This week I’m participating in Seth Godin’s #YourTurnChallenge. My goal is to blog everyday this week (Mon-Sun) here on my site as well as on the challenge’s official Tumblr blog. Here’s my Day 6 submission.

There have been relatively few times when I’ve surprised myself. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is finding the strength to speak at my daughter’s funeral. She was stillborn 5 days after her due date. I was a wreck.

It wasn’t supposed to happen to me and my wife.

Yet there we were: a tiny pink coffin, a tiny baby girl, and hundreds of people gathered at the graveside.

I cleared my throat and spoke. I don’t remember any of it. All I remember were the hot, unstoppable tears that rolled down my face as I addressed my grieving wife; my stunned parents and in-laws; the pained faces of people from my church. I spoke from my heart, where raw pain collided with faith.

And in five minutes it was over. I watched as the men from the funeral home lowered my daughter into the ground. I watched as the dirt fell atop her casket. I watched until my daughter was nothing more than a memory.

The next day, I got up. And then I did the same thing the day after that. And the day after that.

I’ve repeated that process for almost 10 years now.

My wife and I have two children now. We take them to visit their sister’s grave every year on the anniversary of her birth/death. We sing happy birthday. We give her fresh flowers. And we walk away holding hands, knowing how precious life is.

Sometimes, the most surprising things are the simplest.

So Tiny, So Strong

One of the many ways we passed the time before surgery...

Ella’s surgery went surprisingly well today. She was in and out of the operating room in under 20 minutes, and while she did sleep in post-op for about an hour and a half, she exhibited no real signs of pain. She’s eaten like a horse, however, and we should have seen it coming. All morning long the child kept asking, “Now, when am I going to get breakfast again?”

So it should come as no surprise that when the doctor gave her the medical “all clear” to eat whatever she felt like once she got home, Ella took note – and then took to eating. Herewith, a complete list of her afternoon ingestion, beginning from her time in the post-op room:

– 2 popsicles (orange and pink)

– Jell-O (strawberry)

– Skittles (the entire rainbow)

– pot roast (with gravy)

– potatoes (with gravy)

– carrots

– lima beans

– corn

– half a can of chicken noodle soup (her brother ate the other half)

– a roll

– 2 milkshakes (a homemade chocolate and a Zaxby’s vanilla)

Joey Chestnut wishes he had her game. Kid’s intake was immense.

All of this to say, my little girl isn’t so little as I imagine her to be. She faced today’s entire ordeal with a smile on her face, and only once did she even seem the slightest bit afraid. We watched Tangled, colored, shot baskets (on a kid-sized goal), played with an Etch-a-Sketch (“Cool! Just like in Toy Story!”), and in general just passed the time before surgery with confidence and ease. It helped me, as a matter of fact, to be involved with her, and I think she knew that.

There are those moments when you realize that the kid you see is a mirage; that you look at your child through a refracted lens, the light bending in such a way to show you a small baby or a cute little toddler just learning to navigate the big bad world and utterly dependent upon you to guide and hold them, to be their foundation. I still see Ella as the curious two year-old who loves to smear chocolate on her face, or as the suddenly verbose three year-old who can’t wait to tell me the latest word she’s learned.

I’m not hallucinating, mind you – I see her physically changing into a school-aged kid just like everyone else, but when she smiles a certain way, or turns her head just so, I still see that little baby I so loved and longed for, the one that showed me the world wasn’t unnecessarily cruel and heartless. I still see the tiny infant who would sigh in my arms as I rocked and sang to her every night before laying her into her crib and staring at her, first to make sure she was still breathing, then just to marvel at her existence. She’s all legs now, but when she runs on her toes I still remember the first steps she took, her little body bouncing uncertainly into the wide open spaces of our living room, her face lit up with the wonder of her own self.

I saw past my mirage today and saw the reality of my daughter: a tough, intelligent, creative girl who will have no problem with school or the bus or anything else that life throws at her. I saw her spirit, her strength, and not for the last time I marveled at the wonder of someone so essentially beautiful and pure and good being given to me as a trust.

