Yesterday we were driving to Kankakee to meet the newest member of The General's family, a little blue eyed baby girl that would change all of our lives forever. I was 18, just a couple of days removed from my high school graduation.
Yesterday she was learning to walk, starting to talk, smiling with the light of a thousand suns. I was at the University of Illinois in my first year of college and from that distance soaked up every picture that arrived in my mailbox and took advantage of every opportunity on trips home to love on this little ray of sunshine.
Yesterday she was celebrating her first birthday. The General and I spent what seemed like hours at Toys R Us searching for the perfect gift. I had just finished my first year of college and was happy to be home where I could spoil her even more frequently.
Yesterday she was welcoming home a baby brother, making sure that even though there was a new kid in town the spotlight would never stray from her for long. Standing in front of the crowd that always gathered with eagerness and joy, we watched her sing from her makeshift stage and marveled at the little girl she was becoming. I was home on Christmas break and couldn't get over how much she had grown up.
Yesterday she donned her school uniform and set out for kindergarten. Standing in my grad school apartment, looking at her first day of school picture, almost took my breath away. How can she be old enough to be starting school? It's impossible.
Yesterday she came to the bridal store to pick out her dress for her role as flower girl in our wedding. We had several picked out, and she tried them on without argument or protest. Standing with her in that little room, she looked to me and asked, "Which one looks the most like yours?". I pointed then listened as she immediately said, "That's the dress I want". My heart melted again for this little girl that I loved so much.
Yesterday I went to watch her swim in a meet in her inaugural year of swim team. I was hugely pregnant, totally uncomfortable sitting on the concrete pool deck in the heat of summer, and scared to death that I was going to have to jump into the pool to save my niece, the little engine that could that flailed through the water trying with all her might to make it from one end of the pool to the other. Yesterday she wore glasses. Yesterday she had her first communion. Yesterday she was confirmed. Yesterday she wore braces. Yesterday she was small enough to snuggle into my lap.
Yesterday she seemed instantly huge as she held her new cousin, my first daughter. Yesterday she took my daughter's hand and kept her safe as they played outside at Big Papa's house. Yesterday both of my daughters looked to their oldest cousin with love and admiration, and I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer that my girls would learn from their cousin's lead. That they would become the kind, smart, compassionate, helpful, loving, generous, responsible, faithful, patient girl that they looked up to so much.
Yesterday we were sitting in Dan & Julie's living room, watching and listening as Amanda talked about her fears as her oldest child was about to embark on her first year of high school. It will be some of the greatest years of your life, we told Rachel. Stop worrying - she'll be fine, we told Amanda. I looked to my own daughters and thought, "Man, I'm so glad my girls are still little. High school seems so far away!". I didn't know then how wrong I was.
Yesterday I walked into a high school natatorium to watch Rachel in her senior night swim meet. Armed with my camera and flowers, I was not ready for the emotion that hit me the moment she walked across that pool deck with her parents on either side. I looked to my right and saw her senior night poster - a current picture and a smaller picture of her first year as a participant on the swim team and I basically lost it. "She can not be this old," was all I could think. "That little girl in that picture in the corner? That was just yesterday!"
And now there's today.
Today she is the age now that I was the day she was born Today the little baby that stole the hearts of us all is graduating from high school. She will walk across that stage as class Valedictorian, her future as bright as the light that shines from behind those brilliant blue eyes. She carries herself with poise in every challenge she accepts; she exudes a maturity beyond comprehension for a young woman yet to conquer the world. She is still the model that I hope my daughters hold close to their hearts for what can be accomplished through hard work, dedication, faith, kindness, and loyalty.
I will likely embarrass myself this afternoon as she accepts her diploma. I'm a mess right now just anticipating it. I hope you know, Rachel, that my tears are not of sadness but of pride for the incredible woman that you have become. My heart is bursting with joy at all you have accomplished already and soaring at the certainty of how much farther you will go. I've said it before, but it bears to be repeated: it is an honor and privilege to be your aunt and I'm so grateful for all the moments that you have allowed me to share with you along the way.
To you, on your graduation day, I offer you the most heartfelt congratulations and best wishes on this next life adventure. We love you so very much.