discarded thoughts of joining the military. I had a good job. I was respected and appreciated at work. I left the company years later and now find myself still serving and bartending. What if I had opted for the military instead? Maybe I would have risen through those ranks as well. Maybe I could have been a military man with benefits and a secure future. Maybe I could have gone on to work as a police officer or firefighter when I passed the testing, instead of losing points in the interview for having no military background.

At age 21, I met Sarah. She was the most beautiful and intelligent woman I’d ever known. She made me laugh. She encouraged my writing. She challenged me. I fell in love with her. After a few years of having been together, she was offered a career in New York. It was an opportunity she couldn’t allow to pass by her. She had to move halfway across the country. She asked me to come with her. Out of fear of the unknown and that level of commitment, I turned her down. Instead, we would remain friends and said if it was meant to be, it would. I still see her in my dreams sometimes. And it still makes my heart break. What if I had gone with her? Maybe she would have challenged me to be an artist with my writing in New York. Maybe I would have married the one woman who loved me for who I was and who also knew there was more inside me when I didn’t recognize it myself.

At age 24, I met Liz. Although Liz was also beautiful and intelligent, what drew me to her was her passion. She believed in living for the moment. She brought me adventure. I laughed with her harder than I have with any other woman. Together, we were a force with which to be reckoned. We drank. We joked. We made love. I loved her for the abandon she caused me to feel. All relationships that thrive from unbridled living, though, also struggle with brutal arguments. We had our fair share interlaced with the joy. When it ultimately didn’t work out, I found myself in a bad place. I drank too much. I slept with women for whom I felt nothing. I became slightly jaded. What if I had never met her? Maybe I wouldn’t be so cautious with women now. Maybe I wouldn’t prefer the company of movies at home over a couple cocktails in bars, enjoying the company of a lady.

I could have done any one of these things (and so many more) differently. Any one of those decisions going the other way could have changed me drastically from who I am today. I would be a different person.

Last night, as I do every night she is with me, I tucked my daughter into bed. She instantly shot her arms out from under the covers to put her hands on the sides of my face. She does this because I try to kiss her ears and make lip-smacking sounds. It’s a game we play. She tries to stop me. I try to sneak past her hands. She giggles, which is a rarity for an almost twelve-year-old girl. I then kiss her forehead and tell her goodnight.

It is because of that moment on those nights that I have my answer to the what would you change question. The answer is nothing.

As with the concept behind Chaos Theory and the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, changing the most seemingly inconsequential thing can change it all. What if I’d lost my virginity differently and was happily married? I wouldn’t have my daughter. What if I had gotten an English degree and become a successful fiction author? I wouldn’t have my daughter. What if I had moved overseas with the military and seen the world? Same. What if I’d moved to New York with Sarah? Same. What if I never met Liz? Most importantly, I would not have my daughter, because Liz is her mother.

Am I what most people consider to be successful? No. Do I sometimes struggle with bills? Yes. Do I sometimes get lonely when I have no one with whom to share my day? Yes. Do I sometimes think how nice it would be to live in a place where I could step into the ocean? Yes.

Would I change a single thing? No.

Because I have hands on my face. And a giggle in my ear.

Learn To Fly

I knew a man named Hugh Peck. Hugh, like so many other young men in the first half of the twentieth century, decided to enlist in the military and fight against the rising threat from the Axis Powers. Some were infantry soldiers. Some were mechanics. Some were sailors. Hugh was a pilot. According to his own joking account to me one day, he wouldn’t say he was a very good one. He was shot down more than once. I was young, but that sounded like a pretty amazing pilot to me. I remember falling off my bike and tearing up my elbow and leg one afternoon. I was terrified to go on another ride for a long time. I mean, that fall was a good couple of feet. But Hugh, who had been shot out of the sky, got right back into a plane to do it all over again…and again. That is courage beyond anything I can imagine.

He is one of millions of men and women being honored this Memorial Day. And just like them, he assuredly went by many monikers. Perhaps Huey when he was a boy. Maybe Peck by his school friends. Having personally known many military personnel, I’m sure he had some colorful nicknames that would never be uttered in church, given to him by his fellow pilots. To my mother and her siblings, he was just known as “Dad.”

Hugh Peck the WWII Pilot is not who I remember. Although the man I knew deserves to be honored along with all the other veterans who have since passed, it isn’t about his service to this country for me.

I’m thinking about the man who taught me how to put my bait on my fishing hook without it falling off when I cast it. Sitting next to him on a boat lazing by the shore, I learned that quiet reflection holds unrivaled potency. From him, I learned that the drunken ramblings of Harry Carey calling a baseball game were perfect for a nap in great company. Watching him tenaciously build his model airplanes, I witnessed the elegance of combining hard work and passion. And that the finished product can make you stare in awe when it takes flight. Hugh was a man who wrote his “girl” back home, promising her that, when he came back from the war, he was going to marry her and that they would have children. That they’d be together forever. With the exception of eight months between my grandfather’s passing and my grandmother’s, he stayed true to his word. That’s integrity.

Yes, Hugh Peck was a WWII Pilot. But that is not why I remember him. Happy Memorial Day, Grandpa.