Doing an interview this past week, then telling my story from stage this past Friday, then the Oscars happening last night, then a phone call with the film producers tomorrow, has me thinking a lot about our film and how it all started.
And I realize that a lot of the blog followers don't know that the original blog I wrote, back in 2008, about our story, started my whole "blog thing" and book writing career, etc.
So, I thought that today I would re-post that original blog. The song Full Circle (on my Set It On Fire CD) was also written based on that blog.
It's the first thing I ever wrote that went "viral" and I can tell you, you cannot "make" something go viral any more than you can stop something once it goes viral.
Viral means it's resonating. Whether it's a cat video or political meme or a blog, resonance is the key. This resonated. And I believe it did because it was (and is) about the heart - not the brain.
In everything I do, now, I'm searching for the heart in it. My daughter taught me that.
Here's the blog from almost 12 years ago, and the song ...
It was late March of 2003, and my wife and I were sitting in a tourist bus with three other families, on a crowded street in Beijing, China. We had all just climbed the Great Wall together and had stopped to buy hats and t-shirts from street vendors, on our return back into the city. Yolanda (my wife) and I saw these cheesy little hats that said "Beijing Olympics 2008." We bought them and immediately added them to our fashion ensemble, along with our cargo pants, t-shirts and running shoes.
The hats, and the inscriptions on them, seemed insignificant at the time. They did prove to be good conversation pieces, however. Yolanda and I discussed the '08 Olympics with the other families like us, awaiting eight-month-old daughters, on the bus ride back to the hotel.
This was exactly one week before we met our precious Isabella, Xin Meng (which means "new dreams" in Chinese). We were all doing the simple math that would tell us how old our daughters would be in 2008. We all agreed that it would be such a wonderful experience to bring them back for the games and introduce the little girls to the land of their birth. We speculated on whether they would be old enough to understand. We wondered about the in-between years and how we would all be different. Would we have other children? Would our daughters even care about China? Would we all be able to meet again and reminisce about our experiences together?
It was indeed an interesting ride back to the hotel and I distinctly remember Yolanda and I deciding then and there that we would make it a point to be at the games, in Beijing, in '08 with Isabella.
At the time, it wasn't a stretch to believe we would be able to do it. In fact, it wasn't even something we gave a second thought. If we wanted to go to China we just did it. If we wanted to go anywhere, back then, we just did it. Four days prior to climbing the Great Wall and purchasing tourists hats, I had stood in a record store on Santa Monica boulevard and picked my debut release "American Dreams" out of it's own sleeve in "H" section.
My single "Babies" was number 15 on the Adult Contemporary pop chart (with a bullet, as they say) and I was told at my record release party, two days prior to that, that I would be touring extensively upon my return from China. "Line up a nanny," are the exact words my agent used, "you're going to be gone a lot."
I was ready for it. I felt as though I could do no wrong and was living the part I was born to play.
I had gone from a meteoric career in Christian music, logging twenty-one number 1 hits in seven years, Grammy and Dove nominations and walls full of platinum, to landing a record deal with Universal South records as a solo artist. My wife had been a very successful promoter in the radio world as well. She was responsible for helping launch some of the biggest names in country music. We were a jet-setting, highly paid, well groomed couple who understood success and how to achieve it.
We had, however, begun to feel empty in our lives and after learning that we couldn't produce children of our own, decided to go to China and bring home a little girl. That decision would change everything.
By the time I reached her, she had lived in an overcrowded orphanage and had been in foster care twice. She was eight-months old. The night she was placed in my wife's arms she was burning with fever and visibly confused. We took her directly to the hotel room and stripped her down to check for any physical problems. We found tiny holes in her hands and feet where she had been given IV's over and over again for who knows what.
She had a fresh immunization scar (she was probably given a shot and thrown directly in the van for the 6-hour drive from rural orphanage to 5-star hotel). Her toe nails were growing crooked due to the undersized shoes she constantly wore. She was completely horrified at the bath we were giving her which made us question whether or not she'd actually ever had one. She couldn't hold her head up, wouldn't take a bottle or eat, and did nothing but scowl and sleep for her first three days in our care.
Every night I placed her on my knees and fed her with a medicine dropper to get nourishment down her. We took her to the Chinese hospital twice in three days.
After taking her to the hospital twice and seeing the hotel doctor several times, we realized something was wrong with our daughter. After her three days of sleep she began waking up screaming every hour and would continue to scream for the next three hours.
