Thursday, February 17, 2011

Seventeen Years Ago Tonight

We celebrated a special event tonight: my daughter Kellina's seventeenth birthday. It's a somewhat melancholy time for me since it looks more and more like she will be my only child, and my active parenting days will soon be over. Every stage up to now has brought some great and small joys, and there is always a small tug at the heart when I remember those little events and idiosyncrasies of her childhood.

We had dinner at a local Chinese restaurant where we've gone for years. The owners remember us by sight, particularly Kellina, who used to love dumping chili sauce on her tofu and rice. My parents, wife, brother, and aunt were there, along with Kellina's three step siblings and their children, and Kellina's mother and best friend—quite a large party for a Thursday evening in this restaurant. I had been looking forward to this evening for many years and was actually both excited and a little sad that it had already come. I had been holding onto something for seventeen years, and tonight it would be given away.

We all ordered our favorite dishes, which in my case violated all my regular dietary norms. The owners, always very good with young children, plied the two toddlers with broken fortune cookies. Finally, we sang "Happy Birthday" to Kellina and started the ritual gift giving. My family area a generous bunch, so there were some nice items and gift cards (always a favorite for adolescents).

She came to the last two gifts, the ones I had settled on for her. The first came enclosed in a small jewelry carrier.

The carrier itself was a hit, but in it was one small ring. "That ring was your great-grandmother's high-school class ring," I explained. My parents were both rather surprised because neither had ever recalled it. I had found it among my grandmother's things after she had passed away, when we had been told to take any mementos we wanted. The ring was so tiny, and I could barely imagine it fitting her finger. Of course, it fit Kellina perfectly.

In the last gift bag were a set of make-up bags with items tucked inside. One contained a photo of me (with a much more full head of hair) holding a three-week old infant. Everyone enjoyed cooing over the photo.

As she began to pull the item from the second make-up bag, I said, "This will take some explanation."

She looked quizzically at the item, and I went on. "17 years ago almost to the hour, you came into this world. That was the shirt I was wearing at that time." (Her mom jokingly added that one of the sleeves was much longer than the other.)

"It was my favorite shirt. I put it away many years ago with the intention of giving it to you on your seventeenth birthday. I almost gave in early and gave it to you because it seemed like it would be forever. But now that day is here, and it seems far too soon."

Our children have no idea just how much they change our lives merely by their existence. I believe that people must experience parenthood in some form (actual, adopted, or spiritual) before they ever truly become an adult. Granted, there are many parents who even then don't gain maturity, but unless one passes through that stage and learns to step out of one's own experience to recognize and assume responsibility for an other's vulnerability, one never gets out of the center of one's own frame of reference. My daughter changed me forever seventeen years ago, and I am so grateful for it.
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