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Missing the Boat

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I’m driving across the state alone tonight. Just left granny and papa’s house after dropping Cherokee off to pick up her car on her way to her first year of college at Mizzou. I’m headed home, driving highway 54 through small town Missouri, towns with populations of 150 at most. Towns where everyone knows everyone…the gas station is also the local bait store, post office and barber shop…towns where the nightly entrainment is sitting on the front porch watching traffic pass through town. Scattered along the countryside in between each town are thousands and thousands of acres of farmland. Rolling hills and green meadows, populated with the currency of choice in these parts…cattle. Run down and ragged barns standing as evidence of both a generation long since passed, and a generation carrying on the family business. Evidence of a life of hard work and family values. Evidence of my own life passing me by.

As I write this, I’m stopped at a gas station in one such town, trying to rest my eyes at 10:00 p.m. for what is still a three hour drive home. I’m tired and need to rest to finish this drive, but my mind is racing with thoughts of missed opportunities. Your mom and I were talking the other day about the similarities between me and her dad. Two of them that really stuck out for me are how we both always have several projects going at once…some never get finished, but we always have several things going at once, constantly pulling us in different directions. The other is that we are both away from home for extended periods of time when we’re working. Him being an over-the-road truck driver kept him on the road all week, coming home on weekends. My job keeps me away for 2-3 days at a time, and even when I’m “home”, I’m usually preoccupied with one of the many projects or other “things” I am juggling.

That bothers me. I’m glad we talked about it the other day, because hearing your mom make those comparisons has helped to open my eyes to the opportunities I’m missing with you. NE, you wanted to come with me on this trip today. You cried when I said no, and it broke my heart. I really wanted you to come…I did. I would have enjoyed spending the day with you. You would have enjoyed hanging out with me. Now I’m sitting here alone, with a missed opportunity gone forever. I said no to you because I don’t want SI to always see you coming with me while he stays home. It’s not fair to him to do that all the time, and it’ll cause him to resent you (and me) for it…yet he would not have faired well on this 10 hour cross-the-state road trip. You would have done well and enjoyed it. SD starts middle school tomorrow, and it wouldn’t be fair to her to keep her on the road until after midnight the night before the first day of school. And as I sit here kicking myself for making the wrong decision, I realize I’ve made many of these bad choices recently, and it causes me to be alarmed that I’m failing as a dad, in not taking every opportunity I have to spend time with each of you…one-on-one and all together.

Your mom and I used to joke when we were first married that we could never survive for very long in a small town. As a young married couple in our 20’s, small town life was too slow for us. We needed the fast pace of the big city to keep us out of trouble…to satisfy our hunger for keeping busy and moving. Now that I’m 38 with three young children at home, the youngest a two year old, I’m driving past homes with couples sitting on their front porch watching traffic pass by…and it’s looking pretty darn good right about now! A slower pace looks pretty enticing. I know “the grass is always greener” but I have to take pause and reflect on my life…our lives…and wonder if I’m missing the boat.

It seems like I’m always chasing the next “thing”. Always searching for something. I have Christ in my life, so I should be content, right? So what am I searching for? I think I’m yearning for more time with you. I’ve created an environment in which I’m constantly being pulled in different directions, and I need to bring myself back to what’s important…you. I think in my quest to go out and live life, I’ve taken on so much that I’ve caused the reverse to happen, and life is now passing me by. I don’t want to be the guy who sits on the front porch and lets life completely pass me by, but I do want to be able to sit back and enjoy life right where we’re at, a slower paced life, and embrace the opportunities I have to spend it with you.

I’m really struggling with my choice not to bring NE today…kicking myself for this. From here forward, I will be working to find the balance…to find a slower pace in life, so that you don’t grow up with a dad who’s always gone…or too busy for you. I’m missing the boat here, and I promise to do all that I can to get it right. Next to Christ, your mom and you are the most important “things” in my life. It’s time to start making sure my actions are aligned with my words. Time to jump in the boat and cast off…together.

Love,

Dad

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Spread Your Wings and Fly

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Every child has a dream to grow up and be a __________. Not all dreams are the same, and each child has his own ambitions and desires. There are only a few things I ever remember wanting to be. My first memories of a dream job were wanting to be a pilot. I wanted to fly. I still do, actually. Back then I wanted to fly commercial airliners. I actually used to dream about flying, but not in a plane…just running through a field and taking off like Superman, flying over trees, houses, buildings and the world. I haven’t had those dreams in many years, but I vividly remember those dreams, and how they inspired my desire to learn how to fly. Besides, being a pilot has a certain allure to it that just permeates “cool.” And then I found out that in order to be a commercial pilot, you have to have good vision. I don’t.

