David Weiss, May 23, 2016
“You are a wonder.”
It’s no real spoiler to reveal these as the final words in the book. I mean, it’s titled Wonder after all (by R.J. Palacio, Knopf, 2012). Written for a middle-school and junior high audience, Wonder is the alternately humorous and touching tale of a 10-year-boy’s journey through fifth-grade. It’s also perfect for reading out loud on a long car ride, which we’d just done. All 320 pages in seven-plus hours, from Indiana through Illinois on into Wisconsin. We turned the final pages just a few miles shy of Minnesota.
My, but the miles flew by as we followed August Pullman’s saga, but that doesn’t begin to explain my wonder as we finished the book.
What is “wonder” anyway? Something not easily explained. Something that, even when explained, nonetheless exceeds the explanation. As when you give a scientific accounting for why a symphony “soars” or an explanation for why a painting becomes a “masterpiece.” Tone, melody, key. Symmetry, shadow, color. They can offer reasons, hinting at neurological dynamics or perceptual subtleties, but they can’t convey the experience of beauty, the awe of wonder.
And the truth is, as I glanced over to my reader, WE were the wonder—this young woman and me.
Laura, my travel companion and faithful reader, recently turned 35. Our lives crossed in my college classroom when she was 17 years and 8 months. She’d just turned 18 when, at the end of May 1999, facing a summer far from the Dominican Republic and a college cafeteria closed for two weeks before summer school began, she appeared on the threshold of my office door, hungry for food and family. That evening I fed both hungers: with buttered noodles—and my son, Ben. She was glad for both.
That summer, spending time with me, Ben, and my daughter, Susanna, Laura became informally, casually, undeniably, and wondrously part of my family. Sometime before the end of this year she’ll reach another threshold: our lives will have been interwoven by love for over half her lifetime.
Who knew that beyond that first bowl of buttered pasta, there lay so much? Such things are not “supposed” to happen. I have plenty of former students with whom I remain friends. Several with whom the emotional bond has grown deep. But none whom I regard as daughter, or who regard me as father. Except Laura.
After her graduation in 2002, and my departure for a new life in the Twin Cities that same summer, our lives could have easily drifted apart. And they did ebb and flow over the next several years. But through my divorce and remarriage and blending a new family, she was there. When Family Court deemed me expendable in my own daughter’s life, Laura’s ears cradled my wails on the phone as I drove home forlorn.
Similarly, through her marriage and divorce, I was there. Later, when she called to tell me she had found love, I was the father who listened with joy and no small measure of protectiveness. When she called again to tell me she was pregnant and was determined to be an unmarried mother, I was the father who offered her my happiness, even while anxious worry rose behind my cheer. I listened for hours. Held her tight across the miles, across the years, and occasionally in my arms.
Three years ago she came to live in my home for a year, bringing her fiancé and 7-year-old son along. Because: family. Now, married and in their own house, they live just a couple miles from us. Included in every family gathering. Her son counted among our 8 grandchildren, a cousin alongside the rest of our growing brood. Laughter and tears shared in abundance. And. So. Much. Love.
Seventeen years ago she met my parents. They saw the joy she brought into my home after a very painful divorce, her presence a healing salve especially for my children. They quickly claimed her as a “granddaughter of the heart.” Although they rarely see each other, the fondness has been mutual between them. For seventeen years.
Which brings me back to the book we had just finished reading.
Last Christmas, with my mother’s memory noticeably fading, I committed to making a trip to see my parents every other month beginning this year. I want to treasure shared memories with Mom and fashion a few more new ones before everything is said and done. And to offer Dad some closer company on this stretch of the journey. In January Margaret and I went. In March, Ben and I traveled together. And this past weekend it was Laura, former student and present daughter who made the trip with me.
I did not father Laura in a biological sense, but over the past seventeen years I’ve fathered her, in an almost deeper sense. And, although we don’t use the word this way, she has just as much “daughtered” me as I have fathered her. It did not begin as some grand intentional choice, but rather a series of accumulated little choices affirmed in retrospect as the stuff that makes a family out of thin air.
So as we drove home to Minnesota after sharing a long weekend with my parents, as this daughter of mine read to me for seven-plus hours a book that concluded with the words, “You are a wonder,” it’s hardly surprising that I would look over at her and think to myself, indeed, you are. Both of us, really. Together. Family.
David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”