The Unicorn

DEEE644A-6CA8-42B1-94DD-2E31322DC148The unicorn, sparkling eye and serene smile

Chin uplifted with unicorn confidence

Unafraid of being different

Comfortable in unicorn skin, a palomino of hearts

A punk-rock mane, unique even for a unicorn

And flawless horn, singular, clean and straight

”I love yuo Dan,” writes a little girl I’ve never met

With unicorn boldness, and unicorn spelling

Beneath her work of unicorn perfection

Yet another miracle, on the morning I celebrate

The day I became a unicorn

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Celebrating a friend with too many birthdays to count

Happy belly-button day, Carol.

It dawned on me early this morning that this old recovery expression is necessary for a life like yours. The day you came into the world is a birthday, but one of too many to count.

Your life was an expanse of birthdays that surprised like the painted skies at sunset that captured your imagination.85814E1B-243E-41C6-A6AA-C0F238A1928D-2682-0000048BFA8DC5E8

When you braved that first day of kindergarten and realized it would all be OK. The day you met your best friend and became so inseparable that for the next 15 years you moved as one, like starlings in flight. The slumber parties, first crushes, sneaking out at night, sticking up for each other when boys were mean. Every time you discovered something new in yourself, whether strength, or joy or pain, was a birth — or perhaps I should say re-birth.

You were reborn on the day you became a mother — each time — devoted Lauren, adventurous Jack, stalwart Lexy.

A new light shone each time you bragged about “the monkeys” or told the story of some misadventure, or worried about them– each time they crossed your heart.

When you planned their birthday parties it was up for debate who anticipated the events more, your children or you, with your detailed plans and child-like impatience to unwrap their happiness.

You had a gift for making each experience feel like the first time: when you sought your parents’ advice, confided in your sister, reunited with sorority sisters, or picked up a friend at the airport after months apart. Every time you said, “I love you” it was new.

You were born again when you discovered wit and humor and laughter and their healing power.

I recall the night when we kicked back and stared up at the stars on the old Arkoe road. Mind you, we were looking through the windshield of my parents’ station wagon, which you had crashed backward into a ditch after a 360 degree spin on ice. We landed with the front end jutting straight toward the sky like a rocket ship awaiting launch. You sobbed, “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God!” But we both giggled when I said, “Hey, look, there’s the Big Dipper.”

Over the years we would laugh our way through worse predicaments.

You were renewed every time you laughed–and when you made all of us laugh.

Especially your capacity for finding humor in dark places, when you didn’t know if you could go on. The laughter that brought moments, days, weeks of healing, helping you loosen your grip on a life that demanded more from you than was fair.

There were sobriety birthdays when you found reprieve, and a deeper kindness. The first day you asked  for help was a new beginning as was each moment of grace that followed. And those courageous re-birthdays when you shouldered massive decisions to stand up for yourself and start over.

The times when life abused you and knocked you down were relentless, but you were reborn, sustained mostly by a love that was more relentless–for your children, your parents, your sister, all the people blessed by your playful, generous spirit.

Today is the first time that we celebrate the anniversary of your birth since you were taken from us. A band of your high school classmates are gathering to celebrate the day and all those unmarked moments that created you. Facebook posts are calling out to you. Phone lines are connecting your friends.

However, we haven’t seen your last birthday. They will continue to come too fast to count.

When your children remember a surprise party or an adventure with a mom who never forgot what it was like to be a teenager, you will take on new life. When someone shares a piece of advice from you, hard-won wisdom, it will be like lighting a candle. Even now as we grieve, you are vivid and alive in the tears and smiles, in the way we miss you. We long for the celebration we experienced when we were with you.

You came alive last week when I told the story of how loud you screamed when I donned a ski mask and tapped on your car window with an axe after a night watching horror movies. And again when your friend shared with me your last breakfast together, what she had learned from you and how you held your mother’s hand in your final days at the hospital.  When your friends gather and inevitably remember a night on the town, or a Royals game, or a simple “no hair, no shower” breakfast between two friends, there will be more reasons to celebrate your endless births.

Happy belly-button day, for now, my friend. Until you are born again tomorrow.

 

 

GO, EMILY, GO!

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 1909537_1067852741867_5373733_ntoward 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?
  • Yes.
  • 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 11695772_10205372836265692_3783235018256364375_novercomes, 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 1909537_1067852381858_5127982_nhunting 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love is thicker than blood

Editor’s Note: I’ve started a new job at a family homeless shelter in Santa Rosa, Calif., so I haven’t posted in awhile. But this week, I’m proud to post a blog from a guest writer, my daughter, Annie Madden, on a related topic: authentic family.

Family is not always blood. Sometimes the most important person can be someone who happens to walk into your life at the right time. They can be friends, step-family or even a pet. There are endless ways to describe this six letter word that blood relatives IMG_3291sometimes take for granted. A true family member is someone you can be depend on during the highest and lowest times of life. They love unconditionally and pass no judgement. Their presence is a source of joy and an effortless example of humility to the people they love. These are the attributes of my step-mother, JJ Madden.

I may not call her mom, but JJ, or Jeryl as I call her to her chagrin,  is the most passionate and loving mother to enter my life. When she married my father it was not always rainbows and butterflies. The divorce was fresh and she was lucky to get a hello from me. JJ respected my pain and never pressed. However, as time passed, my relationship with my biological mother crumbled at my fingertips, and JJ was there to pick up the pieces. I do not remember exactly when the epiphany happened, when I  decided to love this blonde, strong-spoken woman, but I will always be grateful that I did.  She  is in my life now and it feels perfect.

She loves cats, surfing, Johnny Was clothing, my father, my siblings, her children, her home, Volkswagen buses, cooking, lying in bed with Netflix, and saving the ocean. Those are only a few things, yet as I name them I realize we have a great deal in common. Although, our main similarity is that we both think I am hilarious.

My greatest joy is making Jeryl smile.

JJ is my family, forever. She is my mom. She is my best friend. She is my rock to lean on. I don’t think I would be the person I am without her. She has taught me to humble myself, to share my feelings, and to be passionate about everything I do. She has shown me that I am beautiful just as I am, and that I can make magic happen. I have only known JJ for five years, but sometimes I wish I had known her when I was a small child. Or I wish I had warmed to her sooner and not been so stand-offish when she married my dad. But JJ tells me not to waste time on such thoughts.

We weren’t ready, she tells me. We came together right on time.