By William J. Dagendesh
The following is an excerpt from the reporter’s as of yet published book “Watercolor Sky.”
By opening my eyes to my workaholic nature, a child saved me from pursuing a behavior that could have destroyed my personal life.
However, I don’t know if the child was real or if I imagined her to be real.
On Dec. 20, 1996, I was on a plan taking me home from the Naval Air Facility in El Centro, Calif., to Corpus Christ, Texas. I was serving in the U.S. Navy at the time and I had not been home in six months. Soon I would smother my children with hugs and kisses, play Christmas music, sip hot chocolate and wrap presents.
I was lost in thought when I heard what sounded like the coo of a dove. I turned to see a girl of about 5 or 6 years-old standing in the aisle beside me. The girl had crystal blue eyes, a peaches and cream completion, and blonde curls which tucked inward under her chin. She wore a white jacket, pants and sneakers, and a red bow in her hair. She clutched a sprig of mistletoe in her right hand.
“Do you know who Jesus is?” she asked me. Her question startled me and I looked around the cabin for her parents, certain I was being watched. Surely, they would want to keep their eye on the stranger to whom their daughter was talking. However, I didn’t see anyone looking in our direction.
“Do you know who Jesus is?” the girl asked again as she tugged at my uniform sleeve.
“Yes, I do, He is the son of God,” I replied. She nodded her head and smiled.
“Do you Jesus is watching over you and your four children?” She asked.
Her question made me bolt upright.
“How did you know I have four children?” I asked the child. Instead of answering my question, she pressed me for information.
“Do you know Jesus wants families to be together on His birthday,” she continued.
Her questions and command of the English language impressed me.
“OK, who are you, really?” I asked as I looked around the cabin, convinced this was a joke. I mean, it had to be a joke. What else could it be?
The child put her hand on my wrist and nuzzled closer.
“Promise me you won’t work when you’re home, and that you will spend every moment with your children,” she insisted.
My curiosity turned to uneasiness.
“Who is this child, and why is she asking me these questions?” I asked myself.
The child continued to stare at me, and my uneasiness gave way to concern. There I sat, a 6-foot, 200-pound military man who had been trained to defend himself in combat. However, instead of feeling powerful and in control, I felt like putty in the hands of this youngster.
“Is she a terrorist?” I wondered. “Terrorist organizations recruit children and target military personnel.”
Questions danced in my mind as I stared at the child.
“Who are you, really?” I asked the child, my voice wavering. However, silence was all I heard.
“Well?” she asked.
Her question forced me to reflect on my workaholic behavior.
Sometimes I spent my weekends at the office. When I wasn’t working at the office, I brought work home. Once, I was so immersed in my work I didn’t realize my wife, Peggy, and the children went shopping until after they returned two hours later. I worked morning, noon and night 365 days a year.
I knew there was more to life than paper and pen. However, it seemed I could never satisfy my hunger for work. I savored my work as one does his/her favorite food. The more I worked, the more I starved for work and I could never satisfy my hunger.
That was only the beginning of what followed.
In time, my workaholism increased to where I worked on holidays, too. Worse yet, is I had stopped exercising and my muscle tone got soft. Little sleep, coupled with no exercise and poor diet, started to affect my health.
The newspaper world was my passion, my addiction. No, it was an obsession, and it was gnawing at me like an incurable disease.
One day, a heated argument developed between Peggy and me. Like acid bubbling beneath a wine cork, her anger fumed and she lost her composure. She was desperate to reach me mentally, and her desperation showed.
Being a good provider was not enough, Peggy said. I needed to spend quality family time with her and the children, she said, and she was challenging me to accept and correct this deficiency.
“You work with newspapers 24 hours a day,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “When are you going to make time for the rest of your life?”
Silence filled the room. Moments later, Peggy walked out of the room and closed the door softly behind her, leaving me to the prison I alone had created.
In a surreal moment I envisioned myself standing before scores of people awaiting induction into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s top workaholic. However, people were not cheering, but reprimanding me for what I had become. I wasn’t a bad person, but was someone who had derailed. It was time for me to get my life back on track.
Return to reality
During the rest of the trip home, I decided that work would no longer dominate my life. I promised myself to work when at work, and to relax and enjoy family time when at home.
However, who was this child? How did she know me? How did she know I have four children? Was it coincidence? It was if she could see into my soul.
I promised the girl I would never again bring work home or neglect my kids. The girl stuck the mistletoe in my hand, and disappeared down the aisle.
As I slipped the mistletoe into my shirt pocket, I reflected on the words we exchanged. Although the experience had made me feel uncomfortable, I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my heart.
As the plane made its descent, I asked a flight attendant to locate the girl to whom I had spoken. I wished to thank her for our conversation. The flight attendant checked her manifest, and said no one fitting that description was onboard.
“But… I just spoke to her,” I said. Surely, I wasn’t imagining this… Or was I?
The flight attendant searched each seat as she walked up and down the aisle, but found nothing.
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “I know she didn’t get off the plane in mid-air.”
After the plane pulled up to the gate, I unbuckled my seat belt and inched my way to the cabin door. I waited until the last passenger disembarked the plane. However, I never saw the girl again.
I couldn’t help but wonder if I was losing my grip on reality. Do I need professional help, I asked myself.
Moments later, Peggy and our children met me inside the terminal. I scooped up our daughter, Cathryn, 5, in my arms and held her tightly.
“I missed you, daddy,” Cathryn said as she threw her arms around my neck. “Promise me you won’t work while you’re home.”
Pausing momentarily to take in my daughter’s request, I assured her I would be work-free.
“This is for you, daddy,” she said as she handed me a sprig of mistletoe. I looked into my shirt pocket. The sprig of mistletoe the little girl gave me was still there.
Was the youngster a product of my imagination? Was she a spirit? I may never know. And, it doesn’t really matter. On that day I learned to never take my family for granted. The recent shootings in Tucson, Ariz. showed us our family can be taken from us in the blink of an eye, changing forever the lives of those who knew and loved them.
I can’t bring back those precious family moments I lost to work. However, I am creating memories every day – memories that far outweigh any professional goal, thanks to a child who at 40,000 feet in the air inspired me to look down.