Emily’s most memorable soccer goal didn’t even count.
A referee’s whistle had shrieked play dead. But Emily saw an opening. She swiped the ball from a startled first-grader, bit her tongue, and dashed away. As she shepherded the ball toward mid-field I stood from my lawn chair and laughed, “Emily, go back, go back.”
What Emily heard: “GO, EMILY, GO!”
She raced by, oblivious to me and chuckling spectators. What the hell, I thought. I yelled, “GO, EMILY, GO!” Two other parents joined in.
Emily mistook–or imagined– laughter for cheers. There was nothing but open field before her. She stopped about six-feet from the goal, giggled at the ball like a cartoon villain with ill-gotten loot, and kicked it into a dusty net. Alone, an over-sized T-shirt hanging like a nightgown to her shin guards, Emily poked her fists in the air, hopped in a circle, and grinned at the sideline.
At the far end the field a 14-year old referee and a group of puzzled 6-year-olds stared at the odd little girl, wondering if she would bring the ball back.
My daughter graduates from high school today.
She leaves Bishop Leblond High School earning a 3.87 grade point average in her final semester. During her time there she was a star athlete in three sports — basketball, soccer and volleyball. She was active in campus ministry and student government. She soaked up her time in school.
That’s the Emily who will be honored. But she is more than that. And for me, for a parent, this day is more than that.
Late at night my daughter calls me without hope that things will get better. She weeps that she is too exhausted to go on. She is intimidated by exams. School doesn’t come easy to her and she wonders if the effort is worth it. She won’t admit it but she worries too much about what people think. She sometimes loses herself in resentments, and falls into gossip.
Emily may dive for loose balls, suffer turf burn and endure elbows to the face, but afterward she is a hypochondriac who worries over every bruise and discoloration on her body.
I treasure this Emily, who is afraid, overwhelmed and at times self-centered. The Emily who wants to give up fills my heart.
Because she never does.
If I’m honest, this day isn’t only a celebration. It’s a day singed with fear. It’s a self-centered fear. A fear that I won’t be around to comfort her, to provide guidance in this next stage of her life.
But Emily has already helped me cool that flame.
Resilience is the word that comes to mind.
I’ve heard that a lot, usually when my children have gone through something difficult, especially when it’s something I’ve put them through. People will say, It will be OK, kids are resilient.
Perhaps no one has taught me more about resilience than that girl in the graduation cap.
What does a dad say in the gaping silence after his daughter’s final high school basketball game?
“We lost by three points,” she sobbed.
Being a father seems to be a series of these silent moments. I usually fill them with too many words. It has taken me a while to learn that with Emily all I really need to do is listen and remind her that it will get better.
The morning after that last game, I called Emily, ready to comfort her more, offer more advice. She had bounced out of bed already gushing about soccer season.
The junk food run with friends Tyler and Jaclyn probably did more good than my advice.
Of course, Emily will have her heart broken by more difficult events than a basketball game. She already has. Her parents’ divorce. Her dad moving out of state. I still haven’t recovered from that one. But she has. So has our relationship.
It was much simpler when resilience meant this long-ago conversation:
- Who won, Dad?
- Did you have fun?
- Then you did.
- OK, I’m gonna go get a snack.
As a parent, I must resist the temptation to, well, parent.
I can’t fix the the damage that comes her way. The most dangerous ground to tread is trying to fix the damage I’ve inflicted. Emily lets me know every day that we are good.
Emily is the compassionate, resilient person she is in part because of the struggles she overcomes, not despite them. She has an openness to people who live their lives different from her and she has held on to her principles in the face of criticism because she’s seen those around her struggle.
I do, however wonder at her response to betrayal, defeat. Suffering can often chip away at the light inside us and leave cynicism, resentment, mistrust. It has been my singular pleasure to see her always come through, different somehow, but not hardened, always whole.
I love watching my daughter play sports. That will always be our closest bond.
Watching her prowl the passing lanes for steals on a basketball court is like watching a fox hunting rabbits. Watching her mastery of volleyball is like meeting an alien being with knowledge beyond me. And Emily on a soccer field is a display of uninhibited joy.
It is made all the sweeter because I have been there when it wasn’t beautiful. That’s what a dad gets to do.
I am shaking my head at that grade point average.
All the sweeter because I know that somewhere inside she’s fighting against a voice telling her she’s not smart.
Over the years I’ve told my overextended daughter to cut back, to drop a sport, to quit a team, to quit a job (you can work the rest of your life). I’ve lectured rest, rest, rest.
She says, OK, Dad.
Then she points out a new bruise on her knee.