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Readers' Digest (Canada)
August, 2001

A Birthday Gift to Remember

By Kathleen Gibson

Amanda is in her room singing a duet with John McDermott, the "rakish Scots/Canadian balladeer," as one of his many album covers reads.  Their voices blend as smoothly as coffee and cream, hers clear and flutelike, his rich and mellow over the stereo speakers.  The words reach down the hall to me, sitting here at my drop-leaf desk, writing a thank-you note.  I sigh, tuck the pen behind my ear and listen as the music scrambles my thoughts, sending them down neglected paths of overgrown memory.

October 20, 1996.  It's Amanda's 15th birthday.  The only friend she wanted at her birthday dinner couldn't make it, and she's a little down.

I can't remember any of the presents her father and I gave her that year-only the one from her brother.

Anthony hadn't known what to get her, so I reminded him of an upcoming concert by one of her favourite musicians.  "It's the evening of her birthday," I told him, " and you know how she likes John McDermott."  He rolled his eyes.  Teasing his younger sister about her "strange" musical tastes was a cherished pastime.

"Can't afford the ticket," he said.

"I want to go anyway," I replied.

"Pick up two tickets , and I'll pay for half."

After the birthday dinner, when Amanda opened Anthony's card, I saw her first genuine smile that day.  I embraced her face.  Before we left for the concert, I snuck into my husband's office and grabbed a pen and a tiny pink scrap of paper.  I wrote without thinking, "Dear Mr. McDermott:  Today is my daughter Amanda's 15th birthday.  She loves your music, and this concert is one of her gifts.  It would make her day (and maybe her life) if you found a way to acknowledge her during your performance.  Amanda is a singer herself, who prefers Celtic, classical and gospel music to rock.  If you can't find a way to do this, please know I understand.  She won't know I asked.  Thank you!".  I signed it "Sincerely, the mom" and tucked it in my pocket.

In the lobby of the theatre, I spied Ken Kohlert, our son's guitar teacher and one of the organizers of the concert.  Amanda conveniently left my side for a second, so I was able to thrust the note into Ken's hand.

"Could you please try to get this to Mr. McDermott?" I asked.  He looked startled but agreed.

Minutes before curtain time, dressed in a black suite and turtleneck, John McDermott entered the seating area of the theatre.  He was much taller than he looked on television, with a grin that seemed far too young and uncomplicated for a performer of his global status. He was looking for someone.  Amanda?  I wondered.  But a woman in the centre of the theare sprang up and waved.

As people stood to let him pass, McDermott motioned them back down and hopped over the heads of bemused concertgoers, using seat backs as stepping-stones.  We laughed aloud at the sight of his six-foot-plus frame looming like a colossus over the startled fans.,  He chatted with the woman until someone reminded him he had to give a concert shortly.  He retreated the same way he had come, continuing his exuberant greetings all the way back to the door.

Our seats were in the centre section, just a few rows from the front.  We settled back to enjoy the concert, but I was now plagued by second thoughts.  What if the man embarrasses Amanda and she never forgives me?  I reassured myself by imaging that perhaps my note never made it backstage, or that McDermott would think it presumptuous and not act on it.  Finally, caught in the web of his music, I forgot the note.

His performance was pure magic.  His smooth tenor voice that calls up tender lullabies, the fond way he speaks of his large family, his ability to make each member of the audience feel that every love ballad is a personal message to them--all these things combine to make a McDermott concert a soft cloth to polish a tarnished and dented soul.

After the second song the lights dimmed, and McDermott began to speak.  "I'd like to dedicate my next piece to a lovely young lady out there named Amanda."  He seemed to be looking straight at us.  Amanda's back stiffened, and I header her quick intake of breath.  She looking at me.

"How?" she whispered  I quickly told her about the note.  Tears lay like crystal ribbons on her cheeks.  Mine too.

McDermott began to sing a ballad I had never heard, "Mary of Argyle."  "T'was thy voice, my gently Mary, / And thine artless, winning smile / That made this world an Eden / Bonnie Mary of Argyle."

Amanda reached for my hand and clutched it with the grip of a woman in labour.  Her face was a study of wonder.

After the concert we slipped through a side door and headed down a hall towards an exit.  Soon the hall was empty -- but for one tall man, dressed completely in black, standing at the top of a staircase near the performers' dressing rooms.

Amanda went to him like a kitten to cream.  "Mr. McDermott, I'm the Amanda you sang to.  Thank you so much!"  was all she could say before he bent down and wrapped her in a fatherly hug.

"Are you a member of my fan club?" he asked.

"No" she said, suddenly shy now.

"Follow me."  He turned and strode down the long hall.  I stood back, uncertain, until he looked back and ordered, "You too, Mom."

We had to trot to keep up.

Once in the lobby, he pushed forward, ignoring fans waiting to catch his attention.  He stopped abruptly at the booth selling his recordings, signed a fan-club newsletter and presented it to Amanda.  Beaming, she thanked him and started to leave.

"Wait," he commanded.  He circled to the back of the booth, playfully elbowing the attendants out of his way, and picked up on CD after another, stacking them unevenly in his hand.  Turning back to Amanda , he said: "Here.  Happy Birthday!"  The CDs clattered to the floor.

Her shocked eyes had never left his face, but now they watched the top of his head, with its curly black hair, as he bent down to retrieve all five CDs.  This time her hands were extended, and she stuttered as she tried to find words to thank him.  Finding none, she stretched both arms way up and hugged his neck.  He patted her back, grinning like a child pleased with himself, winking at me over her shoulder.  She let him go, and he turned to me.

Words, the tolls of my trade, fled like rabbits down a hole.  All but three.  "God bless you," I croaked.  And then John McDermott hugged me.

We left in a hurry, brushing aside curios onlookers.  We sat in the car in the dark, rocked by a strange mixture of tears and laughter.

In the four years since that day, Amanda has been presented with numerous honours for her vocal performances, some on the very stage in Yorkton, Sask., on which "Mary of Argyle" was dedicated to her.  But when she left for college last fall, it wasn't her certificates of honour she packed first but the McDermott CDs.

Most of us are ordinary people who live our lives on other stages:  our homes, our workplaces, our small-town and big-city streets.  But I've yet to meet someone who doesn't need, every so often, the glow of starlight.

The stars we choose to brighten our lives give us beauty, hope and inspiration.  John McDermott's generosity in responding to my impulsive request gave Amanda a fluorescent memory of her singing hero and a rare glimpse of what it means to truly shine.

A 15th-birthday gift to remember forever.