One night a couple lifetimes ago we decided it was time to start a family. The next night we decided maybe we had rushed things. Nine months later, our beautiful daughter, Kirstyn, was born.
The 80 mph race to the hospital, though a white knuckler at the time, has mostly faded from memory. The 39 hours of labor, not so much.
We held her every waking moment in ‘the football hold’…it was the only relief any of us found from the miseries of colic. Her second birthday party was an enormous affair, what with the clown, the pony, the puppeteers, the face painting and the full buffet for parents who came with their own toddlers. You might say we got a little carried away, but it seemed the obvious thing to do at the time.
Years passed, second by second and also at lightning speed. We sat with her through night terrors, worked with her through speech therapy, and lathered cream upon her eczema. We clapped and fawned our way through countless performances of Rock and Roll banged out on her kiddy piano, and did our best to remedy the hideous haircuts each of her dolls would suffer sooner or later.
When she was ready to branch out, Cecil ran alongside as she learned to skate, and then again as she learned to ride a bike. She tapped and pirouetted for a while, then played piano. Finally, she punched and kicked her way to a black belt in Taekwondo. We moved through her life as if it were our own. Day and night, we were what she needed us to be, for we had cast ourselves as her champions and never lost sight of what that meant.
I remember the day of her first Homecoming dance. She floated down the stairs, the child I knew concealed beneath a veil of beauty and grace that had made their way to her when I wasn’t looking. When did all that happen? It was as if I was seeing her for the first time. She’d become a young woman before I’d had a chance to say goodbye to my little girl.
I think the change cranked into high gear when Kirstyn was in the eighth grade. That was the year she decided she wanted to go to Harvard. “Wow,” I said almost to myself. “How does one get into Harvard?”
“Straight A’s forever, unusual extra-curriculars, community service, leadership at school, interesting summer enrichment programs, top scores on the SAT and a killer essay.”
“Are you up to all that?”
“I think I am,” she said.
She’d barely uttered those words before the feds descended upon our life. For the next five years, prosecutors and their agents were after Cecil with a vengeance that made no sense, but which drove them, nonetheless. Throughout her entire high school experience, Kirstyn’s father was a high profile criminal defendant. She stood like stone at his arraignment and watched him shuffle along in a jumpsuit and shackles. One day in health class, not knowing the connection, her teacher held up an article and wanted to discuss the local doctor’s drug case. Kirstyn stared down at her paper, choking back an assortment of emotions no child should have to endure.
It was only a matter of time before hungry cameras caught her up and delivered her to page one, above the fold of the newspaper. With that, Kirstyn publically became the daughter of the accused and her world shifted beneath her.
At home, we whispered and wrote notes in case the feds were listening, and we stomached the humility that came to the door in food baskets left anonymously when people knew money had run out. Kirstyn watched her father almost die from cancer and the treatments meant to save him and, in the end, she sat in a courtroom watching him be crucified.
Somehow, through all of this – and much more – the girl never wavered.
She fought her way to a Second Degree Senior Black Belt. She rocked babies in the hospital, big-sistered underprivileged children and sat on her school’s Youth Court. Every Science Fair yielded trophies. Every summer she headed off on some experience of a lifetime. She took the SAT four times before she was satisfied with her score, and she spent six months writing her college admission essay. Determined in her goal, Kirstyn brought home nothing but A’s on every report card. She graduated Valedictorian, and spoke of injustice and prosecutorial excesses at Commencement.
One night, in December of her senior year, Kirstyn called from down the hall. As I walked to her, I could see she was shaking. “What’s wrong?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know. She took my hand and led me to her computer. “I think I just got into Harvard,” she said, barely above a whisper, not daring to believe; not realizing what had just become of her.
The Welcome to the Class of 2009 message stared from the screen. We stared back at it. Then we squealed like little girls and we jumped up and down like little girls and then we cried like little girls.
Kirstyn’s four years at Harvard were an experience that cannot be described. Overlying it all, of course, was the mystique and the privilege of attending a college of Harvard’s ilk, but most of all, it was the people and the atmosphere and Cambridge and, well, just everything about it. She emerged a vibrant young woman, competent and ready to find some exciting path to take her along to whatever she might do next.
And then, last weekend, Kirstyn arrived in Charlottesville to cover a shift as Cecil’s caregiver. It took but a glance to comprehend his frailty and, with words unspoken, the child became the parent. Each morning, she followed the sunrise to deliver her dad for treatments. Questions from the doctor came to her. Medications, vital signs and blood counts dominated her focus and caused her to take up against recalcitrant behavior. When she caught Cecil huddled under a blanket one night, shivering from the onset of fever, she scolded him. “What are you doing, Dad? Do you want to go back to the hospital? Take that stuff off.” Then she snatched the wool hat from his head and removed the blanket. Throughout the next day, she plied him with fluids. “Don’t argue with me, please. Just drink your water.”
If I look over my shoulder, I can still see Kirstyn dancing in the sprinkler. We still wrap ourselves around her life as we make decisions that will guide and protect her. When I look straight ahead, I see a beautiful woman who has started down the path away from us. It is her life now.
And, though that hurts in spots tucked away beneath the surface, it is among the greatest joys a parent will have. Our little girl has turned big.