And a little Fluff shall lead them

Helen and the homeless woman: “I will help you” (Photo by Karen Virnig)

I’d ask you to indulge the musings of a proud father as I take this space to wish my beautiful daughter Helen a happy 16th birthday on Saturday, but I swear my news judgment is sound and unsentimental here, as we all could learn a little something from her amidst the horrific-by-the-hours headlines we’re living through these days.

She was 4 years old when the photo that accompanies this column was taken. My mother, who gave Helen a framed copy of it for her birthday this year, can tell the story by heart: At the Christmas pageant at St. Leonard Of Port Maurice, the tiny Catholic church on 35th and 4th Avenue that Mom has belonged to for years, an actor playing a homeless woman collapsed in the aisle and begged for help.

When a long production beat in the play came and no one came to the woman’s aid, Helen bounded out of her pew in her Dorothy Gale ruby red slippers, scampered up to the woman, took her hand and, cutting through the church silence said, “I will help you.”

The next week, a black and white photo of the moment appeared in the church bulletin with the headline “Epiphanies On Epiphany,” as written by then-pastor Father Jim DeBruycker. The secular definition of epiphany is “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way,” and that was Helen’s gift to the gasping churchgoers that day and beyond.

I know I’m her dad, but after a week of being haunted by photos of a 4-year-old beaten bloody by his famous football-playing father, I can’t stop looking at this viral-worthy photo of another 4-year-old, whose innate compassion is writ small all over her little face, and whose innocent courage lives out what the great writer Henry James famously said: “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

The birthday girl was born in Colombia, beautiful Colombia. We adopted her when she was a few months old, and she’s obviously got good genes. These days she’s still kind, still a great kid. We’re teaching her how to drive and I’m savoring every precious nerve-wracking lap we take around the lakes. She’s looking forward to the homecoming dance, has more friends than anyone I know, and she occasionally worries about her future plans and what she wants to be when she grows up.

At the moment she’s goalkeeper for the junior-varsity orange soccer team at Washburn, and because the intensity of the games has ratcheted up, this year she has forbidden me from rooting her on with the nickname I’ve had for her since she was little, “Fluff,” which is probably not the toughest nickname for a bad-ass goalie. But I’m using it one more time here, invoking a father’s prerogative to embarrass his daughter in public, because she’s growing up so fast and one day she’ll be off on her adventures and, sheesh, I miss her already.

So happy sweet 16th birthday, Fluff. Thanks for all the help, and for reminding me, and all who know you, that we’re born with an indestructible love for others in our hearts. Shine on …


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected]