It was about seven years ago that I heard the most beautiful sound I have ever heard, or ever expect to hear before the trumpets of the Heavenly Host announce the Second Coming; an angelic voice on the phone saying, “Daddy is that you?” It was my daughter: Ashley Netterville.
Her name is Netterville and not Powell because after she got pregnant and I proposed marriage, my girlfriend had what I would come to learn from her parents was only the latest in a long series of freakouts and left me; when Ashley was born, my name was never put on the birth certificate. Adding insult to injury, she left me for the pastor of the church we were attending who was giving us required premarital counseling. Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing! This is one reason why organized religion holds little appeal for me.
I wasn’t present for the birth of my firstborn, nor was I present for any of her birthdays during her childhood or early teen years. I searched the country for my daughter for 15 years, even hiring private investigators to find her. Every time I found out where she was, her mother packed her up and left for a new city just ahead of the court papers demanding some type of joint custody or visitation.
Unlike many fathers who do whatever they can to avoid taking responsibility for their children, raising my daughter was the most important thing to me. All I ever wanted was to be a part of her life, but that opportunity was repeatedly torn away from me by her mother. Eventually, I had to accept the fact that I would never find my little girl.
Still, hoping against hope for 17 years, every time I moved or got a new phone number I made sure that Ashley’s grandparents were the first people I called. They knew their daughter Barbara - my one time fiance - was a nutjob, and they always did whatever they could to send me pictures and keep me up to date with what they knew, which unfortunately was very little more often than not. I prayed that one day she would come looking for her real father, and seven years ago that prayer was answered with the best phone call I could possibly receive.
For the next couple of years my daughter and I got to know each other over Myspace and the telephone; when Yahoo came out with their video chat program we graduated to face to face conversations that would sometimes last hours. Hell, sometimes we would just turn on our cameras and watch TV together, or do nothing at all. I was just happy to spend time with my baby girl.
Two years ago Ashley broke up with her boyfriend and I got another phone call. “Daddy, would it be OK if I came to live with you?” My jaw hit the floor and I started crying. “OK!?!? You have GOT to be kidding me Baby Girl. It’s more than OK; it’s all I ever wanted!” I dropped what I was doing and drove to Charleston to get her that very night, and we lived together happily until I moved to Michigan last June. I asked her to come with me, but she had found love in the arms of a young man and wanted to stay with him in South Carolina. I was torn between leaving the daughter I had just come to know and doing what I knew was best for my family.
Had I known that in just a few short months my little girl would be gone I would have made some different decisions. Had I known that she would be torn out of my life once again, I would have called her every single day to tell her “I love you,” and ask about her day. Had I known that she would be taken at such a young age, I would have been more insistent on sharing the Gospel with her.
I tried to tell Ashley about Christ on a couple of occasions, but I was always gently rebuffed, “Dad, you know I don’t believe in that kind of thing” she would say with a smile. Having just gotten her into my life after two decades of trying, I was afraid of pushing her away. I thought there would always be another time, another day, another situation where she might be more receptive. Oh my God. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and the guilt is killing me.
Last Sunday, I got a message on Facebook from the mother of the boy Ashley had moved in with. Ashley was in the hospital after suffering a seizure and going into cardiac arrest. For nearly two hours, her boyfriend, paramedics, and emergency room doctors gave her CPR and shocked her heart attempting to get a rhythm. They were finally successful in getting her heart to beat again, but an EEG revealed that she had gone without oxygen for too long; my little girl was showing no brain activity whatsoever, but her body was still alive.
I told her doctor that I was going to leave Michigan right away and head for Greenville, and I asked him to make sure that her mother did not turn off the life support before I got there. I wanted to be able to say goodbye to my baby before she was really, truly dead. An hour before I left I called to check on her and I was told that her mother had indeed ordered the doctor to disconnect Ashley’s life support.
They won’t even allow me to attend the memorial. Here is a Facebook conversation I had with Ashley’s sister...
*EDIT 3/10/11 - It really doesn't matter what was said, or the anger I was expressing with a previous version of this post. The pain I was feeling was raw and visceral and I had no idea how to let it out. I'll just say that the last month and a half has been the hardest of my life; at least I have some of my daughter's remains with which to hold a proper memorial service.
This was not how I wanted to lay my daughter to rest, and I will not make a memorial out of this post. But just so that my readers can put a face to my beautiful, talented, and loving daughter, here is a picture of her as I will always remember her: Laughing and Happy.
Tell Jesus "HI" for me Baby Girl. Daddy will be there soon. I love you.