A few weeks ago I wrote a piece thanking my dad for all he's done for me. A few weekends ago, I graduated college. More importantly to me though, I finally got to see my dad and extended family that I haven’t seen in months. The whole time my dad was here visiting, I wondered if he had read my piece. Then the next week while I was vacationing in New York, I received an email from my dad that brought me to tears instantly. He congratulated me for graduating, said he loved watching me play soccer again and enjoyed meeting my boyfriend. But the most special thing about the email was this letter that was attached. He said in the email that he wanted to thank me for what I had written when he visited, but wanted to write one for me first. So I thought this week I would send his piece in as a guest column, so everyone can see just how amazing this man is. I think I've read it about six times now, and I plan to cherish it forever.
The Hardest Day of My Life…and Why I am a Proud Daddy
(And Grateful for My Extended Family)
Like just about everybody else, I have had some difficult days…
When my son was three, I watched as a nurse in a neurologist’s office had my son walk down the hallway. And just because he walked on his tiptoes, she said, “Has anyone ever mentioned the word autism to you?” And with one sentence, our lives got more complicated. The neurologist simply said to go home and research the Internet for what to do next. I remember thinking, “When do we come back for a follow-up appointment?” You don’t. You go home and research the Internet. We still had dial-up AOL online at the time and lived in a rural part of Texas south of Fort Worth. I don’t think I was even able to connect to the Internet that first day…
When I was in my late thirties, I got a call one day that my dad was in intensive care, 1,500 miles away in California. He had suffered a stroke the night before and never really woke up. My family never got to say goodbye. We watched as he slowly passed away as they removed the respirator that was keeping him alive.
And then there was the day that I signed my wife’s life away. She had battled breast cancer for 11 years and the pain had become unbearable. I signed hospice papers that essentially took health decisions out of her hands. I watched as the nurses administered increasing levels of morphine that slowly shut down her body until she passed away several days later.
As difficult as those days were, none were as difficult as the day I helped my daughter Chloe move into her off-campus apartment right before her junior year of college. I had recently moved to North Carolina and was about to start a new job. I will never forget just how nasty that apartment looked as we moved Chloe’s belongings into her room. Broken glass was on the stairway leading up to the apartment. Empty liquor bottles lined atop the kitchen cabinets. But the refrigerator was the worst. All kinds of thoughts ran through my head. Should I find another place for Chloe to live? Did I make the right decision to move to North Carolina? Who was going to clean that refrigerator? I had a limited amount of time before I needed to be on the road - I was driving back to North Carolina with my dog Shadow. But I stayed long enough to go to the store with Chloe and buy some cleaning supplies. And as gross as the refrigerator was, we were able to clean it up fairly well and I think we both managed to feel a little bit better. But I think I still cried all the way to the Mississippi River on my way back to Charlotte! I think that day was so much more difficult than the others because let’s face it - nobody would expect me to solve the autism puzzle, prevent my dad’s stroke or somehow find a cure for breast cancer. But a father is supposed to keep his kids safe, supposed to do what he can to provide a better life for them. I never imagined that the apartment would seem so bad…
I probably should have known that I didn’t need to worry. I should have remembered my wife’s last words to Chloe – “I must have done something right to raise a daughter like you.” Every time my wife met a new healthcare worker, the first thing she would say is “I want to see my kids graduate, I want to see my kids get married, I want to be a grandmother.” She missed Chloe’s high school graduation by six months. And last weekend, four years later, she missed Chloe graduating from college. Although her mom wasn’t there to see it, Chloe did have grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends to help her celebrate. And one proud Daddy! And not just because she graduated summa cum laude, and has turned out to be a beautiful young woman. Not just because she managed to make Dean’s lists while holding positions in student government, volunteering for a domestic violence organization and staying active in her sorority. Really, it is because through it all, she is still my “Pie."
“Pie” is short for “Pumpkin Pie” and is something I have been calling Chloe for almost 23 years. Pie is the little girl that said “spaghetti” funny and broke into a big smile when her little brother said a new word. Pie is my favorite soccer player who used to get upset when rain would wash out her opportunity to play the game she loved. Pie is the girl that had friends over for sleepovers that always turned out to be just as much fun for me and my wife as for Chloe and her friends. Pie is the teenager I followed home from the car dealership after her grandpa bought her a new car – wishing all the way home that she could hear me screaming at her to stop hugging the right side of the lane…Pie is the senior in high school who, after two knee surgeries, rebounded to finish out her high school soccer career on a high note, winning an award for exemplifying the school’s fighting spirit. Pie is the young woman who was voted prom queen the night before her first Mother’s Day without her mom. And now, Pie is a college graduate and not ready to stop there. And I am proud because she is still doing it with the same enthusiasm, sense of wonder and tenacity she has exhibited all her life. Thank you, Pie!
I also should have known that I didn’t need to cry all the way to the Mississippi because I was leaving Chloe with family and friends that would support her and help her out along the way. And boy, did they! So many to thank…
Her grandparents nearby in Texas, who are always willing to supply a hot meal and a story or two about her mom. Especially on holidays, when Grandma is always sure to make one of Chloe’s favorites just like her mom used to do. Her grandma in California, who is always willing to help out financially and who, despite living so far away, has not missed any important milestones and events.
“Aunt” Cheryl and “Uncle” John, who are not really Chloe’s aunt and uncle, but at the same time so much more than that. Hot meals, a place to stay, dog sitters and most importantly, the best example of “extended” family I could ever imagine. Thank you John and Cheryl for all you have done and for hosting Chloe’s graduation party at your house!
My Aunt Gloria from Louisiana, who has provided Chloe with the opportunity to stay close with countless cousins and other relatives from Cane River – one of Chloe’s favorite places growing up. An opportunity to see and feel her heritage and know that there is a place just four hours away where she will always belong.
Aunt KT from St. Louis, who never missed an opportunity to spend time with Chloe when she lived nearby in Texas. Aunt KT has perhaps been Chloe’s best example of what a strong, independent woman can accomplish. Chloe’s Aunts Vera, Gail, Lori and Tracy in California who have done whatever was needed to support Chloe and help her have fun on summer vacations and grow to love the state where she was born and might one day call home.
Chloe’s second family in Mansfield, the Williams, who opened up their home to Chloe and allowed her to visit with her old high school friends without having to drive all the way back to Denton. Thank you Steve and Sandra for letting Chloe and Poco be a part of your family!
And there have been so many more who have contributed to Chloe’s success. Many friends of Chloe’s mom who periodically check in and continue to support Chloe. Sorority sisters and friends I don’t even know. And last weekend, at graduation, I finally met Chloe’s boyfriend Eric, who seems more than capable of taking care of my treasured Pie. Congratulations Chloe – I am very proud of you and I hope you enjoy grad school. But mostly, thank you for still being “Pie!"