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So something new happened today.

My daughter hugged me, and on the way to her school bus looked back and said, “bye dad. luvya.” To date, it stands as one of the proudest moments of my life.

A little background may be in order.

Anna was born into strange circumstances. I fell in love with her mother while a cadet at the Air Force Academy during a long walk in downtown Colorado Springs. 5-months later we found out that we had a baby on the way.

Fear. Happiness. Shock. Hope. Despair. The cocktail of emotions was strengthened with a double-shot of reality – I wasn’t allowed to have a kid. Cadets at service academies will be immediately dis-enrolled if they are discovered with ‘dependents’. And I had already passed the point-of-no-return where I could leave the AF Academy without consequence. 

I had three choices:

  1. Come clean and suffer my punishment – instead of entering the Air Force as an officer complete with a shiny butter bar on my collar and a middle-class paycheck,  I would be given a crappy job as a low-level enlisted man working for the Air Force until my college ‘debt’ was paid off. At the time, it was valued at $330,000, with the actual debt burden sitting at roughly $100K. You didn’t have to be a math major to see that this option was little more than indentured servanthood.
  2. Break up with my girlfriend, and detach myself legally from the child.
  3. Keep it secret, and hope to god no one would find out.

I chose option 3. The next 9-months were tough on me but downright awful for my fiance. The choice to keep it secret meant that all of our friends couldn’t know either, so her world consisted of trips to Safeway, longs shifts as a florist in downtown, and sitting at home trying to keep down food while watching $1 movies from Blockbuster. Trips together in public became covert missions – if we saw someone in uniform, or someone obviously military, we had a standing agreement that we would pretend not to know each other and walk in opposite directions, and eventually meet at my truck in the parking lot. Trips to Babies ‘R Us were even harder – mission impossible stuff.

In order to see my fiance during the pregnancy, I would sneak off-base after-hours, using a different gate each time, and walking back to my room at the wee hours using a different pathway. My well-meaning fellow cadets were encouraged to turn in anyone breaking the rules, and witch hunts were common. And honor code violations meant my best friends could suffer severe administrative punishment (6-months confined to class or quarters, while giving up every weekend marching for several hours per day was common). The Honor Code: “I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate among us anyone that does.” Meaning even if someone knew my situation would be obligated to tell. I told three people in total outside of my immediate family. And if anyone ever asked me a leading question that would put me into a position of lying, I would deflect. One Major asked me point blank, “Nate, do you have a kid?” I answered, “Nope, but I can’t wait to have one.”

Anna Beth Wright came on March 22nd, 2001, 3-months before my graduation. My fiance had my truck that night, so I woke up my roommate to borrow his car, and woke up the one guy that did know to drive me to the hospital. As far as child births go, everything went well. When Anna was born she didn’t cry. She just looked at me. I cried and didn’t smile much … I was fucking terrified.

3-Months later, Vice President Dick Cheney graduated me while the Thunderbirds flew overhead, and I introduced my daughter to the world. A lot of people were pissed off either because I bucked the system, or that I didn’t trust them enough to tell them.

Fast forward three-years.

I’m stationed in England at RAF Lakenheath, losing a battle to alcoholism, working for a man that still tops my list as the worst boss I ever had, and dealing with a cliche cocktail of marriage problems. Then Anna started to change.

She began losing words.

Then she became frustrated.

And then the throwing herself on the floor, epic fits.

We took her to the doctor and the marathon of tests began, from intelligence tests, to hearing tests, to eating tests, to blood tests – it took five people to hold her down long enough to gather those first blood samples. Finally the verdict.

“Your daughter falls under the autism spectrum.”

“What does that mean?”

[insert lengthy bullshit explanation]

“What does this really mean?”

“It means she has something ‘off’ in her brain. No one is quite sure what it really is, so it is categorized under the autism umbrella.”

Within the next year, her mom and I were living separately, and I was granted full custody of Anna, working as a Captain in charge of a bunch of technology projects, while moonlighting with a wireless broadband company. That first year was rough. No day care would take her because she wasn’t potty trained, and her picky eating habits caused all sorts of digestive problems, coupled with all of the other drama that comes with the condition.

After leaving the Air Force I didn’t exactly get an upgrade in career either, taking a 60% pay cut to work for a computer repair shop in Seattle. Eventually I pulled my head out of my ass and learned how to be an actual dad to Anna, and became strong enough to discard most of the shitty advice everyone was giving me.

I fought to get her into a YMCA after-school program (Rosa, Justin and Kevin – love you all), fought with her school to pull her out of the safety of a special needs class to start being included with the ‘regular kids’, and started dragging Anna into public places that were way out of her comfort zone. It was haphazard, but it eventually worked.

I spent over two years saying to Anna, “What did you do at school today?” EVERY SINGLE DAY.

She eventually responded and told me “Art” – it was our first real conversation. I asked a question, she replied.

Then she started to initiate conversation. It only consisted of a few words, she would quote a movie, I would reply usually with another quote from that movie, then she would walk away. That started happening at age 10.

anna-and-jamiedawgAnna is turning 13 next month. This morning I woke her up and she had cracked open her curtain to let the sun shine down on her face.

“Dad, the sun is shining.”

“I know kiddo.”

She dressed herself, did her own hair, packed her bag, ate her breakfast, and headed downstairs to catch the bus. Before running to the bus as she’s been doing every morning for 7 years, she gave me a strong hug across my elbows, glanced over her shoulder and “BYE, luvya dad!”

I’ve been waiting for that for over a decade.

It was worth the wait.

What do you have in your life that is worth the wait?