This entire day has come and gone without my shedding a single tear, until now. To suddenly just see my daughter for who she is – who she will become – is a gift that demands tears. And I willingly give them as payment.

My Ella, so tiny, so strong, is a big girl now. Part of my heart, that sub-basement level that will always see her as nothing more than the blond bundle of joy that healed me when she drew first breath, is breaking.

The rest is stronger because she is, too.

The Myth of Independence

Lady Liberty may stand by herself, but she doesn't stand alone. None of us do.

No, that’s not just a “pee in someone’s Cheerios” blog title, cynically posted to stir up traffic on the most sacred of our secular American holidays. It’s a legitimate thought that I can and will back up in my post.

But – it certainly got your attention didn’t it?

Such is the power of the greatest of the American myths – the myth of independence. We have spent 235 years building this myth into an unquestioned ideal that the entire world not only knows but actively believes. Immigrants still flock to our shores in large part because they believe with all sincerity that in America, a person is free to live as they please. To live life on one’s own terms. To make something of oneself with hard work, grit and a little luck.

It’s a nice myth. Certainly better than what some other nations are putting out there (“Come to Afghanistan, where if you’re lucky, you won’t be killed by a deranged suicide bomber!”). It’s got a fair amount of truth to it, and there’s more than enough anecdotal evidence in the volumes of American history to provide support. Our past is littered with men and women and children who, because of the freedom and independence guaranteed by our nation, raised themselves up from unfortunate circumstances by determination and sheer force of will. These stories are placed before us as glorious reminders of the need for individual ethic and drive, the proof in the American pudding.

My family has many of these stories. My uncle, who opened his own tire and battery shop and has thrived as an independent businessman for over thirty years. My father, who turned an entry-level computer programming job into a 30 year career as an executive at a Fortune 500 bank. My father-in-law, who took his B.S. in chemistry to two different companies and cranked out over 42 U.S. patents.

But let’s not be sexist. I know a young woman who turned her passion for helping women and children in need into an international humanitarian agency that transforms thousands of lives annually. I know another young woman who turned her passion for singing into a career on Broadway and stages across the nation. And I know of other, quieter female heroes who realized that the role of mother was the best way to shape the future of the free world.

Each of these people were individuals who took their freedoms and independence as valuable gifts and made best use of them. Each of these people can be hailed as examples of the myth of independence.

And yet none of them truly are.

For all of their success, these people are not independent. Not a single one of them made their lives better on their own. Regardless of how hard they worked and how much of their own spirit they put into their efforts, each one was utterly dependent upon others to achieve all they did.

Because that’s the nature of humanity. We rely on one another. We’re not really independent creatures, free to do whatever we wish. Everything we do resonates within a larger context, a larger community. Whether its family, or neighbors, or friends, each one of us is who we are because of the people around us.

And this is not a bad thing. Dependence upon others is not a weakness, it’s not a blight on the soul. It’s a hallmark of maturity and wisdom. My son and I visited my grandfather today, and when we arrived my father was sitting, ever faithful by my grandfather’s side while my grandmother shelled beans she had just picked from her garden. There was nothing bombastic about the scene – I’ve probably seen something similar a thousand times before – but given my grandfather’s health, the interconnectedness of the moment made me realize just how much we are indebted to other people. And how much we should cherish that indebtedness.

I hope that my son grows up to be whomever he wishes to be (as long as it’s not a career in reality TV). I hope that my daughter goes on to be an icon of femininity in all of its fullness. Both will be free to be themselves as long as I’m their father. Yet both will owe profound debts to their mother, their grandparents, their cousins, their Sunday school teachers, their pastors, their public school teachers and countless other people for helping to shape and mold and drive them towards whatever they might become. Such is the nature of life, especially this American life.

