You could say my daughter had an idyllic childhood. Right up until she turned 10, when her life as she knew it exploded.
That was the year her dad and I divorced. Suddenly she was thrown into a world of splitting time between two parents; watching her parents date, with sometimes disastrous results. She even had to become mini mom to her little brother if I was at work at night: helping with homework, helping with dinner. She had to grow up fast. But in some ways, it was almost as if she were born prepared for it.
She was born in 1996 to two young parents who were in love and in awe of our sweet, little Briana. She was as near perfect as we could expect. She slept through the night. She was easy to travel with so we took her everywhere. She hit every growth milestone just as the baby books said we should expect. In some cases, she even surpassed them. She was talking before she was one. She started walking on her first birthday. At two she was reciting the names of world leaders better than some of the TV anchors I worked with. She started kindergarten when she was 4 because she could already read and write. If you looked up the meaning of being “an old soul,” her picture would almost have to be next to it. I’m convinced she’s been on this earth before. Nothing seemed difficult for her or about her. So watching her graduate Summa Cum Laude from high school last week or receiving her letter of acceptance to the University of Southern California last month might seem “a given” to those who’ve grown used to seeing her succeed. But those of us who’ve been by her side the last seven months know these recent accomplishments came from a deep strength that perhaps even she didn’t know she had.
When Dave and I started touring colleges with her two years ago, we hoped she would fall in love with USC, just as we did when we attended there and fell in love with each other. She kept us guessing until midway through our tour when she said to us with enthusiasm, “This is where I want to be. I really want to go to school here.” We were overjoyed but knew it would take more hard work, as USC is highly competitive and being a legacy does not guarantee admission.
She was in the middle of her college application process when her dad became ill and was hospitalized. When his condition worsened, I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed her for falling behind in school or with her application process. But she knew that’s not what her dad would’ve wanted. While some might have criticized her for not being at his hospital bedside 24/7, she knew he would’ve been disappointed if she would’ve gotten off course. He was unabashedly proud of her and was overjoyed just thinking about her possibly attending USC one day. So each day for two weeks, she’d fight through the tears enough to go to school, pick up her brother from school in the afternoon and spend evenings at the hospital. If she wasn’t in her dad’s room, she was in the waiting room doing homework, finishing up her college essays and trying to stay on track. It’s what he would’ve wanted from her and she knew that. Two days before he passed, as his condition worsened, she was scheduled to have her USC interview. We had been up late the night before dealing with what we knew might be the inevitable. She briefly considered cancelling her interview, but once again reminded herself that her dad would want her to stay steadfast. Through her darkest days yet, she remained focused, as much for her dad as for herself. Through his death, his memorial service, her tremendous grief, she somehow found the strength to not give up. In those days, she was no longer just my daughter. She became my hero.
So as I watched her collect her high school diploma last weekend, I cheered for her dad too. I knew it was the culmination of more than just hard work in the classroom. Watching her throw her cap into the air was also a symbol of the tremendous courage and perseverance it took for her to fight through insurmountable heartache. No one could be more proud of their child than me and that angel in heaven she calls dad. I have no doubt she will continue to soar in life because she will do so with him, forever the wind beneath her wings.