Wednesday, August 23, 2006

My second chance

How many times have you heard the phrase, “there are no second chances in life?”
It sounds like something your parents say to you when you bring home your first ‘F.’ Or when you are grounded after failing to heed curfew. Or when you are handed a pinkslip after being unable to meet a deadline, never mind your reasons for it.
All I know is that today I was given a second chance and it’s already resulting in memories that will last a lifetime.
I am sitting in room 431 at the Vail Marriott Mountain resort, looking out at some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever witnessed. My nine-year-old daughter Natalie is sleeping in the next room. She fell asleep at 11 p.m., exhausted after an early morning plane ride, a two-hour car trip from Denver, a spectacular mountain ascent in a gondola, swimming, dinner, another gondola ride, microwave popcorn and the movie "RV – all with her Dad.
That was day one
On tap for today? Horseback riding, more swimming and who knows what else? There is still whitewater rafting to experience tomorrow before returning to Chicago and the start of fourth grade.
We weren’t supposed to be here now. This trip was supposed to be a distant memory. True, I have memories but of the nightmarish kind that all parents wish never existed. For this is our second “daddy daughter” trip to Vail. We were here 13 months ago and hoped to do all the activities I mentioned above.
We never saw the outside of the room.
Unlike her father, Natalie is a bit on the reserved side. She doesn’t always wear her emotions on her sleeve, preferring to keep things inside of her. Hurt feelings are released in veils of tears only after constant cajoling from her parents. She has a ton of friends, makes good grades and, like most kids her age, doesn’t have a care in the world.
Except for her stomach.
Last year she started having stomach pains. They’d last anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour, often disappearing after some “couch time.” They weren’t pains from a hypochondriac kid who was simply trying to skip school. They were real and they hurt. But we didn’t know what to do about them.
Like most parents, we figured they would go away.
They didn’t. Instead, they flared up in Branson, Missouri forcing us to cut short a family trip and return to Chicago, where our daughter spent a horrible night in the hospital, enduring countless needles, a tube in her nose, and numerous procedures from doctors trying to get to the root of her problem. Was it an ulcer? Her appendix? Nerves? Something more serious?
The diagnosis? Constipation. “Okay,” we thought, silently rolling our eyes. This didn’t seem like something that could be cured in the bathroom. But we went along with the doctor’s game plan, mixing laxatives in her juice and milk in hopes nature would take away her pains. For awhile, it seemed to work.
Then came our trip to Vail. I had been invited to perform for a bunch of hardware store owners. We decided Natalie was old enough to accompany me. Oh sure, the whole family had tagged along with Daddy when he performed in Orlando, Phoenix and aboard cruise ships. This was different – a part of the country Natalie had never experienced and some one-on-one time with her Dad. Some fathers go through their kids' entire childhood without doing that. In spite of my hectic travel schedule over the years, I’ve always been determined to never look back and yearn that I had spent more time with my children. I have enough friends who are headed down that road.
The morning of the trip, Natalie awoke doubled over. Her tears only seemed to make the pains worse. But we had no choice. “Just get her to the airport,” I thought. “She’ll be better then.”
Throughout the day, my thought process never wavered, except for the location.
“Just get her on the plane.”
“Just get her to the rental car.”
"Just get her to the hotel.”
Unfortunately, the pains persisted all day. We spent our first night in the Marriott without ever leaving the room. Outside, the mountains and the streams beckoned but Natalie lay in bed, her knees pulled up to her chest. She nibbled at two French fries for dinner.
“Tomorrow things will be better,” I hoped. My performance time was 10 a.m. and I was hoping to bring Natalie with me to the show. She would sit in back, wearing a dress we had picked out. It was to be one of her first chances to see, up close and personal, what Daddy did for a living.
It didn’t happen. The next day arrived and she was no better. I was forced to leave her in the room for an hour while I put on a happy face and performed stand-up comedy for hardware store managers. When I returned, she was still in pain but unwilling to tell me where it hurt or whether she was feeling any better. I noticed that she seemed well enough to watch two pay-per-view movies in my absence. Now I was starting to wonder. Is she really sick? Is she nervous about spending time with Daddy and a bunch of adults? Was she nervous about riding a horse? Again, these are the kinds of things parents have to figure out for themselves when their daughter keeps things bottled up inside.
Alas, the pains seemed so real that we packed up, called American Airlines and came home two days early. The entire ride down the mountain, my thought process returned.
“Just get her in the car.”
“Just get her to the airport”
“Just get her on the plane.”
By the time we landed the pain seemed to have subsided (naturally). But we spent the next day in a specialist’s office, who ran more tests and ended up prescribing more “laxative type” medication. Slowly her pains went away but, to this day, we aren’t sure why. Unlike the physicians we saw, Sue and I think Natalie is simply a nervous child who turns little problems into big problems. One year later we see a ton of improvement in her mental state and hope things continue to get better.
When we boarded the airplane last year for our return to Chicago, I promised Natalie we would come back to Vail. But could I make that happen? Any parent knows that a summer with kids flies by faster than a Jennifer Lopez marriage. Look at the calendar the day they get out of school and, it seems, the days are already committed. Soccer tournaments, Fourth of July reunions, All Star games and before you know, it, it’s time to catch the bus for the next year.
I found one weekend where we could squeeze it in. True, there was no comedy performance to offset the cost of Vail (arguably one of the most expensive vacation destinations in the United States, even when it isn’t snowing). And true, our finances were a little tight since my summer is typically the slowest time of the year. But that seemed trivial for a kid who missed out on horseback riding and whitewater rafting and for a dad who missed out on quality time with his daughter. I thought about postponing the trip another year since it seemed I was slamming this one together in an effort to beat the school deadline. But who knows what next year could bring? Natalie could end up on a (dreaded) traveling All Star softball team. Her Dad could be offered a tour opening for a musical act. Worse yet, Dad might be considered a dork by his daughter and not someone to spend FOUR WHOLE DAYS WITH. WITH NO IPOD!
So I am relishing my second chance. As I finish this essay, Natalie is awake, sitting next to me in bed, and polishing off room service pancakes.
Damn, that kid can eat.

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