She entered this world like a starlet at her Hollywood Premiere–the center of attention and fashionably late. Her name was agreed upon and in lights even before her mother and I were married, needing only the formality of her conception and birth to announce it to the world.
“A rose,” I explained to Sally is the most perfect flower in the world. Ah, but a dusty rose is something just short of perfection.” To the annoyance of close friends and family we kept the secret of her name until she arrived.
As she was emerging into Dr. Treiger’s waiting hands that February afternoon in 1989 I assumed we had a son,; a beautiful, well-endowed baby boy. Only after the doctor announced “You have a daughter” and the confusion wore off did I realize how deceptive an appendage a longish umbilical cord could be. As I held her shivering in a towel I turned to Sally’s mother, Betty, who was there to witness this miracle and spoke her name for the first time. “This is your granddaughter, Dusty Rose O’Connor.”
Today, February 25, 2021, is the Thirty-second Anniversary of the day Sally and I entered into the Sacrament of Parenthood. One score and twelve years ago Dusty Rose O’Connor landed on our shores like the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock . . . and changed EVERYTHING.
In honor of this day, I want to share something I wrote to Dusty twenty-seven years ago on her fifth birthday. It’s a letter where I tried to put down everything I was feeling. Decades later the feelings haven’t changed a bit.
I did not know I would be so in love with you.
Holding you as I did in those precious moments of new life, seeing your brave first attempts at bringing oxygen to your tiny lungs, having counted there were two or ten of everything there was supposed to be two or ten of, I honestly had no idea what God had in store when He gave you to us.
Oh, I knew our routine was completely shot, that life as your mom and I knew it was changing forever. I knew that each selfish impulse we experienced must now pass through a rose colored filter to become “selfless.”
You responded to my voice right away. You were crying in my arms when I spoke your name and you became very quiet. When your mom was carrying you I used to lift her shirt and tell corny jokes to her belly—just so you’d know me and what I stood for the moment we met.
Your mother would sing to you in the womb for the same reason. And when I handed you to her for the first time she sang a lullaby we wrote:
When the flowers all lay sleepin’
And the trees have all gone bare
I’ll plant you a garden of stars up where
The harvest I’ll be reapin’
Will be fairy tales come true
And my happy ending is you
When she sang you got quiet again. It seemed as though you knew you were truly safe and loved.
They took you from us so I went to the nursery and spent over an hour gazing at you through the window in stunned silence. It had always been my belief that all kids are kind of goofy looking when they are born and that most gradually grow out of it. I pressed my nose against the glass (I know it’s a cliché but I actually did it!).
I couldn’t help but notice that in a sea of goofy looking babies with strange matted hair and unfocused eyes, you were calm, serene, perfectly content with your lot at that moment. Yours was a royal presence amongst commoners. And you were my flesh and blood.
Only now, looking back years later through old photographs am I amazed to realize just how goofy looking you really were in your first month. Your hair was fuzzy and spiked, your eyes were all over the place, but for the life of me I couldn’t see it! In my eyes, you were the standard by which all beauty was measured.
I think that must be how God sees us. We are, all of us, babies in His nursery–spitting up our lunches, crying when we’re not fed on time, fouling our lives and expecting Him to clean up the mess. He sees the promise and overlooks the obvious flaws. We are, however imperfect, His children and He cannot help but love us. I never understood so much about the Father’s love until you joined our family.
Now, suddenly, you’re five years old. I know it’s silly to ask of someone your age but “Where did the time go?” One minute I’m standing before a congregation in Fresno regaling them with a praise report that our daughter finally turned the corner on potty training, the next you attain a true rite of passage as you hit the height sign in Disneyland which finally allows you access to all the big kid’s rides. It used to be such a small world, Dusty.
You have become one bright, funny kid, my Daughter.
And let me confess I have always encouraged the humor. When your commentary on the aftershocks (in light of your mother’s explanation that earthquakes are God’s way of talking to us) was so on target (“I guess God’s not done talking yet.”), when your understanding of video technology does not always cross over into other areas (“I’m tired. Can we put this game of Candyland on pause?”), when your mind confuses a small injury and mixes the metaphor so wonderfully (“Daddy, I hate it when my bottom has a headache.”), I can only laugh while I’m bursting with pride. What else is there to do when you’re a writer and your child is eminently more quotable than you are?
And yet when I tell you how funny you are you screw your face into a big frown, fold your arms in a huff and announce, “I don’t want to be funny! I want to be serious—like Mommy!” Sorry, Kid. Call it a gift or call it a curse but it’s in the genes and you are a kick in the pants without even trying.