Eventually exhaustion would send her back into sleep for another hour. The process went on like that for 10 days. In the confusion of the moment, we attributed her strange behavior to infections, viruses, the shock of new parents, new places, new food, new clothes, new sights and sounds. But as the days wore on and the other little girls in the group got more and more acclimated and seemed to normalize, we had an ominous feeling we were dealing with something bigger.
The drama of China was almost endless. The SARS virus was running rampant through the country and I was exhibiting all the symptoms - so was my daughter. We feared we would never get out of the country, but on our 21st day we slipped past customs and on to the plane bound for America. Isabella screamed at the top of her lungs for twelve of the fourteen hours in the air. I walked her up and down the aisles for ten straight hours, providing temporary moments of silence and relief to the other passengers. Once again though, everyone could see something was wrong.
After a fourteen-hour flight from China and a five-hour flight from LA to Nashville, we finally had our baby in our house and in her room. We prayed the routine, nutrition and comfort of home would bring her around and one day she would just pop her head up and be a normal little girl. It never happened. Each night was filled with two hours of sleep followed by three hours of screaming.
Each day was filled with propping her up, trying to get her to crawl, stand, babble, eat, anything that would signify she was well. Again, it wasn't to be. The only thing that had changed for the better was her beautiful, infectious laughter; constant smiling and laughter. It was a delicious gift that propelled us through each day. The fact that she couldn't hold a cup or play with a doll never stopped her from lighting a room up with an indescribable smile. It's a gift she still gives.
We immediately contacted therapists and enrolled her in government sponsored programs that we thought could help. She was denied coverage in our private insurance plan due to "pre-existing conditions," so we spent thousands of dollars out of our own pocket for trips to the doctor and the emergency room. After three months, we cashed in the entirety of our savings, stocks, bonds and retirement plans to continue her medical care.
Even with all the money spent, all the doctors seen, speech, occupational and physical therapies being done four days a week, no one could offer a diagnosis for her delays and lack of responses. We were told she had everything from autism to cerebral palsy to severe mental retardation. There were speculations that she'd been dropped on her head as an infant. Maybe she was born pre-maturely. Maybe the umbilical cord had been wrapped around her neck, cutting off circulation long enough to cause brain damage. She could've possibly been exposed to some ultra-toxic mold. It was all speculation and completely maddening.
Meanwhile, the years of constant sleep deprivation, draining of personal finances, and the neglect of my career, in order to be home with Isabella, was taking a physical, mental, financial and emotional toll on my wife and me. We found ourselves barely hanging on to sanity and losing faith in possibilities. Bella's laugh and the occasional uplifting email or phone call from a friend was our only comfort.
As the years progressed, however, we discovered certain things that helped Isabella sleep. Two hours a night stretched into five, which stretched to seven, which has finally stretched to nine. She began to eat and soon became the queen of sweet potatoes! At eighteen months, she learned to crawl. At three, she learned to walk. One day, a friend visiting from out of town said, "she acts a lot like my friend's son who has something called Angelman Syndrome."
We rushed home to the computer and researched the disorder at length. It is a complete or partial deletion of the 15th maternal chromosome (in layman's terms). At the moment, it's incurable. Some of the symptoms are; delayed motor skills, severe sleep disorders, eating problems, seizures, lack of speech, hyper activity, obsessions with water and plastic, and a happy demeanor ...constant smiling.
It was the only thing we'd ever seen that sounded like our Bella. We immediately got in line for a genetics test at Vanderbilt. After three series of tests, on July 3rd, 2007 we were given the diagnosis of Angelman Syndrome. Deletion positive. After five years of groping for answers we finally had one. As dire as the diagnosis was, we were almost relieved to know what we were dealing with. We now had a name and a cause on which to focus our attention.
With no one interested in signing me to a record label or booking me for shows or using me to produce other artists, I limped along in the songwriting world anonymously for the next several years. I would get up at 5 or 6 in the morning. While my wife was working in a coffee shop to pay for our health insurance, I would make Isabella's breakfast, clean her up, then sit her in a high chair next to the piano and write songs while she smiled at me. It was wonderful and terrible at the same time.
The symptoms of Angelman Sydrome are draining to those who care for someone afflicted: sleep disorders, seizures, kinetic, unmanageable behavior and no speech. She required full time attention and had to be monitored almost 24 hours a day. Yolanda and I became shift-work care givers. Many nights after Yolanda would come home from work, we would kiss and I would head out to a club to play for the rest of the night for tips or door money ...or nothing.
