THE GIRL WITH FOREVER EYES
by John Burnham
I guess I’m finally through it. I don’t expect to get over it, but things are better now. I no longer wish it had been me instead of them.
I remember the tragedy like it was yesterday: One minute we were following our kids home from the lake and the next, I’m standing in front of our car, with the lights of emergency vehicles flashing all around me. I’m cradling that tiny bundle, wondering how she survived a crash that took the lives of my daughter, her husband, and the driver of the other car.
After giving our statements to the police and being cleared by the medical people, we stopped by the kid’s house. Even though we knew they’d never be there again, they seemed to be everywhere. We gathered Lauri-Anne’s crib and other baby things. We’ve never been back.
The room that had belonged to Lauri-Anne’s mother in our house was still vacant. That’s where we put Lauri-Anne’s crib and other stuff. She’s been there since.
During the baby’s first week with us, I was arrested by the difference in her eyes. She was so tiny, no bigger than a minute. And, only a few months old, but she was looking back at me. I moved my head slightly and her eyes followed. I wasn’t imagining it; she was seeing me. Those eyes seemed to not only be looking at me, they seemed to be looking somewhere else too.
There was never any question about who should raise Lauri-Anne. The other grandparents weren’t interested. Our daughters all had their hands full with their own families. And, for grandparents, we were youngish. I never dreamed that I’d be back in the dad role as I approached retirement, but I slipped into it easily. Since my wife, Joan, was a practicing behaviorial psychologist, we’d always shared feeding, burping, changing, and whatever else went with parenting––which, I’d like to add, I consider the best trip on the planet.
Being married to a shrink comes with challenges, especially when your particular shrink thinks that the universe is a living thing, evolving toward self-awareness. She never pushed her ideas on me, but they did surface, now and then in ways that required adjustment on my part. Lauri-Anne hadn’t been with us more than a month when Joan asked, “Bert, do you think the universe is telling us to try it?” The “it” to which she referred comes from the concept that we usually do more harm than good by imposing our opinions on our children—that’s something people seem to learn if they raise more than one child. With our first, we thought we had all the answers. With the second, we weren’t nearly as sure. By the time Lauri-Anne’s mother came along, our vast wisdom was in serious question. Now, grandma was advocating parenting via a minimum of interference. I didn’t have any problem with the idea. By this time, I felt that children were going to be pretty much whatever they were going to be regardless of what I did. The list of things I felt I could provide had been whittled down to one item: good memories.
As the baby’s first birthday approached, Joan asked if we should have Lauri-Anne’s eyes examined. I had continued to marvel at that unique look, but hadn’t said anything about it. This was the first indication that her grannie had noticed it too. She was able to arrange for a complete visual evaluation in a trice. The peadiatrics people also noticed Lauri-Anne’s peculiar way of seeming to look beyond whatever she was focusing on, but pronounced her vision normal in all respects.
Normal was a word to which Lauri-Anne constantly added new meaning. Even our first ice cream cone together was memorable. We were at the park. I got a cone for each of us, grabbed a handful of serviettes (a dad survival skill when treating little people to ice cream) and sat us down on a bench. I put the stack of napkins between us and waited for the mess. I marveled when she started licking the melting ice cream from the edges of the cone instead of letting it run all over. “Need nakin!” she said suddenly while reaching toward the stack between us. It was fascinating to watch her lick and wipe in an attempt to control the melting ice cream — she was such a tidy little creature. I took the cone and showed her how to wrap a napkin around it to keep the melt from running onto her fingers. When the ice cream was gone, she needed minimal mopping up instead of a shower. It was as though she always wore this little sign saying “Why Be Normal?”
When she was around five, we were at a family picnic with our two daughters, their husbands and children. Lauri-Anne ran and played with the other children for awhile but soon came and sat down next to me. (This was usually what happened. She’d tire of children’s games and seek out an adult to talk with.)
“Daddy,” she said thoughtfully, “these others,” (meaning the other children) “aren’t much older than me, are they?”
“No, honey. Why?”
“Well, their mommies and daddies are lots younger than you and mommy, aren’t they?”
“Yes honey. That’s because their mommies are our little girls all grown up.”
“Their mommies are my sisters?”
“Not exactly, sweetheart. Your mommy was also one of our little girls. She was killed when you were a baby. I’m actually your grandpa.”
She looked at me with those eyes. “Grandpa?”
“Yes, and mommy is really your grandma. You can call us grandpa and grandma if it would help you keep things in place.”
She snuggled close and hugged my arm. “No, daddy, you’ll always be daddy to me. I just wondered. I kinda thought it was something like that.”