So I moved on to wanting to be a doctor. I carried this dream for a few years, moving from one specialty to another. I remember wanting to be a brain surgeon, a cardiologist, and then an emergency room doctor. I think I’ve always had a desire to help people, and this seemed like a logical fit. It didn’t hurt that it also is a job that speaks “cool”…and makes good money. Then I found out that to be a doctor required 4 years of college…followed by 4 years of medical school…followed by more schooling for the specific specialty. That sounded like more than I could handle.

So the next logical choice was a police officer. After all, what job is cooler than one where I can help people by shooting bad guys? That was about the time the tv show COPS was in its prime. It didn’t take long to figure out that most of being a cop is listening to people fight and trying to figure out who’s lying. Like I don’t have enough problems of my own, I want to mitigate everyone else’s? And running…I hate running. Being a cop means you have to be able to run after bad guys. I was so out of shape in my youth that the mere thought of running took my breath away. I knew right away that I’d be fired the first time a bad guy ran…because I’d be the guy to shoot him in the back instead of running after him.

Which brings me to what I do today. I remember well what first turned me on to firefighting…the “Kansas City Six”. On November 30, 1988 a fire at a construction site in south Kansas City involved a pickup truck and two storage trailers. Shortly after the first two engine companies arrived, a series of explosions rocked though the site, killing six firefighters. The investigation afterward revealed that the two storage trailers contained 40,000 pounds of explosives, some of which were mixed with kerosene. The deaths left the community in shock, and coverage of the incident was all over the place. At the time, I was a sophomore in high school, living only 90 minutes south of Kansas City. We couldn’t escape the media coverage. When the firefighters were laid to rest, the memorial service was held in Arrowhead Stadium, the NFL stadium where the K.C. Chiefs play. My memory of the event was that the stadium was near full. In looking back through the archived stories in the papers, reports say that over 5000 firefighters turned out to pay their respects, in addition to countless citizens, and friends and family of the six firefighters.

And that’s what impressed me. To see that many people come from all over the country…some from other countries altogether…to say goodbye and honor six strangers…people they didn’t know, other than through their common career…was inspiring. That’s what got my mind thinking that I didn’t want a job just to be cool or to make lots of money. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself…part of a brotherhood that takes care of its own…a group that has a rich history, filled with tradition, honor, sacrifice. It would take me several years to begin turning that dream into reality.

After marrying your mom in ’93 and moving back to Nevada and buying our first home, I was a manager at McDonald’s. I’d worked my way through high school and most of my college years at McDonald’s, and it was a natural fit to move into management as we settled into a home and our lives together as a newly married couple starting out anew. It was 1994, and I saw an advertisement in the newspaper seeking volunteer firefighters. With a friend from work, I applied…and they actually hired me. The FD there has one station with a paid crew of 4, so they rely heavily on volunteers to fill out manpower needs on varying incidents and during times high call volume. With no experience whatsoever, I was handed fire gear and welcomed to the ranks. Within a month or so, I had my first fire, and the bug was in my blood. Once the firefighting bug is in the bloodstream, it’s there for life.

I was content to be a volunteer, not giving much thought to doing it as a career. At the time, the department was young…there was little likelihood that they would be hiring anytime in the near future. After volunteering in Nevada for a little over a year, I changed jobs, taking a management/ownership role with Sonic. That required a move, so the dream was on hold for now. Ironically, within a few days of accepting the position with Sonic, a paid position opened up, and the FD was seeking someone to fill it. I didn’t apply, because I’d already committed to Sonic, and you know me…once I’ve given my word, I’ll honor it. So, we moved. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t apply for that position, because if I had been hired, I’d be there now instead of where I am now. We wouldn’t have SD and DWS, and life wouldn’t be the same. God rewards the patient…and those who honor their word.

We settled in St. Charles county in August 1995, and within about a year I took a volunteer position with St. Charles Fire Protection District. I truly enjoyed those years…getting calls at all times of the day and night, leaving meals on the table to be eaten later and leaving bed at 4:00 a.m. to do something I love. My sights were set on moving up the chain within Sonic, though. I was in pursuit of money, prestige and power. However, God humbled me, and in November of ’97, my time with Sonic had come to a close…a story for another day. It was time to move on.

