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My Shadow

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image My Shadow has grown up to be a remarkable, smart, and beautiful young woman. Just as I always knew she would. Michelle Traphagen Photo

On the first day I met her, I immediately gained two goals in my life.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Looking back on almost a half century of life, I realized that the most content I have ever been was standing on a corner of College Avenue getting ready to walk across the street from Ruskin Elementary with a little girl who was my shadow. In my heart, she is my daughter. I knew that even before I met her, and when I did finally meet her, that certainty was absolute. But it didn’t happen. She didn’t become my daughter. I can’t even say that it wasn’t meant to be because it feels, to me, like it was meant to be. Things beyond my control took over and it didn’t happen. I can’t moan too much because in the end an incredible family in Miami raised her. On Tuesday, we all sat together to watch her graduate from high school.

On the first day I met her, I immediately gained two goals in my life. One was to watch her graduate. The second is to dance with her at her wedding. So right now, I’m at fifty percent and I am eternally grateful to her family for inviting me into her life.

But back on College Avenue, driving her to school was also a highlight of my day. Every morning I would revel in what her imagination could conjure up. She would invent really cool cars or think of things that only a child with a beautiful mind could conceive. I was in heaven.

The real highlight of my day was waiting for her after school. I would stand around on the street corner with a dozen moms, some of whom didn’t speak English so smiles provided the words we needed as a universal language. Sometimes she would come out of her classes crabby and I would tease her just a little bit until she would stop, put her hands on her hips and say, “Poppa!” with a stern look over her glasses. And then she would laugh. We would both laugh. Sometimes we’d give each other a high five, hers with stubby little fingers on her little kid’s hand.

In the time since, nothing has matched that feeling of contentment. I’m not sure how anything could; I was exactly where I wanted to be. What made it even more special to me was that I was acutely aware that it would not last. Although I had no idea then that my time with her would be so short, I knew that she would eventually grow up and the magic car designs would leave her mind, replaced first by the thoughts of a teenager, and then those of a young adult making her way in life.

I was content to wait. I could envision myself with gray hair, laughing with her at jokes that only we could appreciate. I knew that day would come, when the turbulence of youth passes into a serenity and comfort of adulthood that would allow us to give each other high fives again. I was content to wait because being able to see her grow up and develop her own identity and her own life would have been a privilege of the highest order.

It’s funny, isn’t it? How good times can be so appreciated for their transience but bad times often feel as though they will last forever? Shortly after she left, I had first-hand experience with the latter. Her life wasn’t a joy ride, either. Before we had even met she had fallen through the cracks in the system and she paid a price for it. Before it was over, some of the people involved lost their jobs but that certainly didn’t right any wrongs. As they almost always seem to do, however, things worked out in the end.

On Tuesday, I was sitting in a large event center in Miami pinching myself to ensure it wasn’t a dream that fifty percent of my life’s goals were coming true. As she walked into the auditorium, I saw her turn and wave, with her cute, stubby little fingers on her beautiful young woman’s hand. Her smile lit up my heart. I wiped tears away from my eyes; I was so happy for her and so very proud of her. But some of the tears were out of selfishness; I was acutely aware of what I had missed. She has overcome so much and her smile glows with such brilliance. She has become a remarkable young lady.

In a short few weeks, she will start college and will be well underway towards creating her own life. Driving home, I thought about her beautiful mind and smiled at the memories. I had become, at most, a footnote in her life, but I could not be sad about that because she was so happy. My shadow had found another source of light and that, perhaps, is how it should have been. Although I may not get the high fives when my hair turns gray, I can sleep well at night knowing that she is OK. When it comes right down to it, there is really nothing more important than that.

Singer / songwriter Jimmy Buffett once said that if you don’t write a song about your daughter, you will go to hell. I didn’t have the chance to write a song about her, but I did sing her to sleep at night with a Buffett song named Little Miss Magic. She certainly was, and is, that to me. I had that happiness and contentment once and nothing can take that away. If I am a footnote, I will be so joyfully.

Rounding the broad corner on I-75 from the Everglades to the Gulf coast meant that I was coming home. I have so many happy memories along this coast, enough for my lifetime. My hair is just now starting to turn gray and, if nothing else, I can look back with satisfaction at what I once had. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but I can still feel it. And then my cell phone buzzed with a text message.

“I love you so much. I will always be your little girl.”

I exited off the freeway and re-read her message. Perhaps she was being polite — she is a considerate young woman, after all. But no matter what, as I wiped away tears, I became aware that I am a lucky guy. It’s good to feel content.

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