When our daughters were still at home, it was tradition for me to take one of them out to dinner each week. The girls seemed to relish having dad’s ear to themselves for a whole evening. From the beginning, it became apparent that evenings with Lauri-Anne were going to be anything but traditional. With the other girls, it was mostly a matter of listening. They’d talk a mile a minute with gusts of a hundred and twenty while I listened. The only thing required of me was to make noises indicative of paying attention.
Lauri-Anne, in contrast, expected opinions and dialogue. One memorable conversation went like this: “Daddy, my Sunday School teacher says that the earth is only about six thousand years old.”
“Um, humm, some people think that,” I answered cautiously.
“Well,” she continued, “I asked her about the fossils and stuff. She said the Devil had planted them there to confuse us.”
“I believe that theory is called diabolical mimicry or something like that,” I replied, demonstrating my paucity of theological knowledge.
She cocked her head and played with her fork. “Whatever it’s called, it’s dumb.”
“Uh, how so?” I asked while prodding my reluctant brain to remember things about a subject in which I had scant interest.
“Well, if God created things one way, the Devil would’ve had to change the whole crust of the earth to make it look like this other thing happened.”
I was sure everyone in the restaurant heard the thump of my chin hitting the table. It had been apparent from the get-go that this tad was plenty smart. But this smart? A grasp of geology like this while barely a teen? Sure, we called her the Wikipedia kid but I never expected her to be able to put stuff together like that. “Er, you got a point there,” was my sage reply.
With a twinkle in her eye, she went on, “And, I’ve heard you say, plenty of times, that it’s easier to start from scratch than to try to redo something that’s already there.”
Beginning to feel cornered by my own wisdom, I just nodded.
“So, if the Devil was actually able to do that, it would make him more powerful than God, wouldn’t it?” she concluded dismissively, and went back to working on her mashed potatoes.
After that encounter, I understood her passion. Although she’d study any branch of science or aspect of culture, it was always with an eye toward how it fit into the spiritual picture.
I’d never had much interest in religion, so Lauri-Anne’s bent in this direction was unfamiliar territory to me. I worried that it might make her prey for cults. We were sitting on a park bench, munching hot dogs, when she put that concern to rest. A pair of young men dressed in conservative business suits passed by. Although they were carrying brief cases, they appeared too young to be professionals.
“JWs?” I asked.
“Nope,” she replied around a mouthful of dog.
“They were wearing name tags — probably said ‘Elder something-or-other.’ That would make ’em LDS.”
“How do you know the difference?”
“Difference?” she asked, brushing crumbs from her sweater.
“Yes, between JW and LDS.”
“From the ‘pedia, I guess.” She looked up at me and then her eyes got that “beyond” look. “I feel kinda sorry for people who think they’ve got all the answers. I try to understand them.”
“Sorry for them?”
“They say different things, so they can’t both be right. They must both be wrong.”
That made more sense to me than anything I’d ever heard about religion. I ventured an opinion of my own. “Could that be a good test for any religious group? If they claim to have all the answers, they’ve got to be wrong.”
I got that look for awhile before she answered, “Yup, I guess so.”
That conversation proved to be a harbinger of most discussions to come. Instead of listening to teenage angst about crushes on boys, feuds with other girls, makeup, hair styles, and fashion, I was a discussion partner for her latest research. This beyond-her-years interest in the big questions landed her in hot water more than once.
With tears in her eyes, she handed me an essay she’d submitted in a grade ten class. A huge F was scrawled at the top. I’d reviewed the paper and thought it an excellent presentation, so I requested an audience with the teacher. That sanctimonious individual informed me that no teen could have composed such a concise analysis of the pagan philosopher Celsis’ argument against the Christian philosophy. I saw red but kept it inside. Without knowing it, the old bat had stumbled onto my turf. My field is Information Technology — forensics, to be specific. I resolved to resurrect every source Lauri-Anne had accessed since receiving the assignment. Then, I’d present the list to the school principal with a challenge that the old prune identify which item Lauri-Anne had lifted. That evening, I walked into Lauri-Anne’s room armed with the software I’d need to dissect her computer’s hard drive.
“Daddy, I don’t think we should do that,” was her opener.
Stunned, I asked why.
She fixed me with those eyes that seemed to look at me and somewhere beyond at the same time. “Your list would overwhelm Ms. Gremarche. She wouldn’t know where to start. She’d eventually have to admit she couldn’t prove I’d plagiarized.”
