Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Letting Go

Because we're planning Julia's baptism for next Wednesday night, I've been thinking back over her life. Here's something I wrote when she was 7 that I think conveys the leap of faith that defines growing up.

We had gone through it every summer.

Since Julia was two years old, we have fought the battle of the diving board. During the last day of swimming lessons, the kids were allowed to jump off while a teacher waited in the deep end to catch them. Julia would cautiously walk to the end of the board, a look of terror would darken her face, and she would cautiously walk back and climb off.

"If you just do it once, you'll see how fun it is," we would tell her.

"No way," she would say.

Julia has always been a fearful child. She's been afraid of anything that moves (from coin-operated rides at Mazzio's to our friends' boat), loud noises (I didn't vacuum or blow dry my hair while she was home alone with me for several years) -- anything that makes her feel like she's not in control of a situation. While other toddlers rode around on their dads' shoulders, Julia stayed at Chad's side, too afraid of heights for him to put her up there. Her fear of dogs, and even our own cat -- who we've had since before she was born -- has nearly driven us crazy. At amusement parks, she's even afraid of the baby rides that she's too big for.

We admit that since she is a firstborn, we, and especially I, may have fostered these fears. Maybe not. Regardless of how they came about, they are here now and we try to focus on how to deal with them.

Julia is now seven. It's summertime and she's living the good life -- swimming lessons in the mornings and playing with her friends at our neighborhood pool in the afternoons and evenings. Yesterday we were there again, and Julia's friends Natalie and Meagan decided to head over to the diving board. They beckoned her to come along.

"No way," Julia said. "I don't like those things."

"Julia," I said, repeating the same question I've asked her most of her life. "How can you know you don't like it if you've never done it?"

Her friends continued to plead, and, caving to peer pressure, she agreed to go. I knew what would happen. She would get to the end of the board, chicken out, turn around and walk back. That was quite literally the story of her life.

Dragging Julia's 21-month-old sister Jenna in a float, I swam down to the deep end as the girls climbed out of the pool.

"Julia, you go first because I have got to see this," said Meagan, an exceptionally fearless child who has also been frustrated at Julia's hang-ups.

Julia stepped onto the board, and, in her water shoes, slowly shuffled down to the end.

"Come on, you can do it," Meagan, Natalie and I yelled.

A boy stepped onto the back of the board, waiting his turn. A big boy who would probably have no patience with a terrified 7-year-old girl.

"This could get ugly," I thought.

Preparing to yell up more encouragements to Julia, I noticed a change come over her face. She bent over the edge of the board and threw her arms back. Suddenly swinging them forward, her feet left the board.

My mind's camera took a picture of what happened next -- one of those mental snapshots a mother forever stores in her heart. In that sliver of an instant, against a backdrop of blue sky and amid the mixed smell of chlorine, hot dogs and Exxon fumes from the nearby refinery, Julia hung in the air -- suspended between fear and freedom. The sounds of playing and splashing kids vanished and the wind seemed to stop blowing. Everything seemed frozen except that girl in the air.

Her splash washed over Jenna and me, and, even though I had been one of the ones yelling "You can do it!", I hung on to Jenna's float in shock. After years of us encouraging, pleading and bribing, Julia had actually gone off the diving board.

Then she surfaced.

"That was great!" she yelled.

"Julia!" I yelled back. "Doesn't it feel good to not be afraid of something anymore?"

I don't think she heard me. She was swimming to the ladder so she could get out and do it again.

Julia ended up spending four hours in the pool yesterday -- much of that time perfecting cannonballs, mid-air twists, and other diving board techniques. That night, Natalie's mom dropped her off. As she ran up to the door, I knew she was a different kid. Part of growing up is letting go and jumping into the unknown. Julia had grown up that day -- right before my eyes.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Communion Wine

My dad is still undergoing evaluations to determine what is going on with his mental state, which has declined quite suddenly in the past month. While he was still "himself," he shared the following story with me so I could write it as part of a final project for one of my classes last semester. I've been struggling a lot--more than I know how to express--with the possibility that my dad, as I knew him, may be gone forever. But he had a lot of great stories, and that's something we can hold on to. Here's one of them:

The hotel banquet hall echoed with the boisterousness of the American soldiers who had gathered for dinner. The year was 1960, and the 79th U.S. Army Band, based at Fort Clayton, Panama, was in the middle of a ten-day visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The trip was part of “Operation Friendship,” a goodwill initiative designed by the Army to ease the tension created by U.S. control of the Panama Canal Zone. Through Operation Friendship, the 79th Army Band had performed at every high school in Panama and was now traveling to various South American embassies.

Winston, a soldier from Beaumont, Texas, sat at one end of the table. Winston had left college a few years earlier to enlist in the Army and was touring with the 79th as a trombonist. Joining the Army had been an adventure for the southeast Texas preacher’s son, but military life had presented Winston with some challenges. Having grown up in the Church of Christ, Winston had been taught two crucial life concepts. First, Christians should always go to church, every Sunday, no matter where they are. Second, Christians must not consume alcohol. Trying to maintain these standards while serving in the Army was difficult, if not impossible, Winston had discovered. Nevertheless, he tried to cling to his convictions and hoped that, when he succeeded, his soldier peers would notice and be influenced to make good moral choices in their own lives.

During its South American travels, the band had stopped in Bogota, Colombia, where Winston knew to be wary of the drinking water. There in Bogota, he shared his dilemma with a Catholic priest, who had advised Winston to drink communion wine. This kind of wine typically contained only three percent alcohol—enough to kill bacteria but not enough to get him drunk. This should keep him healthy during the band’s South American travels and should not compromise his convictions too much, the priest had said.

Now in the rambunctious banquet hall at the hotel in Rio, Winston perused the beverage offerings on the menu. His eyes came to a stop at “vino de communion.” Communion wine. He planned to drink a little with dinner and go to bed with a mostly easy conscience. He pointed his selection out to the waiter, who nodded and walked away.

As waiters began delivering bottles of beer to the rest of the 79th, Winston heard the sound of squeaky wheels and turned to see his waiter wheeling out a cart carrying a two-gallon hinged decanter full of red wine. The waiter stopped the cart at Winston’s chair, filled his glass, and walked away—leaving the cart. By talking to a waiter with a rough command of English, Winston realized that “vino de communion” meant “wine of the community” and was meant to serve a large group of people. As he sipped on the wine, he realized something else: it had a much stronger alcohol content than three percent.

Every night during the band’s ten-day stay, the same waiter wheeled out the same decanter for Winston to drink from during dinner. He only took a few sips. By the last night, which was a Saturday, the decanter was still more than three-quarters full. Winston’s roommates asked if they could have the rest of the wine to go with the poker party they had planned in the hotel room for that night. Winston gladly gave it to them and, trying desperately to hang on to his convictions, went to bed early. True to his upbringing, he planned to seek out a church to attend the next day.

At 6:30 the next morning, Winston got up to find the decanter drained dry and his three roommates passed out. Two bodies slumped on the floor and a third sprawled across one of the beds. After checking to make sure they were breathing, Winston carefully stepped over the bodies of the men he had hoped to influence for good, and walked out the door to go to church. He may have left a roomful of hung over men in his wake, but Winston—as best he could on an Army trip to Rio de Janeiro—had stuck to his convictions.