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Last Word: Thirteen


by Joe VanDerZanden

Thirteen scared the hell out of me. A parent hears stories. The first indication that something had changed came a few weeks after her birthday. I was tasked with escorting her to the mall in search of suitable gym clothes for school. When she emerged from the fitting room with a rejected armload of brightly colored shirts and shorts, I asked if she’d found anything that might work. Her monotone reply was chilling: “Does it come in black?”

Now a card-carrying teenager, she basically just sleeps, eats, and reads. She reads a lot. I suspect the reading is part of the problem. From early on I thought it would be neat to teach our child to read and talk. Somewhere along the line we swung violently from Goodnight Moon to Poe. She now speaks with the agility and speed of a college debater, often faster than my forty-ish mind can decode. She deftly sprinkles in big words, too. “Dad, please understand that is purely my idiosyncratic nature that compels me to eat a slice of pizza with a knife and fork.” I blame myself. Too much Scrabble too soon.

I feared the train was going completely off the tracks when she hung floor-to-ceiling black velvet drapes over the windows in her room, painted her desk black, and accessorized with a black comforter. She wants a pet snake.

Despite this trending toward Goth lite, there is a kind and generous heart under her baggy black hoodie. It shows when she volunteers each weekend at an equestrian center that provides therapeutic services for people with disabilities. With four years of experience there, my daughter is considered a seasoned veteran among the volunteers, compassionately guiding horses and horseback riders through their challenging therapy sessions. The patience and poise she demonstrates is remarkable. I am envious of her gift.

Some of the riders have little or no muscle control in their legs or arms and require a backrider or sidewalker, such as my daughter, to assist them as the horse jogs, makes corners, and clears low jumps. My daughter must not only prevent the rider from sliding off the saddle but also serve as the most intimate coach. With a gentle touch and a confident manner, she quietly encourages her riders to perform the tricky maneuvers themselves the best they can. When a rider is comfortable or physically strong enough to trot around the arena for the first time and experiences the exhilaration brought on by controlling a powerful animal, my daughter shares in that joy.

When the riders leave, it’s time for stable chores. She brushes and talks to the horses and slogs through the corral shoveling manure. I once saw her collect crusty dead mice from the dark corners of the barn. She does these less glamorous tasks eagerly and without complaint; the satisfaction on her face is as evident as the lump in my throat.

When her four- or five-hour session is complete, she is always satisfied and pleased despite being a little exhausted. She knows that she pushed herself outside of her comfort zone just a little and is grateful for the challenge. We usually stop on the way home and talk more over coffee (yes, she drinks it black). She recounts every minute of the session in detail and celebrates the accomplishments the riders made.

This is my daughter at thirteen, asserting her independence by proudly rocking a menacing black headband decorated with little red-eyed human skulls. Fourteen is next, still scary but totally survivable, I think. My daughter is passionate and strong. This is what I love about her — regardless what color her fingernails are painted this week.

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