Saturday morning I noticed what I thought was a gigantic plastic bag plastered to the end of my driveway. I didn’t think much of it at first, other than to say to myself, well, there’s another piece of trash that has found its way to my yard, I guess I’ll be the one who has to pick it up.
Which I did not do. Not at first.
So it sat there in the rain for a while.
In the afternoon the rain slacked off, and during one of my treks from the front door to the car, headed off to shuttle my daughters to their various activities, I saw it again. I thought again about how it had become one more chore on my to-do list.
Then I noticed it had writing on it.
When I came closer I saw that it wasn’t plastic at all, it was thin, wax-coated paper, tangled with a bit of twisted wire. You had written on it, which is how I know your name and why you sent that lantern off in the first place.
You wrote “Love you Dad Miss you so much” and then a heart, almost but not quite careless, and then your name.
I thought about this a lot during the day. I thought about you, and your dad, and how something happened, and you’re not together now. I assumed that your father has passed away. I thought about this as I picked up my middle daughter from ballet. As I took my eldest to youth group. As I tucked my youngest into bed for the night.
I debated whether you’d want to know where your sky lantern ended up. I wondered if you had sent the lantern up, sending a message to your dad and hoping for one back, and if you would prefer to believe that it went up, up and never came back down. I wondered if you preferred to think it had found a place in a constellation rather than torn and flattened on my driveway.
Then I wondered if maybe, somehow, your lantern landing in my front yard was a sort of answer from your dad, because I’m a dad, too. And your message stuck in my heart. I know a day is coming when my three girls won’t have an easy way to get ahold of me. They won’t be able to crawl in my lap while I’m reading, or send me a text, or shout for me from upstairs. They won’t be able to call or send me an email. I can imagine they, too, might send a sky lantern. Or leave me some flowers and talk to a shiny square stone with my name on it.
I thought about my kids, writing a note to me on a sky lantern and sending it off. I knew immediately that if it was my kids, and their sky lantern, I would want the father who found that lantern to tell my kids a few things.
So, here it goes, Steph. If I were your dad, here’s what I would want to say to you. Here’s what I’d want to say to my own daughters:
I have always loved you.
From the first moment I held you I knew there wouldn’t be a deeper love in my life. There’s this fierce protectiveness that settled in, and I knew I would give anything to keep you safe, to provide you a good life. We had our moments. We fought sometimes. I did stupid things. I made mistakes, and so did you. But no matter what happened, I loved you with a deep, unalterable, unending love that surprised me, because I had never felt anything like this, ever. I know I told you I loved you… more than once. But in retrospect it wasn’t often enough, could never be often enough to express the depth of my love. There were these moments, sometimes, when I watched you and you didn’t know. You’d be sitting on the couch, or doing the dishes, or working on homework, or singing some ridiculous song with your friends, and I’d have this sudden rush of affection for you. But I let you keep going. I didn’t want to interrupt you. I wish I had taken one more moment to say it one more time. I know you know this, but I will say it again: I love you. So much. Don’t ever doubt it. Past, present, future. Always.
I am immensely proud of you.
Kids wonder if their parents are proud of them. I know, that’s natural. Maybe it’s because I love you so much, but I’ve always been proud of you. I was so pleased when you said your first word. When you stood up. When you walked. Now look at you. Writing sentences on sky lanterns! Okay, I know writing a sentence is not terribly impressive, but you have to understand that you’ve grown from this tiny bundle who couldn’t speak or move or do much of anything other than cry and sleep and now you’re this fully formed human being who makes decisions and works and speaks and alters the world as you move through it. That’s an incredible thing. You’ve made mistakes and kept going. You’ve shown love to people around you, sometimes complete strangers. You make the world a better place. You do! Believe me, I’ve bragged about you to plenty of people whether you saw it or not. You’re one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Better than any painting by any famous artist. More important than anything any politician has done. You’re unique, you’re amazing, and you’re my daughter. Of course I’m proud!
Live a good life.
If you can make yourself a better person, do it. If you can change the world for the better, or your family, or your neighborhood, or your state or country then go take care of it. The good life doesn’t always mean the easy life, so don’t be afraid to sacrifice and work hard to build a life that brings you joy. Remember that selfishness rarely pays off the way you think it should. Don’t let work consume you. Make space for family and friends. Laugh. I hope you laugh a lot. I know that’s hard sometimes, and I know life is hard. I know you miss people. I know you miss me. I’m not saying those relationships can be replaced, but find new ones. Find kindred spirits to run through life with you. Eat meals with them. Go see crappy movies and make fun of them. Go watch your friend’s kindergartner play soccer in the rain. Pick adventure over entertainment. Do something meaningful and amazing. Be happy. Build a habit of thankfulness, and a life full of things to be thankful for.
There are these relationships we find ourselves in that drain us constantly. You know the ones I mean. The people who always have a reason why you should do things their way. The ones who imply you’re a bad person because you have your own opinion. The manipulators. The guilt-makers. Don’t waste your life on them. Find people who understand how precious you are, and who aren’t afraid to tell you so. Find people who will say hard things to you because they want you to grow and have a better life, not because they’re trying to control you. Be brave. There are people out there who will love you. You deserve that. Go find them. Don’t let them go. Fill your life with them.
I know your dad would want someone to say those things to you, Steph. “I have always loved you. I am immensely proud of you. Live a good life and be loved. You’re an incredible woman.” I know he would want to tell you that he wishes he could be with you, that he’s sorry you miss him, and that if he could change things to be with you that he would. He would want you to live a full, beloved, beautiful life. I hope you are.
And, Steph, one more thing.
The fact that you love your dad so much is a sure sign of how much he loved you. He’s not here now, but accept the love that comes from the people around you. Let them be his sky lantern back to you. Let them share their love, and let that be a reminder of his. No one will ever love you quite the way your father did, but many people will see in you some of the same qualities and beautiful bits that he did.
Love is as strong as death. As inevitable, as powerful, as eternal. It can’t be escaped. It can’t be avoided. It won’t be forgotten.
And when death is gone, love will remain.
(ETA 11/2015: It has been a full year since Steph’s sky lantern and this letter went out into the world. So much has happened, including thousands of beautiful letters from the readers. Thank you! There’s now a book about Steph, the sky lantern, my family and all that has happened in the last year. I hope you read and enjoy it. You can get the book here.)