I look at you, Dusty, and hear the first line to the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song:
Who can turn the world on with a smile?
When I think about what makes you special to those who know and love you the reason may not be so obvious at first—superficial attributes may cloud the field of vision. But I’ve been studying you for some time and I think I know the answer. It’s your heart.
When you were eighteen months old we took you with us to the very first Improbable People Ministries concert. You were just walking and talking a little at the time. After the service a woman came over to Mommy and was relaying how something similar had happened in her life. Without warning the woman burst into tears.
Mom and I weren’t quite sure how to handle this, being new in ministry, but you reached out from your perch in your mother’s embrace and put your arms around the woman’s neck, hugging her for quite a while. It proved to be exactly the healing touch she needed that morning.
A couple months ago you saw the picture of a Bosnian woman, decimated by the ravages of hunger, her dark flesh clinging tightly to her bones. She looked more like a skeleton with eyes than a human being and, admittedly, you were a bit frightened at first. But you asked your mother about the woman and why she looked the way she did. Mom told you she was hungry and did not have any food. We tried to go onto other things but you kept bringing up the woman. You wanted to know if we could take her some food.
Your mom and I thought it was cute that you wanted to do that, but we are adults and are generally hardened to such severe images. It’s just not practical to go to the refrigerator, take out some lunch meat and send it overseas. But you surprised us in your persistence. You kept asking if the lady had food yet. And we couldn’t honestly tell you that she did. And then you blew me away, Dusty. You asked if you could empty your Big Bird Bank in which you’d been saving gift money for years. How could we refuse?
So you and I rolled pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, took them to the bank and bought a money order. You told the clerk with some excitement how you were sending this money to the hungry woman in the magazine, but he couldn’t have been less interested. That day you sent twenty-eight dollars to a woman you don’t know in a country you’d never heard of. You’re not likely to meet her anytime soon, Dusty. But I sure hope she gets a chance to thank you in heaven.
If your heart for people is commendable, your heart for God is amazing. Your mother and I bought you a book last year called “What Would Jesus Do?” The story is about a town of people who are not as close to God as they think they ought to be. They decide that for a year they will seek the Lord’s will in any and all situations by asking themselves the question “What would Jesus do?” before acting. After reading the lessons in this book several times you have taken it upon yourself to incorporate into your life (as you call them) “Those four special words.”
Last year when we were touring in Minnesota you went out and caught our friend Dave sneaking a cigarette in his own garage. As you approached him you held up four fingers. Dave asked you what the fingers were for and you told him “Four special words: What would Jesus do?” He felt sheepish about the cigarette, knew it wasn’t good for him and put it out. Later Dave told me he felt he had heard directly from God—such was the impact of your sincere resolve.
I can honestly say I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those four fingers. When your mother and I come anywhere close to a serious discussion or argument, you flash the fingers like a badge from God. You don’t even say a word anymore. But it’s your reminder that we need to treat each other with the love of our Savior. And, of course, you’re right!
Now there’s news that another life is coming into our family and it’s going to affect you in ways you can’t even imagine. Pretty soon you won’t be “The Baby” anymore but “The Oldest.” You and I have that in common. Mom and I are going to count on you more than ever in things like keeping your room clean, doing as you’re told the first time, and, yes, probably even holding and feeding your new brother or sister from time to time.
I have a feeling you’re going to be in your glory as a big sister. Already you’re opening Mom’s mouth and looking down her throat to see if you can catch a glimpse of the little one. Already you’re saying goodnight to Mommy’s belly. Already you have named your sibling: Kella if it’s a girl, Brancho if it’s a boy. These are both wonderfully creative names, though I do think I may have to curb the Marx Brothers videos for a while.
In this time of change you may feel a little bit abandoned. As our attention shifts to the baby I suppose it’s only natural. Mom is going to have a hard time in the first couple of months feeding and sleeping with the baby at odd hours. You and I are probably going to be spending a lot more time together. And you know something? I’m kind of looking forward to that. I’ve been hearing about this “Daddy’s Girl” syndrome for a long time and I’ve been waiting for it to kick in.
It’s time to close now, Dusty. Mommy has this thing about deadlines and I’m already two days late. (That’s early for me.) You know a thing or two about missed deadlines. You were three weeks late yourself.
Happy Birthday little girl. What can I tell you that will mean anything to you at five? Love your family, love your friends, love your enemy’s friends, and love yourself. These will all come in handy in the time ahead. Most of all—keep loving God. And, hey—don’t grow up so fast that you leave your old man in the dust.
I would have written this sooner, Dusty, but I did not know I would be so in love with you.
Always here for you,