Eleven years ago today, I started the morning as Jenna Rochelle Brignac. By the afternoon, I was Jenna Rochelle Sauber. I didn’t get married (I was in high school), and I didn’t enter the witness protection program.
I gained my independence, this day before our country’s Independence Day. I had one of my first big steps in a journey to Be Fearless — I chose to make legal a relationship that had started about 11 years before, when my mom married the man who had become my father in every sense of the word.
In my family, we call it my “other” birthday, our anniversary, and my day of independence. We used to celebrate it with cookie cake. Today, I just call my dad, who lives on the other coast, and we talk, and we smile over the phone at this wonderful bond we’ve worked hard to create over the last 22 years.
We’re not unique. Other kids get adopted by their stepparents, other kids change their names. I have cousins that went through it, too. But I like to think that our day, our moment, is special. These 22 years haven’t been easy — even in the 11 years since the adoption. Heck, even in the last five years we’ve had to blow down barriers and cry and yell and ask why and struggle to answer. But these 22 years, and especially these last 11, and the last five since I left home, have been life-changing. I cannot imagine a life in which my dad wasn’t in it anymore — literally, my memories of the time before him are few and blurry at that. I cannot imagine being the person I am without his influence and his inspiration.
A million times over the years I was mad at him, mad for being punished, mad at him for being hard on me, for being strict, for expecting so much of me. Mad because I just wanted to be like him — magically wonderful at everything, knowing of all things. There wasn’t a project he couldn’t help with, a situation he didn’t have wise words for. And when he was at his strongest, I hated it and loved it all at once. I wanted to be right, but knew he was so right, and I had so much to learn. I wanted to win, but I knew he would never “let” me win — I had to earn it. I wanted to be let off easy, but years later, I know I wouldn’t be doing what I am if not for him pushing me to excel and to not give up.
As a little girl, he would braid my hair or put it in a ponytail and make my lunch for school. My first gift from him was a pair of ruby slippers, because he knew I loved The Wizard of Oz so much. When I came home from school, I had to do homework right away, and he pushed me to go the extra mile even in kindergarten. For my seventh birthday, he and Mom gave me origami and a dictionary. I may have steamed over having to learn definitions in first grade while everyone else just had to learn spelling, but that dictionary still sits on my shelf today, and I consider myself an ace speller. He taught me to swim, to ride my bike, and to rollerblade. When I fell over in basketball, he pulled me up and threw me the ball again. When I threw up after running, he said, let’s keep going. When I was 11, I came home to a newly set up computer on my desk, complete with NBA 95. When I told him that I wanted to do the adoption in 2001, he just hugged me, and said, “Okay.” He brushed off his hairstyling skills again for homecoming my junior year. When I walked across the stage at my high school graduation, he was there at the end, taking pictures and handing me a bouquet of roses he had hidden in the trunk of the car. When he dropped me off at college with mom, he gave me the longest hug ever, and the second one followed when they dropped me off in DC, with a load of groceries. When I broke up with my boyfriend, he told me that everything would be okay and it was.
I haven’t told him that I think he’s fearless, but he is.
When he tells me that he’s proud of me, I feel like everything is right in the world, and I know that it isn’t about biology, and it’s all about heart. Eleven years ago I woke up as one person. I went to bed as someone different, someone changed forever. Thank you, Dad. I’m proud to be Jenna Sauber, today, and forever.