I first saw Shannon twenty-two years ago today. She was naked, covered in goop and pretty pissed off. She was beautiful. She’s generally goop-free these days, usually clothed, and still pissed off, but at the right things and for the right reasons.
She is still beautiful.
I long ago gave up on the idea that we raise our children like they are crops or cattle. They create themselves. We’re vendors, really. We back up the truck daily at the gates of the laboratory of biology and emotion inside which they are hard at work, consciously and otherwise, becoming who they will be. We dump off the food for their bodies and fodder for their minds. We leave shipments of love and hate, of hope and despair, of joy and sorrow, in each case trying for more of the former and less of the later, but how any of it gets baked in to the final product, who can say?
I have watched in awe and wonder as my daughter has grown into the woman she is today, a magnificent creature with a fierce and fearless heart. What she loves, she loves entire with headlong abandon, unfiltered by caution, untainted by this age’s ironic detachment, with an unguarded recklessness that fills me with pride.
Because the world is not careful of hearts. It seems sometimes the more freely they are offered, the more cruelly they are treated. And yet she has not backed down, has not retreated, has not chosen to withhold her embrace for her own protection. And I worry. Maybe because, as a father, it is easier for me sometimes to see the damage than the reward. And too easy to know how much of that damage stems from my own selfishness, my own carelessness, my own failings.
My daughter is not one of these butterfly girls, flitting along among an endless and ever-changing garden of friends, bouncing from blossom to blossom as some fade and others bloom. If she loves you, she loves you to your roots, she loves you through your falls and winters, not just your springs and summers. She forgives your imperfections. No, that’s not right. She recognizes the inevitability of your imperfections, even embraces your imperfections, accepting you whole asking only that you do the same.
It is not an easy way to live. It is may be the hardest way to live. She has chosen to live unarmored, so she is too often hurt, sometimes too easily hurt, and has let scars from those injuries mar what she sees in her own mirror. She refuses to accept as binding the limits of compassion, so the world’s horrors pierce her too deeply, pierce her not as intellectual abstractions translated into sterile categories like injustice or repression, but instead as daggers of tangible human suffering felt raw as hunger, as disease, as war or hate or torture.
It is possible, I try to tell her, to feel too much. It is necessary, I try to tell her, to accept that these horrors are permanent features of our condition. It is best, I try to tell her, to protect your heart at least a little, to expect the worst sometimes, to narrow that opening, letting fewer things in so that you can filter them more carefully, can limit the damage.
But limiting the damage also means limiting the wonder. Limiting the joy. Limiting the love.
Living with a fierce and fearless heart is not the easiest way to live. But it is the truest. And maybe the simplest. I try to imagine a life unfettered by pretense, lived without masks, without the varying personas I have constructed that I hold as shields between myself and every other person.
She has inspired me to unfurl my own heart a little, a heart that, all my life, I have held too closed. It is a bigger heart now than it was. Still a flawed heart, still a heart too suspicious, too careful. Still a heart trying too hard to be a second brain instead of a first soul. But it is a better heart than it was. Better than it was because she is beautiful, and that beauty is contagious.
I did not raise my daughter. What is best in her happened in spite of me. But she has raised me a little, has enticed me to reach higher than I did, to be more than I was, to deserve to claim her as my own.
I cannot imagine a life without her.