“Exactly. Then, she’d have to grade your paper on internal merit alone. Isn’t that what we want?”
“But it would disgrace her. It could put her pension in jeopardy.”
“That’s not what I want. I don’t want to see her hurt. Besides, I was partly to blame.”
“Ms. Gremarche is a fundamentalist Christian. I should have known a discussion of Celsus would make her feel threatened. A different topic would have been kinder.”
“But she’s supposed to be an educator. Public education is supposed to be value-neutral. She’s got no business inserting her religious bias. She needs to be called out.”
Those eyes again: “Daddy, you know that we all let our convictions affect the way we do things. She’s getting old and probably fearful. She was probably doing the best she can with what she has to work with. I’m ok with the F. I don’t want to make her life any more difficult.”
“But…but,” I lamely protested.
“Daddy, please sit down.”
I parked on her bed.
Again, I saw those eyes looking somewhere beyond me. “Daddy, you know I don’t mind your poking around in my computer. I know you can find out everywhere that I’ve been on the net for who-knows-how-long and probably what I’ve done there. I’m ok with that—I don’t have anything to hide from you. What I don’t want is you using your skills to hurt someone else. It wouldn’t be kind to them and it wouldn’t be good for you. The kind thing is to ignore Ms. Gremarche’s narrow-mindedness. In the grand scheme of things, my getting an F on that paper doesn’t mean squat, while an act of kindness would make this world a better place.”
Right there, I realized those eyes were seeing a picture much larger than mine. I asked her to tell me what she was seeing.
“Daddy, I can’t. I’d like to, but I can’t describe it. There aren’t any words; there isn’t any common experience I can use. All I can say is that it’s beautiful.”
After that, our roles gradually reversed. I became more the student, asking questions instead of giving opinions. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t always talk about her interests. Much of the time we just talked. But even in casual conversation, she continued to surprise. She’d never offered much about what career she’d like to pursue, so I asked.
“Daddy,” she answered, “how can I know what I want to be when I don’t yet know who I am?”
That got me wondering if I really knew who I was. The answer came up negative. It started me on a search for myself. (I haven’t found him yet, but I’m closer because the journey has begun.)
As Lauri-Anne’s high school years went on, I found grasping her current research increasingly difficult. I was reading more than I ever had, but I just couldn’t keep up. Sometime in her junior year, grandma had to take over. She pronounced a couple of Lauri-Annes’s essays equal in reasoning to her own doctoral thesis. Academically, the world was Lauri-Anne’s oyster. One scholarship after another opened up, but she didn’t seem interested in any of them.
During Lauri-Anne’s senior year in high school, Joan was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. There followed a whirlwind of tests and various kinds of therapy, but her capacity declined steadily. One evening, after we had made her comfortable for the night, Lauri-Anne suggested we not turn the T.V. on just yet. It was a signal she wanted to talk.
“Daddy,” she began, “I think I know what I want to do after I graduate.”
This was the first piece of good news I’d heard in months. “Do tell,” I said, brightening.
She looked at her lap and straightened her skirt. It was the first time I can remember seeing her uncomfortable. “Um, I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll begin by saying I’d like to enroll in the local junior college for their fall term.”
I was at once elated and disappointed: elated because she’d be at home a while longer; disappointed because junior college offered nothing for a person with her grade point average. “That’s great, but why?” I responded.
She lifted her head and looked out into the night for several long seconds. Taking an audible breath, she turned to me. For once, her eyes didn’t seem to be seeing anything else. “So I can be with you after we lose Mommy.”
“Wait a minute,” I retorted, “Mom is doing great. The chemo seems to be working. The oncologist had a positive prognosis last time we talked. We’re gonna beat this thing. Mom will have a lot of good years after this is over.” She looked at me with an expression of love and compassion such as I’ve never seen and then those eyes took on that forever look.
She smiled, and said, “Sure Daddy.” Picking up the remote, she continued, “Let’s see what’s on the tube.”
Her decision proved to be prescient. My precious, precious shrink’s last good day was Lauri-Anne’s graduation. We lost her when the summer sun was high. At breakfast, the day Lauri-Anne was supposed to enroll at the junior college, I gave her another chance to opt out. As she sat down, I took her hand and said, “Sweetie, you know that you don’t have to do this.”
“There’s no ‘have to’ Daddy. It’s what we both need and want. We need a year to regroup, to get our respective acts together. That is enough for anyone to have on their plate. Now isn’t the time for either of us to take on an additional challenge.”
After the furor of settling things relative to my Joan’s death—it seems you can’t even die anymore without a plethora of paperwork—was over, we settled into a routine of getting through each day as it came and spending most evenings watching T.V.
