People around me must be wondering why I'm getting misty-eyed so often these days. Blaming it on allergies or seeing "Secretariat" might be easier, but the truth tells me it's all about the upcoming birthday of my 11-year-old baby girl.
Twelve is a big birthday in the Wright House because it means baby-sitting gigs, pierced ears if she finds the courage, and a transition at church from the runny noses of Primary to the big, bold world of the Young Women organization.
All of it has her nervous about what awaits. It would have a me a bit anxious, too, except for my favorite memory from her first 11 years: The day she proved she could slay a dragon.
It was a Sunday like most others at our chapel in Oakton, Va. Good messages, lots of warm fellowship. But the speakers? They were unforgettable. Particularly a petite, beautiful young lady standing a hair under 4 feet tall. She was 7 years old.
As is custom in Primaries around the world held each week in more than 100 languages and in buildings of all shapes and sizes, precious children from age 3-11 take turns delivering short talks on basic gospel principles. These angels speak on faith, prayer, temples and families. The words are few, the messages pure.
My own angel was to speak on Heavenly Father's plan. It was not the first time she'd been assigned, but previous attempts were rather unsuccessful, sometimes in very dramatic fashion. If she'd been old enough for her own reality show, it would have been a hit.
There were the fake tummy aches, creatively imagined bug bites, and blank stares from the primary pulpit followed by sobs and a superglue grip on Mom or Dad. The misery always eased outside the room on a welcoming couch in the foyer. Each failure was heartbreaking for all who witnessed it.
When yet another assignment was issued by our Primary secretary — a kind woman with the patience of Job — the pretty, pink half-page flier with her handwritten topic was met with the requisite refusals and crocodile tears.
Speaking in church had become her dragon.
With much coaxing, and by coaxing I mean bribing, and by bribing I mean multiple trips to 7-Eleven, I convinced her to sit her on my lap mid-week, and together we drafted a three-sentence masterpiece. We printed two copies on our trusty Inkjet, one for her flower-embroidered, cloth scripture bag and one for her mother to carry as a backup — just in case.
In our pajamas we practiced the talk every night before bed. Each rehearsal ended with wild applause, hugs and tickles, and five familiar words: "You can slay this dragon!"
Sunday arrived and the drive to church featured yet another pep talk and promises of an extra Rice Krispies Treat after dinner. Though we'd seen this dragon win before, we were cautiously optimistic this was the day it fell.
Primary began on time and without incident. Gorgeous in her favorite dress, my trooper sat terrified in the chair draped with a yellow felt banner marked "TALK." To each side sat other children in the less frightening chairs marked "SCRIPTURE" and "PRAYER."
I stood in the back cradling my 1-year-old son. My older daughter, the one who'd already taken this dragon out and taught it never to return, sat in the first row with her arms folded, eyes fixed on her best friend and partner-in-crime. The increasingly fidgety children sang an opening song, followed by a rousing rendition of "You Had a Birthday, Shout Hurray!" aimed at two little blushing boys.
Cue my daughter. Cue the dragon.
My wife took her pale-faced daughter's hand and led her to the green-carpeted stool behind the pulpit. She stepped up, unfolded her 40-word talk, and looked out at the mass of curious kids and their teachers.
Before she'd scanned even half the room, she'd turned and buried her head in her mother's neck. Her gut-wrenching cries were picked up clearly by the nearby black gooseneck microphone.
My heart ached. I said a simple, short prayer and knew my other daughter was silently doing the same. I had impure thoughts about that nasty dragon lurking over her shoulder.
My angel, as we all are every day, was faced with an opportunity to bend to fear and wait for another day, or raise her head and cast all doubts and indecision out into the air around her, never to return.
The next 60 seconds are permanently archived in my mind like your favorite scene in your favorite movie. It is a unique, colorful memory like few others in my entire life.
This angel, this blessed child of God, swallowed hard, fixed her eyes squarely on the talk she'd long-ago memorized and delivered the best talk I've ever heard.
"Heavenly Father made a plan to live with him again. Sometimes we make good choices, sometimes we make bad choices. I know if we make good choices we can live with him again. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."
And down went the dragon! My eyes filled then and my eyes fill now reliving those sweet seconds.
After the closing prayer, my little hero ran to meet me in the back of the room. One by one teachers and classmates came to congratulate and hug the suddenly victorious public speaker. I cried, she cried, her mother beamed, and I made a note to call Toastmasters.
That night over a hot, gooey batch of Rice Krispies Treats eaten straight from the bowl, I realized that it is not life's major events that teach and build us up. It is the less ballyhooed, unexpected moments that shape our soul and can seal our future.
We read in Matthew, Chapter 18: "... Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
I can only hope to be so brave, so pure. I can only pray to be so worthy of his kingdom.
In a singular moment this tiny warrior stood up to the dragon she feared, trusted her Father in Heaven, and learned that she had the the power to slay it and never fear again.
So can the rest of us.