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Standing Ovations & Birthday Wishes For My Daughter

Aaron McHugh

When she was born, we overlooked her crooked fingers and scissored legs. Our twenty-six-year-old survival mechanisms kicked in to believe, She’s just different-second kid-no big deal. I’m sure everyone around us saw clearly what we couldn’t bear to admit. Our hearts knew what our minds refused to believe.

I remember a conversation with an acquaintance that still stands out twenty years later. He asked, So did you know before she was born? I’d answered this question eleven hundred times, No-we had no idea. In normal flow, without a pause, he factually stated, I guess if you had known, you would have aborted.

Her name is Hadley Rae McHugh.

She’s received two standing ovations. The first one was after she was released from the hospital. I’m sure my wife could tell you why she was hospitalized at that time. The dozens of times all blur together for me. Her loving grade school teachers insisted that Hadley still was included in the musical. Wheelchair-bound, a nasal feeding tube taped to her face, they dressed her in a purple octopus costume. On stage, to us, she looked like she’d just survived a car wreck-swollen and exhausted. At recess, her classmates jockeyed for rights to push her around on the playground. I’m not sure how her little friend won the honors, but our come-back-kid was prominently positioned up front among the other nine-year-old fish in the sea. Every kid, teacher and choked up parent applauded her and our family that night.

I want to go to Australia remains a funny and precious phrase around our house. Somewhere around first or second grade, her teacher annexed a safe space for her students to go when they were having a rough day, “Australia.” Inspired by the kid’s book, Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, at the culmination of his despair Alexander’s feel-better resolution was, I think I’ll move to Australia. Hadley became the official queen of Australia. Within her classroom, next to the stack of library books, if you were feeling sad, or out of sorts, you were invited to leave your chair and quietly go to Australia. Tuck in with Hadley, hold her hand and enjoy the company of her warm, loving presence. I’m sure it worked every time.

The second time

Her second standing ovation was even more significant. At her eighth-grade graduation ceremony, every kid came forward to receive a handshake, a hug, and their honorary certificate saying, well done, you did it. The gymnasium bleachers were filled with parents, grandparents, and siblings feeling the joy and relief of their student’s milestone completion. When all of the graduates returned to their seats, they unexpectedly flashed up a picture of Hadley on the big screen. No one spoke. Without prompt, everyone knew this student wasn’t here to walk the congratulatory line. Bouquets of red roses were given to Leith, the tear-filled faculty hugged us, and hundreds of people rose to their feet to applaud Hadley’s unexpected departure.

The community’s clap wasn’t my team scored the winning goal kind or a quiet, polite golf clap. Their honorarium claps were saying something like, We saw you. We heard you. We laughed with you. We cried with you. We often didn’t know what to do or say to you then, but we do now. Well done girl.

When I think back to his assumptive question of aborting her, I go back to Australia and reflect on how our daughter impacted the world, and transformed my family and me by never speaking a word, stealing the show as a purple octopus, becoming a queen of quiet safe places and being celebrated for skipping her graduation.

Happy twentieth birthday little girl. I love you and miss you. The wealth of my life has forever increased because of you.

Tell Jesus thank you from me.