When I left Sonic, I knew that within 5 months, the voters in our fire district would be presented with an opportunity to merge our fire district with the St. Peters Fire Protection District. If that vote passed, the new fire district would hire 27 paid firefighters, starting from within the ranks of its volunteers. I did my time, trained to pass the physical agility test, and in the summer of ’98, I was hired. My first day on the job was July 20, 1998…we spent 8 hours a day for the first five days in orientation, and I started my first 24 hour shift the next day, my 25th birthday. The night of my first shift, my truck was first in on a house fire. What a birthday present! I love my job. Yesterday marks the anniversary of my 13th year on the job, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Whatever you decide to do with your life…whether you follow my footsteps into firefighting or flip burgers at McDonald’s…do it with honor, humility and pride. No matter what career path you choose, know that I’m proud of you. Not for what you do or how you do it…but for who you are. Follow your dreams and don’t give up on them when you face adversity. Spread your wings and fly. I’m turning 38 in four days, and I still have a dream to fly. I haven’t given up on that dream, and one day I may just learn how to fly.

Love,

Dad

A Hole in the Heart

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My dearest SD,

As I finish writing this, it’s your last week of elementary school. You’re 11 years old and moving into 6th grade next year…middle school. Eleven years old. That seems like such a huge number when I say it or write it in relation to you. Eleven years is the blink of an eye in God’s time. In light of eternity, eleven years is but a speck of dust floating in the air. And yet here we are eleven years later. I still vividly remember the day we first met you. We had been foster parents for several months when we received that phone call. The lady on the other end of the phone said there was a three month old baby girl in the hospital who needed a temporary home. Would we be able to come pick her up? We immediately knew our answer was yes, but of course the normal questions needed to be asked…more to prepare us for what we would find when we got there. “Why is she in the hospital?” “What happened in her family at the young, tender age of three months to bring her to the hospital?” I honestly don’t remember what the answer were, or what the lady on the phone told us about the circumstances…all I really remember after that was the voice in my own head telling me, “cool, a baby!”

As we walked into the hospital and onto the floor, the face of the nurses lit up when we asked for directions to your room. They all knew you and would beam with a huge smile at just the mere mention of your name. People still do today, by the way. At the IEP meeting we had last week with your teachers to prepare for the transition to middle school, it was all I could do to keep from breaking down in tears as each of your teachers beamed with joy in sharing memories of you over your six years there. They’re gonna miss you there…I think more than they miss most kids that come through their doors.

As we walked into your hospital room in the spring of 2000 and saw you laying on the bed, the look on your face was pure exhaustion. You were tired. The next hour or so was a blur of medical jargon that would take me weeks to fully understand. VSD with CHF, medicines, precautions, signs and symptoms to be on the watch for, feeding routines, etc. By the time we left the hospital, I was tired for you. VSD. I knew what CHF is. Congestive Heart Failure. It’s what old people get when their hearts are old and worn out. It’s not something a three month old gets. But what was this VSD they’re talking about? The nurses explained it the best they could. Ventricular Septal Defect. Defect. Such a mean word for such a beautiful, young baby girl. It seems that Ventricular Septal Defect is basically a hole in the heart. More specifically, it’s a hole in the lining of the heart between the two ventricles. A hole where there is not supposed to be one by design. Yours was the size of a dime. With a hole in the heart right where yours was, blood was leaking from one part of your heart into another part of the heart…without traveling through the lungs where it’s supposed to pick up the oxygen it takes to the rest of the body. In the simplest of terms, your heart was broken.

In the next eight months, I truly enjoyed getting to know you. You brought true peace, laughter and joy into our home for the first time in a long time. By the fall of 2000, I knew I would not ever be able to let you go. I knew in my heart that although there was a chance you could be taken from us and returned to your biological mother, I could never let that happen. I think secretly in my head I started planning our escape. The plan was simple. We would take as much cash as we could scrape up (so they couldn’t track us with the credit card), pack up the car and drive until we ran out of gas, change our names and start a new life. I could not imagine not being your “forever daddy.” In November of 2000, you were 11 months old. Eleven months. Just shy of one year old, you now call that “zero”, but that’s for another story. If eleven years is but a “speck of dust floating in the air” or the “blink of God’s eye”, what is eleven months? Such a young fragile age to undergo such a big operation. Open heart surgery.

