“Daddy, can you carry me to that island?” It is a crisp spring morning and we are volunteering, with several other Milwaukee residents, on a river clean-up project. My eight year-old daughter, Mia, my wife Gina and I have scaled down a steep hillside, filling up garbage bags with detritus mundane, odd and disgusting. We discovered a fallen tree that had collected, at a time when the river was higher, a wide variety of trash that was swept along by the current. Since I’m the expert wilderness camper in the family, I venture out onto the log and immediately lose my footing. I get a double “soaker” as my feet slide into the cold river. In water up to my knees, I’m handing items to Mia and Gina to put in their garage bags. And here’s the thing – I’m really enjoying this. The water is cold, for sure, but this type of citizenship, this way of being part of community, is something I very much want to be part of Mia’s childhood.
I’ve made my way around the fallen trunk. More garbage on the back side. My feet are wet anyway, might as well get it all. Mia urges me on, pointing out stray bottles, beer cans and a paint can. There is a small island just a bit further into the river. Mia points at it and requests a lift. I walk to the bank and she excitedly clambers up my back so that she can sit on my shoulders. Gina looks dubiously from the bank. “I got this!” I say, and we are off to check out the small piece of land. Not much to see or do – we walk around the rocks, throw a few in the water, and she re-mounts and we’re back on land in no time.
My hope is that for every memory of those times when I literally or figuratively drop the ball in some parental way, moments like this will also come to mind to sort of balance the whole thing out. I’m a priest, after all, I live in hope.
The next day, I found myself thinking about her request that I carry her into the river, and the ease with which she asked me and then got onto my shoulders. This is the same little girl, but really not the same little girl, who, in December of 2011, as our new foster daughter, was fretfully pacing on the deck of a hotel swimming pool as I stood in the shallow end, urging her, “Mia – come on in! Jump! It’s not too deep and I’ll catch you. I’m right here. The water is warm. Come in!” She rubbed her hands together, walked back and forth, and I could see that she was afraid. I stood in the water for about 15 minutes waiting for her to come in. It felt a lot longer than that. At last she reluctantly got into the water, sitting first on the side of the pool and then gingerly lowering herself down, allowing me to hold her as she did. Once she was in, she enjoyed the water – she’s a natural!
This descent into the water, this little leap of faith, was something that would be played out many different ways in the months and years to come. She is, in many ways, one of the strongest and bravest people I’ve ever met.
I think of times when I’ve been invited by life, circumstances, another person or even my Creator to “Jump!”. I find that when I look the fear straight in the eye and step out in faith I am more blessed than I can imagine, and it rarely turns out the way I would have expected. I’m grateful for that, too.