Heck, even if my children decide at an early age to run away from civilization and live on the backside of some God-forsaken mountain in the New Mexico desert, they will still never escape their dependence upon other people. Because even if you go Tim McVeigh and live in a van down by the river, the freedom you have to be “independent” comes courtesy of some Marine or Sailor 0r Grunt or Airman or Coastie who took up arms to keep you free.

In a way, I suppose today is the ultimate irony: a nation of people stand together and celebrate their collective independence en masse. We’re all in this together. Thank a soldier, thank a cop, or just walk across the room and hug that person sitting on the couch, because it takes all of us to make this nation what it is. And maybe in doing so, we’ll reflect and think about one of the most powerful truths of our great nation:

The myth of independence belies the truth of community.

Or as some of our forebears so wisely put it: E pluribus unum.

God bless America, and God bless you my friend. Thank you for what you’ve contributed to my life.

Dancing In The Light Of Fireflies

Hope like firefly light - the gift of my grandfather's generation.I’m going to spend a lot of my time going to funerals over the next five years.

A lot.

I said as much to my brother, Ryan, yesterday before the funeral of one of our former pastors. He agreed with me. And as we looked around the church where we found ourselves, we could count at least four or five likely candidates. It’s not morbid – it’s life.

Now, we will most likely be wrong in our predictions – the people you think are most likely to go usually hang around an extra decade or two – but it doesn’t change the fact that many of the people who populated our childhood will die within the next five years. The Greatest Generation is marching, inexorably, towards their Greatest Adventure.

We will lose a lot when they are gone. An entirely different America, in fact. The nation that they helped to shape, the nation that they represent, will vanish when the last of those WWII-era citizens passes. America as a producer. America as an industrial giant. America as an international power. America as a single nation. All of these truths that I grew up hearing about our country will go to the grave with the generation that held them closest.

Because, let’s face it, we no longer believe in that America. We believe in a nation where opportunity comes with a price tag, where the fix is in, where government, corruption, incompetence and apathy have become synonymous. We live, sadly, in an America that couldn’t rise from the ashes of the Depression and win a World War. We don’t have the collective optimism or hope that is required to do that sort of thing. We would piss and moan about the hardship and struggle, and while we would be right about the challenges, our attitude alone would doom us more than our circumstances.

Which is exactly what I never fully understood about that Greatest Generation, my grandparents’ generation: their attitude. How could they not see the things my generation sees? How could they be so naive? How could they hold onto the American myth and push so stridently for its hoped-for outcomes? It couldn’t have been stupidity – they figured out more challenging problems than that in their sleep, and if you don’t believe me, try keeping a victory garden alive and flourishing for more than three days. I mean, I can’t even keep a plastic plant alive that long.

I could never fathom why my grandparents held the beliefs they did about America. Why they could stand and sing the anthem without shame. Why they could talk about this country as if it had never done anything wrong. Didn’t they understand Watergate? Didn’t they know about Hoover’s FBI?

How could they be so blind?

I’ve been thinking about this for weeks now, as my grandfather has been suddenly confined to a hospice bed in his own home’s front room, and I don’t think they’ve been blind at all. I think they just understood that it’s better to live with hope than whimper in fear. I see this attitude at work in Pop even now.

I’ve been to visit him a few times now, and where I would feel like a fool set on display for the pitying world, he just looks out the window, smiles at the company, and sleeps whenever he needs to. He doesn’t rage against the health care system. He doesn’t rail against the government’s failure to take better care of veterans. He doesn’t even care to hear the latest news, except for weather reports – and even then, why does the weather matter to him? He can’t even go outside!

I’m living through this with him and while my heart sometimes feels like it’s going to explode from the chaos and madness and seeming inequity of it all, he’s never uttered a word of discontent.

I asked him the other day if he was ready to go to Heaven.

“Yep,” he replied. “But I’m not gonna go get a shotgun and rush the trip along.”

“Don’t you get tired?” I asked.

“Yep. But the Lord has me here for a reason. Might as well live for it.”

When he said that to me, I thought, Fatalism. Whatever will be will be. It seemed the coward’s way out, blithely just taking whatever comes your way and not expecting anything more.