All the doctors explained that it was a routine procedure. Routine. Really? Breaking the rib cage of a baby to operate on the heart while it continues to beat is routine? Okay, sure. Whatever. The hours while you were away from us in the operating room passed so slowly. When I reflect back on when I renewed my faith in and commitment to Christ, it was in those hours. Hours and hours of helplessness, with our only hope resting on strangers…great doctors and nurses, but strangers nonetheless. I didn’t like that…there had to be something more upon which I could rest my hope. It was then I became reacquainted with Jesus Christ. He and I had been close many years ago…long before my college years when I lost Him. Mind you, He never lost me. He was right beside me through those hard, trying years in college and young married life, watching over me. It was I who lost Him. Lest I digress…

I still very clearly remember walking into the ICU room after the surgery. The entire floor smelled of hospital…blood, disinfectant, bed linens…that “hospital” smell. Pungent. It was both loud and quiet at the same time as we walked that hallway. Quiet, in that all you could hear were the beeps, blips, and dings of medical equipment sounding all around us. Loud in that all those beeps, blips and dings were annoyingly loud…everywhere we turned it was all we could hear, with the exception of the whispering voices of nurses as they walked past. It was dark too. The lights in the hall were dimmed, and the only light coming from each room came from the screens of medical equipment stacked wall-to-wall. As we walked past a half dozen rooms of that ICU, stealing glances of rooms with children connected to all sorts of medical equipment, one would think those images would prepare us for what we were about to see in your room. You would think. Nope. Not so much.

The bed was huge. A normal-sized hospital bed, sure…but when you put a baby in it, it becomes huge. You were sprawled out on your back with your arms and legs spread out, almost at 45* angles. Picture how you would look when you lay down in the snow to make a snow angel. That was you in that big bed…without the fast-paced moving back and forth of your arms and legs. You were still “sleeping.” Unconscious is what doctors and nurses call it. We’ll leave it at sleeping. The only “clothes” you had on was a diaper. IV coming out of two arms. Leads for the heart monitor taped to your chest and both arms and legs. Breathing tube coming out of your nose, taped to your cheek to hold it in place. Tube coming out of your chest, hooked to a container on the side of the bed with blood coming out of it. Bandages taped across the middle of your chest, what doctors call the sternum. That was where they broke your ribs to reach into your chest to find your heart. Weird how they had to break your ribs to fix your heart, isn’t it? The tube coming out of your chest was draining the blood from inside your body from the cuts they made to get to your heart. Imagine when you cut your finger how much blood you get? Well, when doctors cut into your chest, it bled too, so they had to use that tube to get all the blood out that was “leaking.” You were breathing slowly, with a steady rhythm. It was somewhat peaceful to watch you breathing. I don’t know why, but it was. In all of that environment…all of what I was experiencing…all of the emotion of hours without knowing, waiting helplessly in the waiting room…in all of my exhaustion, I lost it.

I know I cried in the waiting room, but that was the “I have to trust someone else to help her now” cry…the “she better come out of this okay” cry. Now that I could see you survived the operation, it was time for the “my baby’s hurting” cry…the “she looks so helpless and lifeless” cry…the “now what?” cry. I don’t remember at what point you finally opened your eyes, but my oh my did you open those eyes!! And I cried again. I cried again because I knew in that instant you were going to be just fine. I cried the “thank you Lord!” cry. I knew in the instant I looked into those big blue eyes, I was looking into your soul for the first time. You see, in the first eight months you were in our home, the life in your eyes was never really there. It was all your little body could do to survive. Your heart had to work so hard just to keep blood flowing through the vital organs of your body, that there wasn’t much left for the rest of it. All that blood had to stay in the heart, lungs, brain, stomach, and other organs needed to keep you alive. It’s so hard to describe that look your eyes had in your first eleven months of life. It was dull…lifeless…blank…void…hurting…searching…tired…without hope…without life. It may seem mean to say those things, but that’s what it was. Through no fault of your own, though. Your body was working so hard just to stay alive that it didn’t have much left to give.

On a side note here…I wrote this several weeks back, and I’m just now getting back to editing it before publishing it to the site. It’s your next to last day of 5th grade. You just came in from school and handed me your backpack and artwork from the week. In it, there’s a collage of pictures that your mother apparently sent in to help you complete the project. I just saw the picture of your momma holding you…with me by your side at Granny and Papa’s house…your first visit there…you were 4 months old. Instantly, I’m right back in that moment 11 years ago looking at that baby girl with no life in her eyes. I can’t go on with editing the rest of this right now, because I can’t see through my tears. I need a minute. This just ain’t right.

Okay…12 hours later, it’s your last day of 5th grade. You just left for school, and your mom and I just finished writing “Thank You” cards for your teachers. We’re getting ready to head up to school to deliver the plants you’re giving each of them. It’s been an emotional couple of days up in here, but I’m gonna push through this and try to finish editing now, because I’m going to be a basket case after this last day with you and your teachers…

