On June 16, 2002, I received the greatest Father’s Day gift ever. Michelle Elizabeth Chalk was born. Thomas had already made me a father, but Michelle made me the father of a daughter. We had a special bond early on. I was the first to hold her and I did not want to let her go. I can remember Patty chastising me that I had to put her down so I could inform our family in the waiting room that she was born.
Patty and I had an agreement that I would do the night feedings. Back then, Patty prioritized her sleep, and I required little sleep. I loved those alone times with my new daughter. I think it was in those early days she wrapped me around her little finger.
It is difficult for any parent to say that one of their children is their favorite. I think we have unique relationships with each child. We can bond on specific issues and we can form conflicts on others. These define our relationship. With Michelle, we had lots of bonding and few conflicts. She was an easy child to parent. This can create the misconception that Michelle was my favorite child, as both Thomas and Robert would accuse me.
Michelle was just so easy for us to get along. We always talk about how kind she was. She was more than just kind. She was empathetic with others. When I talked to her about my experiences, she listened. It was as if she was taking it all in to learn more about me as a person. When I do the right thing, it is often because of a nagging compulsion or obligation. When I watched Michelle do the right thing, it was a genuine interest in the benefits of others. That is the definition of Love, to desire the good for another. That was Michelle.
Since Michelle’s death Patty and I have had a lot of time to be introspective about our daughter. We readily inform others that Michelle was not like either of us. Both Patty and I were, and are mostly introverted. Like our sons, we are comfortable with solitary activities. Not Michelle. Michelle could make a friend easily. Many times we would go somewhere like the swim club, and before we could unload our gear and get comfortable, Michelle would be holding the hands of someone her age she just met, and introduce her new friend to us.
Patty and I were able to live vicariously through the support of Michelle’s extroverted pursuits. There were things that Michelle was good at … singing, dancing, acting, drawing. There were things that Michelle was not good at … mostly sports. She tried every sport, and at the end of the season she would agree that she did not have a passion for it. We were always glad that she tried. I think that was the characteristic of Michelle that I appreciated the best, she tried and gave her best effort.
With our first born, Thomas, we learned about parenting on the job. Among our mistakes were letting him dictate to us his picky eating behavior, and us permitting it. When Michelle started eating sold foods I would call her “My try new things girl.” It was a label that I would use beyond meal time. It was something I think she was proud to embrace. I think it defined her attitude toward life. Life was an adventure to go out and embrace. People were friends to share the adventure.
In our small home, Michelle’s first roommates were her brothers. First Thomas, then Robert. As we slowly made incremental improvements to the home, we made the downstairs room into a bedroom for Michelle. At first she was uncomfortable sleeping alone. She never wanted to admit being afraid. She always worried it would diminish my opinion of her. That was another thing I loved about her. She genuinely cared about what I thought about her. It was mutual. I would wake her up in the morning singing to her, “You are my Sunshine … “
When our children were young we had a nightly routine. I would make dinner. We would eat together. After dinner I would give the children baths in the downstairs bathroom while Patty clean up the dishes in the kitchen. As the children exited the bathroom, Patty would dress them for bed. Michelle was usually the last one, and she would like to spend the time making up stories. We would make up stories about a girl name Michelle that sailed all over the world in her blue sailboat with her pet monkey.
I don’t think there was an animal that she did not love. It was not enough that we had cats, she wanted her own animal to care for. First it was dwarf African frogs, then it was hermit crabs, then it was a dwarf Siberian Hamster. The whole time I knew she was working her way up to a horse. She dreamed big. Based on a commercial that we saw on TV she would dream about being a veterinarian of large animals, driving a pick-up truck with a dog as a companion. She wanted a big dog. She asked me what was the biggest breed of dog. I told her that I think the Irish Wolf Hound or Mastiff may be among the largest breeds. I also told her about my godmother and the Great Danes she had. Those were largest dogs I could remember being around. I think she liked the idea of someday owning a ranch, having horses and dogs, and being a vet. She would indulge this fantasy by watching movies and TV shows on Netflix supporting that type of life. When touring UofL with Thomas, she saw a door that said “Equine Business”, and started thinking about that as a career path. Whenever possible she would persuade us to facilitate horseback riding opportunities. She would talk to the employees of the trail rides and stables and inquire about their background and what led them to what she dreamed of doing.
Every year Father’s Day would be overshadowed by Michelle’s Birthday. I would not have it any other way. Michelle brought me so much joy each day. She was my sunshine when skies were grey. She is missed by many. We are all better off having known Michelle. Even now, she challenges us to live our lives in her memory. To recognize what is the right thing to do, to do it not out of obligation, but instead out of love for another. To live free, like Michelle.
Since Michelle’s death, we have had two messages. One for parents and one for children. To parents we say, “Do not take your children for granted. Tuesday, August 1, 2017 started out as just an ordinary day. In the blink of an eye, your world can be turned upside down. Be careful of what you may regret having done or failed to do.” To children we say, “Do not take life for granted. Your own or anyone else. If anything happened to you, you will be missed. Be kind. Do what is right. Love freely. Live a life without regrets.”
It is still hard to accept Michelle’s death. It does not make sense. It is a futile pursuit to ask, “Why?” Instead, it is much more productive to celebrate the life that Michelle lived. This is easier to say than to actually do. Talking about Michelle helps. As Parents, Patty & I have over 15 years of watching Michelle discover and exercise her talents. We would often imagine the woman she would become. A woman that we will never get to see blossom. Instead we visit her grave. We imagine her soul in heaven. We are comforted in the hope of reuniting with her someday. We miss Michelle, as I know many of you do too.
For a recent Father’s Day, Michelle made me this insert for a drinking cup. Earlier that year I had introduced her to the TV show, “A Different World.” You may recognize the lyrics to theme song of the show.