My daughter surprised me with a change in both thought and philosophy today, something that doesn’t happen easily for her. She is, in many ways, a kindred spirit to me, liking similar music, art, books, all of it. Not that my other children aren’t; they are just as amazing to me, but my oldest, Abbi, has had a hard time in the last couple years trying to decide what every kid her age does: “What do I do with the rest of my life?!”
I’m going to go off-script here and do something I’ve been loathe to do much of in this last year: I’m going to criticize Abbi’s mother. My only prelude to this criticism is to tell you that I loved Andrea beyond anyone I’ve ever met or loved before. She smiled and the room felt brighter. She made me a better man. When she left, the road map to our lives wasn’t anywhere near complete.
And that’s actually just perfect.
I wrote a post on my own blog this week describing this as driving down the freeway or interstate. Yes, it’s the fastest way to get you to your destination, but far from the most interesting. But if you venture off that road, you find the most amazing things. If you exit in West, Texas, you realize the best Kolaches in the state are made at a little group of gas stations. If you go onto Leavenworth Street in the middle of Omaha, Nebraska, there’s an Italian restaurant called La Casa with the greatest Neapolitan cuisine I’ve ever eaten.
My point here is that barreling down the road with only the end goal in mind leaves you empty. You get my metaphor here? It’s the journey here that’s going to make the difference, not the destination.
My wife was a destination kind of person.
Andrea wasn’t always that way. When we met, she was a news anchor/reporter in a small market. She was beautiful, talented, and had dreams of being on TV. But Andrea was obsessed with the end result so when getting the job she wanted became too hard, she took a cue from her father, dropped her dream of being a reporter and went to pharmacy school. It’s a very noble profession; my dad is a pharmacist (and inspired her to go) but honestly, Andrea went because she saw a big paycheck.
She also brought that short-cut philosophy to my kids. Abbi was already starting to worry about where she was going to college and what her major would be at the end of her sophomore year. Andrea wouldn’t even listen to her arguments if she said she wanted to go into acting, drama, or screenwriting and filmmaking – something she loved beyond all belief. We had a lot of arguments over this.
I have always had the other philosophy. I love writing; I love music even more. I had a daughter before I was ever good enough to try and make a go of things so I never tried, but I don’t regret that. I’m still writing, recording and performing when I can. I live vicariously through my brother, who plays with his band, Manoucheri, with whom I sit in whenever I’m near.
I knew Abbi wanted to do something artistic, but kept hearing her mom telling her she had to make money and have a good career. She had no idea what to do so I simply told her, “You’re 17. You’re not supposed to know what to do. You might get to a college and have no idea what you want . . . and that’s okay. Just make sure it’s what you want to do. Make sure it’s good work and fun and you want to do it.” She still struggled with it.
So this weekend I played a video for her. Neil Gaiman, the author of such award-winning and spectacular books as Coraline and American Gods, was the commencement speaker at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. In his speech, he talks about how he never wavered (well, hardly) from his desire to write. He told the graduating class that when things go wrong, you should do what only you can do: make art. Not just that, but your art. Good art. “Your wife runs away with a politician, make good art; your leg gets crushed and eaten by a mutant boa constrictor, make good art; your cat explodes, make good art…” your mom dies because of an unexpected resistant strain or pneumonia . . . make . . . good . . . art.
I did that. In the weeks after losing my wife, I wanted nothing more than to sink into grief. It’s like a drug, a hazy, painful, darkness that envelops you and caresses you in a way you simultaneously hate and enjoy. But once the haze started to lift, I picked up my guitar and started writing. I recorded one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever sung just a couple months later, with one of those songs.
Abbi made the decision for her senior year to change her curriculum and go into advanced drama. Getting in is hard; she had to lobby the teacher, give a scene from a play and then write a letter explaining why she wanted to be a part of the program. Abbi wrote about how her plan was set; she’d go into pharmacy or another medical field. She’d have gladly done it because it made her mom happy, and that was what she was expected to do. But her life was turned upside-down and left in shambles on March 26th, 2011, when her mom died. She lost her home, her school and her friends. Nothing was ever the same again. I wanted to cry.
But Abbi went on to say that she’d never been happier or felt more accepted than when she joined the drama department. She finally had friends at school and was able to be herself, throwing caution to the wind and be who she wanted to be. I saw Gaiman’s influence: she wanted to make art.
Abbi wonders what will happen next, but she looked nervous and excited about the fact that she was taking this leap. The one thing she now knows, beyond everything else, is that she’s not alone, and never will be. “We’re stronger together than we are apart,” is my mantra, and she’s starting to finally see it.
This isn’t, she’s understanding, the year it all fell apart. It’s the year our story begins.
What about you.. do you encourage your kids to do what makes them happy and what they are good at? Or do you urge them to take the safe, short-cut?
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Dave Manoucheri is a writer and journalist based in Sacramento, California. A father of four, two daughters and twin sons, his blog, Our Story Begins is a chronicle of their daily life after the loss of his wife Andrea, in March of 2011. Follow him on Twitter @InvProducerMan.