In your first eleven months of life, you pretty much laid in one place all the time. We had to wake you up every three hours to feed you. You slept all the time. You were never awake for more than an hour or so. You never cried when you were hungry. It’s like your body knew it didn’t have enough energy to cry. It’s hard to say it like this, but in those first eleven months, you were just here. And yet, I don’t think you were here. As I reflect back on that time…and in who you are today…I truly believe you were with God that entire time. Eleven extra months with our Maker. Whether here or there, I don’t know. Only God knows how you made it through that, but I believe you were crawling with Jesus in those months. It certainly puts into perspective who you are today, 11 years later. You’re more like Jesus – in how you love people – than anyone I know. You don’t judge others or expect anything in return for your love and friendship. You treat everyone equally regardless of who they are or what they’ve done to hurt you in the past. You can walk up to a complete stranger and within minutes, they’re your best friend. Even if you don’t see them for another 3 months, you’ll pick up with them right where you left off…like it was just yesterday. ?Relationships are everything to you. Yeah, I’m sure that you learned that from Jesus himself in those 11 months.

Lying in the ICU in November 2000, you finally opened your eyes. My goodness, how the life was in those eyes! For the first time, I saw the sparkle of life…the twinkle of youth…the look of excitement and life. You looked up at your mother and me with those big blue eyes, and it’s as if you were trying to tell us something with your eyes. You couldn’t talk yet, so you were trying to use your eyes to tell us something. We “heard” you right away. You were saying to us, “I’m here! I’m ready! Let’s go!” And go you did! You were in the ICU for several days of recovery time, but the moment we brought you home, life was never the same. You’ve been going ever since…almost nonstop! And I love it! Wouldn’t have it any other way.

I took the time to share that story with you to tell you this:

SD, you are a one-of-a-kind. You were created by God for a purpose. You went through more in your first year of life than most people go through in their entire lifetime. The battles you’ve faced would cause some to give up hope and quit. You survived, though! You didn’t quit! You fought the good fight for eleven months, and you’re here! You’ve made the most out of life and everything you’ve done ever since. You’re different. You’re not like “normal” kids. You face difficulty and hardship in doing what are routine activities for others. You have a hard time fitting in and communicating. You struggle to learn things that others learn more quickly. You’re different. You’re perfect.

God created you before the heavens and earth were formed. You are who you are because God is still God, and God is still good. He has a plan for your life. I believe with all that I am and all that I have that a part of His plan for you was to change me. I’ve always known you are an angel sent to earth from God to be my daughter…to change me. You have taught me what joy is…how to find happiness…how to have patience…how to love…how to forgive…how to listen…how to be a better man…a better husband…a better daddy. You have softened my heart. I didn’t cry much before God blessed me with you. I cry all the time now, because you have softened my heart to be more Jesus’. I believe with all that I am that He used the hole in your heart to fix the hole in mine.

And yet God still has a plan and purpose for your life. He chose our home for you. He chose this place in time for you. He chose you to fulfill a job for Him. You have been hand-picked by the Creator of the universe to do something for Him. I know how much you love to help. You’re a helper. You’re always asking mom and me if you can help with something. All the time looking for ways to help us somehow. Well, you’re here to help God my baby girl!

And yet, you may never really know what it is He wants you to do. You may never actually read this letter or be able to understand what it means. You may never know what job God wants you to do. But you will do it…because that’s who you are. You put smiles on the faces of the people you meet. It always amazes me how we can walk into a store, an office, a crowded building, a park…it doesn’t matter where we go…you can make friends with anyone. Your willingness to just walk up to complete strangers and strike up a conversation catches people off guard. In this crazy world, they’re not used to it. It surprises them. Some are annoyed by it, sure. But some enjoy it…whether they share that with us or not, they do. They smile when you leave them and say to themselves, “what a cute girl.” It leaves them wondering for themselves if they could ever just walk up to a stranger and say “Hi. What’s you name? Do you have a dog? He’s a boy? He’s at home?” And once you have their attention, you introduce your family and continue getting to know them by asking questions. Your questions. The knowledge that you retain in some of the simplest questions is amazing. And it’s your willingness to invest time in getting to know people…to develop relationships that God will use for His plan and His glory.

Yes mam! God has a plan for your life. Keep your head held high, my princess. You are a one-of-a-kind. You were hand-picked by the Creator of the universe to be right here right now. Don’t EVER change who you are! EVER! You are perfect in every way! You are beautiful and worthy of love! When you feel lonely because others make fun of you, seek Jesus. When you’re hurting because you’re friends don’t invite you to play with them, Jesus is there waiting for you to play with. When you’re scared, pray for God to come down and calm you. When you question why you’re here, ask God to reveal it to you. Even if He doesn’t, be happy in knowing that God is still God, and God is still good!

SD, I love you more than I could ever say in a letter. I hope and pray that in my life and through my actions and words, I show you a love worthy of God’s admiration. I pray that the love I show you sets the bar high for what to expect from every other man that comes into your life. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Daddy

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