But my grandfather is not a coward. You can’t be a coward when your sickbed is the center ring of your last days and everyone comes to see the show and pay their respects. It takes a courage that I don’t possess to let your brokenness be on display and to live each day for itself.

That’s the kind of spirit that overcame a Reich. That’s the kind of spirit that conquered the pitfalls inherent in the American Dream and allowed goodness to shine through. That is the kind of willpower and faith that innovates and imagines and invents solutions to problems that others would run from. That is what led Tom Brokaw and others to coin them the Greatest Generation, and they are dying, one by one.

It’s like when I was a kid, and the fireflies started blinking. You knew the evening time was near, and you only had so long to play before you had to come inside for the night. We danced in that firefly light, savoring every flicker, because we knew that when the night had reached its darkest those fireflies would light the way. As long as we could see one little light in the blackness, we felt safe.

My grandfather’s generation still lights the way, as they have for some fifty years. Long since past the events that defined them, they have been flashing reminders of what is good and beautiful in a darkened world. But soon, the last of those beacons of childhood security will go black and we’ll find ourselves alone in the dark. America will have lost her soul, her spirit, to the passage of time. We will face future events without a large part of who we were as a nation.

And what we do then will define our generation.

My Wife, The Mama Bear

Rachel, the Mama Bear. I would advise against messing with her...

Most people wouldn’t think that tough comes in a package that looks like a Victoria’s Secret model but is sweeter than honey, but that’s okay – I know better. Not only does tough have a womanly figure, tough also has a great sense of humor, a keen sense of discernment, and some of the most beautiful eyes you’ve ever seen.

And by some quirk in the universe, she married me.

Yesterday reminded me of just how tough my wife, Rachel, really is. Not only did she haul both of our kids down to the pool by herself (a feat of epic proportions when you factor in the number of pool toys we have to take to keep Jonathan amused) but while they were at the pool, four teenaged boys started making trouble.

Rachel put a stop to it.

When she tells the story, her personality comes out: details, timing, not one thing said or recalled incorrectly. She tells it very much like the teacher she is, and it sounds fairly straight-forward: some teenaged boys were attempting to trespass at our neighborhood pool, she called them on it, they cursed at her, she called the cops, the boys ran. Simple, neat, end of story.

It’s a terse account of what, in my mind, was a situation filled with potential disaster. In fact, she takes what is a great story and turns it into a book report.

So I’m going to tell it.

First of all, some context. Our pool is a half-sized Olympic pool surrounded by a chain-link fence with two deadbolted gates. To get in, you have to have a HOA-issued key. If you don’t have one, the rules of the pool are explicit: you cannot come in. We’ve had several issues with vandals trying to circumvent the rules by doing such things as cutting holes in the chain-link or breaking the locks. So our neighborhood has a heightened sense of paranoia about the pool. We even have signs posted around to encourage members who spot trouble to call our HOA president so he can call the cops.

Secondly, Rachel was there with our kids, but there were also two teenaged girls laying out by the pool in their bikinis.

Now, if you have never been around teenaged boys then you don’t know that they tend to run on two types of fuel: testosterone and stupidity, both of which the teenaged male produces in copious quantities. Put teenaged boys around three attractive ladies in bikinis, and they’ll produce testosterone and stupidity like the government produces false promises.

In other words, this was a situation primed for something bad to happen.

If there had been only one teenaged boy, this is no problem; teen boys are easily confused and can be rendered quite harmless by an attractive woman. Three women in bikinis would pretty much render him incapacitated. But this wasn’t just one boy, which brings me to my next point.

Teenaged boys in a pack take on a pack mentality, which is dominated by the pack leader. In Rachel’s case, the pack leader was a boy with a muscular build and an utter disregard for the clearly posted rules of our pool. It was the pack leader who began the whole confrontation by leaping upon the fence and trying to climb over it. Rachel yelled him down off the fence, and his buddies gathered around to see what he would do.

Muscles stood there.