The years passed and we continued to struggle with Isabella. My career continued to slide into oblivion and my wife became more and more acutely exhausted. In late 2006, we adopted a second child. A glorious baby boy named Gabriel. For all the problems Isabella was born with, Gabe was born perfect and whole and was a Godsend. Our family was complete and we could begin to see the clouds over us lift. The joy of another life in our home awakened us from a five year stupor and made me begin to re-evaluate everything that had happened to us to that point. What constitutes a happy life? What is real success? In short ...what's truly important?
In April of '08, with no publishing deal, no record deal and no career left to speak of, my wife suggested that I try and write a finale song for the American Idol song contest. My friend Scott Krippayne had won it the year before and Yolanda told me "Scott did it last year, why couldn't you do it this year? Please try it - you have nothing to lose."
Then she said something so tender and sweet, I'll never forget it, "Dude - you've got nothing else going on."
Humor keeps us sane...sort of.
I reluctantly agreed, then immediately thought of the line "taste every moment and live it out loud." That was a Thursday.
I went into my office the following Monday and worked through what a "moment" song would sound and feel like. I couldn't bring myself to write about conquest and achievement. None of that rang true for me anymore. I had been living a cautionary tale of hanging your hopes and dreams on material success for the past five years. All I could think of was the need to give in to love, let bitterness burn and embrace the moments we have and people we love.
I thought about my shattered career and the words "holding on to things that vanished into the air left me in pieces" washed over me and I briefly felt the sting of it all again. Then I thought about my wife and my daughter and my son and how they were truly all I needed. The words "all that I needed was there all along, within my reach, as close as the beat of my heart" came rolling off my tongue and I knew that it was the truth. I finished the song in five hours, recorded and mixed it over the next three days, and turned it in to the contest website (along with my ten dollar entry fee) the day of the deadline. Three days later, I was notified that my song "may" be in the top twenty. Two days later...it was.
Several weeks later, I was notified that I'd actually won the contest. A week after that, David Cook became the 2008 American Idol winner and performed my song in front of 30 million people.
Two and a half months later, it had been downloaded over seven-hundred thousand times, was number 3 on the pop AC chart, number 7 on the hot AC chart and had been performed live on TV, a dozen times and been used in several TV production pieces. (It would go on to stay at the number one position on the Billboard AC chart for a record 16 weeks).
You almost can't ask for more out of a song than that. But then ...
On the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the new millennium, the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic games took place in Beijing, China.
I was working in my office and about to finish up and go to bed, when my wife burst through the door in her pajamas. "Get up here - you gotta see this!" she said frantically. I ran upstairs just in time to see hear Bob Costas say, "for all of us here at NBC, goodnight," and then watch the largest and most watched opening Olympic ceremony in history, close to the very words I had written in my office three months earlier.
As David Cook sang line after line, my wife and I stood spellbound, watching little Chinese girls walk up and down the same streets we had so casually strolled five years earlier. They looked like our beautiful daughter sleeping in the next room. My wife, needing to be asleep so she could be at her job at five-thirty the next morning, was in tears and visibly shaken by the inexplicable nature of it all. All I could do was stare and try to get a handle on the moment. I couldn't then and still can't.
We weren't in Beijing with the other three families. Our daughter doesn't know she's Chinese and can't tell us how she feels about her birthplace. Barring a medical miracle, she never will. As a family, we were tied to our special circumstances and a trip to China would be completely out of the question for several reasons. But our story - our journey - our personal revelation was there and speaking to the entire world. The weight of it still gives me chills.
I brought a Chinese baby home, who's severe special needs condition sent my career and our life as a family into a tailspin. The years of learning and crying and hurting and losing had brought us to the point of letting go of everything. That point had spawned a song that went into the world and did what we could not...attend the 2008 Olympic games in China.
Moments like that can only be engineered by something higher than ourselves. If my life had continued on it's "perfect" course, I'm quite certain I would've never experienced 8/8/08 in that profound of a way. Any plan I could've developed would never have been as beautiful and unexpected. This one was divine.
Sometimes you have to lose everything to gain perspective. You can't see the circle while you're making it. Only at certain, special moments can you pull back and see the reasons for it all. China. Babies. Songs. Music. Dreams. Success. Happiness. Angels. They all mean different things to me now. They are all part of a grand mosaic that is in a constant state of immaculate design.