We were both right in thinking junior college would present no challenge to Lauri-Anne. I wasn’t aware that she was doing anything other than being absent from the house for a few hours a day. For me, the time became rather pleasant. I read a lot, slept a lot and spent a lot of time thinking. Not being a cerebral creature by nature, the latter was a new experience. I found new pleasure in ruminating on, and putting together, information I’d amassed over the years in my effort to keep up with Lauri-Anne. It was great to be able to talk with her in the evenings about things I’d been thinking during the day. As far as Lauri-Anne was concerned, she found new pleasure in activities like the debating team. As always, her performance stretched the definition of normal. At one particular debate, her team drew the position I knew to be contrary to her personal opinion. After the match, I couldn’t help asking her, “What was that all about?”
“What was which all about?” she asked innocently.
“Look, miss innocence, I know you phrased some of your answers to prompt better answers from the other team. The goal is to win, not to help the other side.”
“But we did win.”
“Yeah, but not by much. You could have skunked that other outfit.”
“Besides, our position was wrong.”
“In the debate game, that doesn’t matter. Winning, and by as much margin as possible, is what matters.”
“Daddy, you and I both know winning is not what matters. Doing a little kindness and providing some food for thought on the right side of the issue are the things that really matter.”
Her constant references to the things that “really matter” were a little like the Chinese water torture. Finally, the drip, drip, wore through the reluctance we all have to confront the larger issues. I began to question if carving a career, raising children, paying off the mortgage, and retiring to the golf course was all there was to life. That’s all my shrink, the scientist, would admit to. Since she was the senior partner in our intellectual firm, I’d always relied on her opinion. She’d always been happy to tell me what I thought about any given issue. Now, I was on my own.
In the spring of the following year, it was my turn to sheepishly ask if we couldn’t postpone the evening vidioting for a little talk.
Obviously pleased, Lauri-Anne responded, “Sure, Daddy. What would you like to talk about?”
“Well honey, it’s about this business of knowing who we are.”
She waited. She wasn’t looking anywhere else.
“I think I’m finally getting what you’ve been saying,” I continued.
She nodded encouragement but didn’t say anything, so I went on. “From where I’m standing now, I’m beginning to see that this matter of discovering ourselves isn’t an issue, it’s the issue.”
She clasped her hands and bounced in the chair. “Oh Daddy, that’s wonderful!”
“Yeah, it feels good, but I’m also feeling a little guilty.”
“How could that be?”
“Oh, you know, I was always a techie. Things were my deal. Ideas never had much appeal for me. I always left that stuff up to mom. Now, I seem to be moving into a realm where ideas are more important than things. The experience is great, but I’m wondering if I’d have ever gotten here with mom around. I feel sort of guilty enjoying something if it couldn’t happen while she was here.”
“Well Daddy, you’ve scored a bulls-eye. You’re right about mom’s role, but there is no reason to feel guilty.”
“You’d better take those ideas one at a time.”
“Sure. Let’s start with mom’s concept that the universe is a living thing, evolving toward self-awareness.”
“I always thought that was a little nuts, but I knew better than to challenge her.”
“Well, far from being nuts, it is the conclusion from some very reputable scientists. Books like The Tao of Physics and The Conscious Universe by people who are scientists, not mystics, lay it all out. Mom got the first part of the concept, but she couldn’t get the rest.”
“That we are part of the process. We each co-operate by finding out who we truly are. She was able to grasp the impersonal aspect, but wasn’t able to internalize it. You’ve been in the same situation all my life. You read a lot about the stuff I’m interested in, but you didn’t internalize any of it—until this last year. I think that sums it up.”
“Humm, yes, I guess you’re right. What about the guilt part?”
“What’s to be guilty about? You’re not responsible for her passing. Relax and enjoy the ride.”
Today, as I watch Lauri-Anne drive off to university, I know I’m through it. I no longer rant about the unfairness of seeing my child die. I can now appreciate that it gave me the privilege of sharing the last eighteen years with Lauri-Anne. I no longer rant about Joan dying when she was too young. I can appreciate that it put me in a position to experience a dimension of life I didn’t know existed. Someday, I might even be grateful for the way things happened, but I’m not there yet. Even though I’m pleased with the results, the method still gripes me; but then, nobody gave me script approval.
Her car is but a speck now. I wonder if visionaries like Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and King had that same forever look in their eyes. Good-bye baby. I trust that someday, you’ll be able to teach the rest of us what you’re seeing through those forever eyes.