My wife, undaunted, pressed him for information. “You can’t come into the pool unless you are a member of the pool. Are you a member?”

Another boy raised his hand. “I am.”

“Okay. Where’s your pool key?”

He grunted. “I don’t have it.”

“Okay,” my wife said, “why don’t you go home and get it, and then come back. It can’t be too far to your house.”

“Someone forgot to give me the pool key,” the boy lied.

Rachel’s warning bells went off. “Who forgot to give it to you?”

“Uh, someone,” The Liar said.

“Someone who?” she persisted.

At this Muscles, The Liar and the other two boys walked away from the pool fence and back into the shade of our pool pavilion. Rachel could hear them barking at each other, their tempers flaring, but she walked away and back to where the kids were eating snacks.

And that’s when Muscles lost his freaking mind.

With his back to the fence, he screamed out, “BITCH!”

Here’s where my wife telling this story has it’s benefits. It’s at this point where she makes a face that can only be described as her version of the female, “Oh, hell no” face, which is a mixture of severe perturbation and outright masochistic violence.

If you’re in a committed relationship and ever forgot an important event or deadline, you know this face.

Anyway, after the boy curses, Rachel immediately grabs her cell phone – and here’s where the toughness kicks into overdrive – marches over to the fence nearest where the boys are sitting and dials the HOA president. They overhear her side of the conversation with our HOA pres:

“Hello, Dennis? Hi, this is Rachel Brooks…(she gives him our address)…yeah, that’s me…well, I’m down by the pool, and there are some boys causing a problem…well, first of all, I don’t think their members to the pool because they don’t have a pool key and were trying to jump the fence…uh-huh…well, I hollered at them and kept them from jumping the fence, and to their credit they climbed down…yeah, but then they sat down under the pavilion and started talking, and one of them screamed out a curse word at me…I’m here with my kids, and there are two teenage girls down here too, so what do we need to do…okay, so you’re going to CALL THE COPS…okay, I’ll wait right here…thanks, Dennis.”

The boys immediately get up and split into two groups: the weaker pair, the ones who’ve said nothing and were probably halfway between panicked and pissed at the other two, get up and walk away as quickly as possible. They did not pass “GO”, they just bolted the scene.

But Muscles and The Liar do not leave in a hurry. Instead, as my wife goes back to put her cell phone away, the duo takes a slow stroll around the fence towards Rachel. This idiot pair tries to menace my wife by walking towards her in a semi-threatening manner. They don’t come all the way to where she’s at, though – they turn and walk towards the woods, but they make sure to keep eye contact with Rachel for a long time. Finally, they disappear between the woods and some houses on the other side of the neighborhood.

When the cops finally show up, Rachel tells them what happened, and in her words, “they didn’t seem overly concerned.” But the show of force had been made, and if those boys were anywhere near the vicinity of that pool, they know that my wife meant business.

And that’s what makes me proudest. My wife, for the sake of her children, went Mama Bear on some punks and the punks backed down. Rachel roared and came away the victor. Could this situation have gone badly? Sure – with some kids these days, provocation like that only fuels their rage and leads to sometimes violent ends. In fact, I’m cognizant that my stereotyping of teenaged boys is rather dated, and built upon what the world was like when I was a teenager. Boys today don’t have nearly the same inhibitions I had as a kid.

And I’ve seen enough of the local, state and national news to know that teenagers can be some of the most cold-blooded and quick-tempered killers around.

But yesterday, thank God, that wasn’t the case.

My wife will probably read this and cringe. “You’re embellishing!” she’ll say. “It wasn’t that bad.” And perhaps my imagination does create mountains out of molehills from time to time. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that my wife is one bad mother. Three kids, a radical surgery, and a showdown with some teenaged punks is a pretty impressive resume of resilience and toughness. And she’s showing my daughter that women don’t have to be cowed by the stupidity of aggressive men, that women have power too, and don’t have to put up with boys’ crap. It’s a beautiful thing to be around.

I’m just glad she’s on my side.

But I’m going to take the trash out just to be safe…