6: The Lucky One

6: The Lucky One

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

The Lucky One

A daughter is the happy memories of the past, the joyful moments of the present, and the hope and promise of the future.

~Author Unknown

Our daughter is a child of the Army. Her mother is an Army nurse; I am an Army lawyer — a “JAG” officer. Through three individual deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq I’ve learned that our greatest path to happiness is the unifying joy of our five-year-old, who over the course of many trials and separations continues to redeem us — she is what makes us lucky.

Emma was born in January 2006, during a bitterly cold upstate New York winter, ten days before I deployed to Afghanistan. Five months later her mother was deployed there also. Emma landed, like so many other military children, with her grandparents, the youngest resident of the Bethany Village retirement community in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, the ward of my eighty-six-year-old father and seventy-seven-year-old mother. She became one of the community’s most popular residents, the instant delight of grandmothers and grandfathers alike, who are drawn to the youth and smiles of a five-month-old.

It is difficult to articulate the all-consuming guilt a parent feels when leaving an infant behind. It was particularly hard on her mother. Of course we chose this life, despite its inconveniences and separations, out of a genuine belief that military service was something that mattered — to be part of the large moral reserve where values like sacrifice, honor, selflessness, and integrity still matter. Our fidelity to those values would be dearly tested. If you have ever left a baby behind for a combat zone… well, it just isn’t easy.

I returned from Bagram and Kandahar eight months later to reclaim a child I hardly knew, and was arguably unqualified to care for without some sort of adult supervision. It was Emma, me, and two Wheaten Terriers, 370 miles from the nearest family member. I will forever be grateful for the support from my boss’s wife who graciously checked in, providing advice such as not to feed hot dogs to an eight-month-old, and otherwise made sure I didn’t do anything shockingly stupid.

And yet, despite the endless days, the bottles and diapers, the lost weekends and sleepless nights, missed meetings and a worn-out BlackBerry, I ended each long day feeling as though something meaningful had happened between Emma and me. We survived, we thrived, and we would wake up the next morning to do it all over again. In truth, I felt almost indescribably lucky for the time alone with her.

So each night from those days forward, while we awaited her mother’s return from Afghanistan the following year, I would look down in utter amazement at this gorgeous daughter of mine and quietly ask her, “Why am I lucky?” And then I would softly answer, “Because I have you.” I had Emma. Mom was a world away. The family was a day’s drive away. In the cold and snowy Watertown winter of 2006-2007 it was just the two of us and the dogs. Looking back it was one of the most indelibly memorable periods of my life.

Over time, as Emma learned to talk, she gradually picked up the refrain. I still remember the exact moment, lying in bed after Click Clack Moo and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, that she rolled over and said, “Dad, you’re lucky because you have me.” Indeed I was.

It has been, and I am ever prayerful that it will always be, one of the heartfelt narratives of our relationship: the simple but sublime acknowledgement that I am fortunate because of the blessing of my daughter in my life and her awareness of how I feel about us; what we had, and what we shall always have.

I am lucky because throughout the preschool age of princesses she always allowed me to be her prince; she would dress up in a rotating collection of about a dozen dresses, glass slippers and all, and we would dance through the house as she sang theme songs from Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella with joyous abandon.

I am lucky because Emma inspires and fortifies me to be more than I am: a window on a world I never fully imagined before she came into my life. In the early days when it was just the two of us, and ever since, I wake up early as much for her as for myself. Fatherhood brought a new imperative to support and provide and make something of this life so she can be proud. She is the high school coach we all ran an extra mile for because the victories were for him as much as us — a coach in size 3 slippers and a Hello Kitty nightgown with a laugh that melts whatever egocentricities remain in her father.

I am lucky because she unifies us as a family. Emma is the connective tissue that brings purpose to the sometimes tumultuous rhythm of our lives. She reinforces the relationship that brought her into the world, sustains it with meaning, and focuses it on the future.

On about her fourth birthday the old refrain added a new line. “Why am I lucky?” I would ask. “Because you have me,” she quietly responded. Then to my surprise came the question, “Dad, why am I lucky?”

“I don’t know sugar bear, why?”

“Because I have you, Dad. Because I have all of you.”

But the lucky one... the really, truly, lucky recipient of the magic that is our father/daughter love affair, is me. She is the lantern that guides my feet along the path of happiness. One day she will find that prince and hopefully know the utter joy of little fingers wrapped tightly around her own hand. And the magic will continue through her. Lucky until the end.

~Colonel George R. Smawley

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