Keeping Watch

On Wednesday evening, I’m pretty sure Denver International Airport was tracking an Unidentified Flying Missy.

As Heather waved me over to the car, Missy began bouncing in the passenger seat. And bouncing. And … well, you get the idea. She had a cold, she had a seat belt, and at that moment, absolutely none of that mattered.

“Hi, you!” I called out. Missy was too excited for anything but a laugh and a hug. And oh, what a hug!

Longmont was still most of an hour’s drive away. But I was already home.


For a lot of movie fans, Oct. 21 was Future Day, the 30-years-ahead date reached by the time-traveling DeLorean in “Back to the Future II.” For me, it was more like Back to the Present – or maybe Back to Reality.

I had been off to Austin, Texas for four days on my first extended business trip since changing jobs. That meant a lot of planning, and not just for plane tickets and hotel reservations. It also meant dealing with the two biggest unknowns for an out-of-state stay: the health of my wife Heather, and the reaction of our disabled ward, Missy.

As it turned out, we hit a good patch with Heather: the symptoms of her MS began to subside about two days before takeoff. Neither of us were sure how long it would last, but we weren’t going to complain, any more than a pilot gripes about hitting unexpected good weather.

Missy … was a little more complicated.

Mind you, Missy’s dad used to be a traveling salesman. So having a relative away for large chunks of time used to be nothing new. But that had been a long time ago and Missy had always been a “Daddy’s girl” – after Heather and I moved in, one of her most common questions while I was at work was “Where’s he?”

Missy’s perception of time can be interesting. On the one hand, she easily recalls faces from more than 35 years ago. But she can also worry when someone is gone for more than a couple of hours, keeping a vigil in the bay window until their return. Our first real test for an extended absence had been the flood, when I was working 14-to-15 hour days for the newspaper, but even then I was still coming home at night.

Then, she had dived into artwork, her blues and browns evoking the deluge around her. We could only hope to be so lucky a second time.

We weren’t.


“She slept for maybe 2 hours” came a text from Heather on the first day. Part of that was from a head cold, part from waiting up for me.

Further updates: Missy was spending time in her room, except for a little bit of painting and puzzles. She was trying to talk into the telephone. (I had called the other night to reassure her.) She wasn’t taking her bath.

In the middle of it, Heather pointed out the upside. Missy hadn’t done this when other relatives had moved out, or when Heather had taken her big trip to Devil’s Tower. That at least pointed to something special.

“U are very awesome,” the message on my phone read.

It had become a Dorothy moment for all of us, when you realize the value of something through its absence. For Dorothy, lost in Oz, it was the Kansas farmhouse. For others, it might be a lost relative, a longtime job, an old home that had to be left behind.

We were lucky. Ours could be cured in four days, without the intervention of a humbug wizard. And we’d realized more than ever how strong a family we’d become.


Toward the end, Missy began to perk up a little. She worked out her new stereo (especially the volume) and even dressed herself – a bit creatively – for the trip to the airport. Even so, I’m not sure she believed I was coming back until the moment she saw me.

Then there could be no doubt. Or escaping the force 5 hug.

Home was healed. Missy had learned I would come back. And that night as I closed her door, I re-learned the five most magic words in the universe:

“See you in the morning.”

A Face in the Window

As I pulled into the driveway and headed up the walk, I knew what I would see.

Sure enough. A cross-legged Missy sitting just inside the bay window, crayons and tea close to hand. Watching the world. Watching the street.

Watching for me.

I came inside, collected a smile and a hug. “Hey, Miss-a Melissa. Was it a good day today?”

And with that, I know I’m home.

It’s been interesting being on the other side of this. Growing up, I was always the one waiting – though never, perhaps, as intently as my little sisters. They were the ones who would stand in the garage and chant, with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader and the certainty of an invocation “Daddy come home! Daddy come home!”

He always did.

Now, for the past year, it’s been my turn. Granted, I’ve had my lovely wife Heather to return to for long before that, along with the mixed nervousness and excitement of Duchess the Wonder Dog. But Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, is in a class by herself. Sometimes, she may spend an hour or two just waiting in the window, ready for the family to be complete.

It’s a little humbling. Are hugs and stories and “I love you’s” really worth so much?

Of course.

“Parenting and guardianship is on-the-job training,” Mom reminded me over the Mother’s Day weekend. “The main part is consistently being on the job.”

The more I think on that, the more I like it.

In a world that often obsesses on quality time, we often forget the power of big fat chunks of quantity time. The importance of just being there, even if we’re not constantly engaged in enlightening activities that would win the Bill Cosby Seal of Approval.

Looking back on my own childhood, I can remember some great experiences with Mom and Dad: trips to the movies, travel to the Northwest, nights spent reading together. But most of all, I remember them. Knowing they were close, knowing they cared, something more important than any set-piece activity.

I know, it’s not always possible. There may be nights that require working late, blizzards that clog the road home, even military duties that call a piece of the family away for months at a time. The times when someone has to carry you in their heart for a little while.

But it’s a lot easier to carry someone in your heart if you’ve first carried them in your eyes.

The amazing thing – almost frightening, really – is how quickly and quietly it builds. Every morning spent fighting with shoelaces, every evening spent helping with the toothbrush, is another stroke on the canvas. Ordinary moments, even frustrating ones, sometimes.

But give it enough time, and without warning, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

“You go’n to work?” Missy asks, now from the couch.

“Not this time,”I tell her. “Tonight, you’ve got me.”

In the window seat, the crayons wait. Later, we may go there together, to read and smile and watch the world go by.

But for tonight, the vigil is done. Tonight, the watch can wait until the next return journey.

Tonight, I know I’m home.