During my visit to D.C. last week for NEDA’s 2013 Annual Conference, I was treated to lunch at the National Press Club by an old friend, Taylor Henry. Taylor and I met when I was a freshman at Spring Hill College 37 years ago. We shared a common faith, a major, a love of music (he for playing it and yours truly tone deaf for listening to it), countless hours of conversation about matters of the heart and, perhaps above all else, a passion for writing. Regrettably, however, as too often is the case, our life paths diverged dramatically almost immediately after graduation, both in terms of geography and our professional pursuits. Taylor pursued a career in journalism that quite literally took he and his family all over the globe and I a career in law, which took me to Charlottesville and, eventually, to Miami. Needless to say, we fell out of touch for many years. Thanks to social media (Facebook primarily), we re-connected a few years back. It was then that I learned, for the first time, that we also shared something far more significant in common, two beautiful and courageous daughters, his Emily and my Ashley, who were battling life-threatening illnesses. Sadly, Emily lost her battle (with cancer) on May 12, 2013, just a few weeks shy of her 26th birthday.
At the end of what was a very emotional lunch, I asked Taylor for permission to incorporate the eulogy he delivered at Emily’s Funeral Mass into a blog post. I asked for two reasons. First, because we too seldom are afforded opportunities to peer so intimately into the heart of a father whose love for his daughter is palpable, let alone have the chance to see that love expressed so eloquently and beautifully and with such tenderness and sensitivity. It occurs to me that maybe if we had the chance to do it more often, it wouldn’t seem like such a novelty. Secondly, I believe the image upon which Taylor chose to build his tribute to Emily (that of a young girl perched on her bed, staring out a window hoping, waiting to catch a glimpse of her Daddy) is a profoundly important one. In fact, the more I reflect on it, the clearer the metaphor and its significance becomes. The truth is: there are many “little girls” around the world (some well into middle age) who are still waiting desperately for their Daddy to come “home” to them – not in a physical sense, but in their willingness to be more vulnerable, to share their heart, to be emotionally available. As dads, we would honor Emily (and Taylor) by realizing that and doing whatever is necessary to discover or re-discover the life-affirming joy that awaits both dad and daughter at the “bottom of the stairs”!
Emily was grace – in mind, body and spirit.
At her best she was the living example of love as defined by St. Paul: patient and kind, bearing all things.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Emily. It was June 23, 1987 at Glendale Memorial Hospital, in Los Angeles, California. The round blush face, the chubby cheeks, the curled lips and flickering eyelids. The darting, dancing, startled little blue eyes. The wisps of peach fuzz over the boney crown – all 8 pounds, 4 ounces. It was love at first sight.
One of my most cherished memories of Emily’s early childhood is when we lived in Tokyo. I’d take the train home from work around 9 in the evening and walk the 15 minutes from the station to our little townhouse. As I would round the last corner, I’d see Emily standing on her bed, staring out the upstairs window, waiting for her Daddy to come home. When she’d see me, she’d come down the stairs and greet me at the door. I’d scoop her up in my arms, and she’d give me a big little girl hug, the kind only a daughter’s father can know.
Growing up in Columbus, Emily was a leader – in her family, among her younger siblings, and in school, among her peers. All the way through high school, graduating as a National Merit Scholar and the Valedictorian of her class.
Her leadership was no less influential at Spring Hill College, where she earned top grades in all subjects including her chosen double major of English and Theology, and induction into the English, Theology and Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Honor Societies.
But it was when her graduate school career at William and Mary was cut short three and a half years ago by the devastating diagnosis of pineoblastoma that Emily’s character really shined. When the doctors gave her the news, she didn’t flinch or shed a tear. All she wanted to know was what she had to do to live. Always vivacious, so full of life, with so much to offer and the makings for such a bright future with her fiancé, Ben Mackin, Emily was determined to survive.
Undeterred by illness, surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Emily wrote a novel, A Dog for Maggie, and launched her career as a high school Theology teacher at Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, where she touched the lives of many students with her intelligence, character and courage.
Even in her final days and hours, Emily was as caring, thoughtful and considerate as ever. When she needed help with the straw for a sip of water, it was always “please” and “thank you.”
“Dad, I want you to get a dog,” she said, “so you won’t be alone.”
This past Sunday, I came to 11 o’clock Mass in this very church. After Father Curley gave the final blessing, I was walking out the front door and my cell phone went off. It was Jennifer. “Hurry.”
I got in the car, drove to the top of the driveway and turned on the flashers, traveling the 3.3 miles to the house as fast as I could safely go, passing several cars along the winding narrow two-lane road. I pulled up, walked in the front door and into the bedroom, and there Emily was – still waiting on her Daddy. No longer able to stand on her bed and look out the window or greet me at the front door, her presence was her embrace.
“I’m here, Emily,” I said. “I love you!” And I sang the chorus of a little song I wrote for her 4th birthday. Then, Jennifer began reciting the “Angel of God,” the prayer she would say with Emily at bedtime when she was a little girl. And the rest of us at her bedside—Ben, Mary, Taylor, Natalie and me—with Emily’s dog, Dash on her lap—joined in the prayer:
“Angel of God, my guardian dear to whom God’s love entrusts me near, ever this day be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide.”
And then, she was gone. Born again, to life everlasting.
* * *
Somehow, I’ve got a feeling that, down the road a piece on Life’s journey, one day I’ll round a bend to find, peering out an upstairs window somewhere, the face of an angel, and I just know she’ll be there to greet me at the door.
I’m quite certain you will too, Taylor and that as part of that first embrace she will thank you, as I do, for sharing your heart with all of us!