At the end of the Blue Man Group show in Las Vegas, large inflated balls drop from the ceiling for the audience to toss around, the performers shoot streamers all around the theater, tons of colorful confetti rains down on the crowd, all to a crazy light show and heart pumping music. Smiling and whooping is practically involuntary, and dancing is certainly an option. It is an experience, no matter how contrived, that just makes you feel happy to be alive and well. Seeing my daughter, who is usually cool, calm, and collected almost to a fault, hoop and holler and genuinely enjoy the moment was something I will never forget.
We went to the show on the last night of our surprise 21st birthday trip to Vegas for our only daughter, Alex. Up until the time we got on the road, she thought we were going next door to Louisiana to the gambling boats of Lake Charles to fulfill her wish to “shoot craps and have a daiquiri” on her big day. We were so surprised that she wanted to spend such a momentous birthday with us—her parents—that we decided to return the surprise. For weeks, we kept the trip a secret while at the same time making sure she would be prepared for Vegas. “Pack a couple of cute dresses in case we find somewhere fancy for dinner,” I told her. “And bring your bathing suit…I think there is a pool there.” The flight was perfectly timed so that by the time we got to the strip, it would be just beyond midnight Vegas time, and she would be freshly 21 and fully legal, and we made sure her bag was carry on size for a quick exit from the plane. Our son, her little brother, made her a little video to reveal the news, and we caught the moment on our phones. She was really, really surprised, so much so that she dropped the F-bomb, and the girl who usually only cries when she is really, really mad, may have evacuated a tiny tear or two from her eyes. You can watch the video (F-bombs and all) here: surprise!
Three years ago, Alex graduated from high school. She did so without much fanfare, taking mostly AP/upper level classes but with mostly mediocre grades. She excelled in band, taking on leadership roles for the marching band, and she had a solid set of friends. Despite her middle-of-the-road grades and SAT scores, she got into the college of her choice, the University of North Texas. We were full of hope for her as we left her in her aging dorm room full of shiny new things that August.
I will spare you the details and myself the pain of reliving them, so I will just say that while Alex would have made an A+ in socialization and college life, she did not make such high marks in her courses, resulting in our difficult decision to not send her four-and-a-half hours away the coming fall. While we were okay with her experiencing failure, we were not willing to fund the experience. Seeing her face as we informed her she would have to tell her roommates she would not be joining them in the fun, new apartment they had picked out was a new form of torture for us all. Thus began a most intense month of slamming doors, silent treatment, glaring glances, and more. We set some firm parameters about her getting a job and such, and slowly, but surely, she hated us less and less.
At the time, I was the Dean of Instruction at an urban high school in a large district. For anyone who has ever been an educator, you know how hard it is to separate your job from your personal life. I was disappointed that she was failing out of college…for her, and for me. It pains me to admit that I worried what others thought of me as a parent. I still can’t help myself from sometimes wondering where we went wrong and if we can somehow prevent the same fate for our son, who enters high school in the fall. But, I worry less about it now than I did that summer, and I have come to terms with the fact that she may never be the college graduate we envisioned.
After two stabs at community college, Alex has, for the time being, decided to just be a working woman, working as a server at a locally owned pizzeria. She lives at home where she pays rent to us, and she pays for all of her bills (car note, car insurance, cell phone, etc.) all of which are in her name and her name alone. She asks for nothing and is increasingly maturing in her interactions with her younger brother and us. In hindsight, her not returning to school was somewhat of a blessing when I was diagnosed last year with stage 3 colorectal cancer. Having her nearby was good for my spirits, and I am not sure how much stress it would have been on her to be away at college while I was battling cancer. Likewise, the cancer diagnosis was oddly somewhat of a blessing for me. Having a life-threatening illness forced me to rethink some things in my life and prompted me to have a long-overdue conversation with Alex to let her know that I wasn’t disappointed in her; that I loved her unconditionally; that she would find her way; that she was someone of whom I was and would always be proud. We both fought back a few tears, and she finally had the space to confide in me about how she just hadn’t been ready for college at the time and how she struggled with which course of study to follow. I consider it to be the first of many of our “real adult” conversations.
The first year she was home, I nodded my head in hopeful agreement when friends touched my arm and said, “She’ll go back to school.” Now, I challenge them and say, “No, she probably won’t, and I am okay with that.” It’s not that I don’t want her to get a college education and all that entitles her to; it’s just that I have accepted that it’s her life, her choice, and her path to stumble along and hopefully one day conquer. I’d be lying if I said I never get frustrated about her seeming lack of direction or that I don’t worry for her future. But, I am always mindful to remember that the most important thing that I can do for her is love her and treat her with dignity and respect, which to me means first and foremost not crippling her by enabling her (which is why she pays us rent and we do not give her any money for anything).
Our daughter is funny, smart, witty, talented, crazy cool, independent, and drop-dead gorgeous. She has good common sense and has steered clear of many of the pitfalls other kids her age have not. Her smile is room-brightening, and she knows how to stand up for herself and is doing a good job of learning to navigate the world.
When she was five years old, our dental hygienist asked Alex what she wanted to be when she grew up. I will never forget Alex’s simple, yet poignant answer. “Just Alex!” she chirped cheerfully. I remember thinking that that was a damn good answer, and that we should all strive to be ourselves.
I am so glad we were able to celebrate our daughter’s 21st birthday with her in such a grand fashion. We will continue to celebrate her, not for the person she may one day become, but for the person she already is–just Alex–and that’s fine by me.
You can follow the author’s journey beyond cancer here: https://www.facebook.com/fightlikeaboss