Knowing When to Let Go



Daughter of John Walsh

I often wear dark sunglasses on the subway, not to hide, but to keep people from thinking I am some kind of freak the way I am staring at them. My dad taught me to watch out, to be hyper-aware of my surroundings, and to move away from anything strange.  I am not paranoid or scared, but I am alert with a touch of caution. I know how to hop to another subway car when I see something suspicious.

When I moved to New York a couple of years ago, I didn’t know anyone here. I can only imagine how hard it was for my father to let me come here on my own. For any father, it has to be tough to “let go”–to allow his little girl to become independent, to make mistakes, to form new relationships, and to mature into a young woman. I have no doubt my father understands the importance of letting go, but at times it must have been a painful challenge, especially given our family history.

I was born a year after my 6-year-old brother, Adam, was abducted and murdered. I was the first-born after Adam’s death. If it’s hard for most fathers to let their daughters leave home, imagine what it was like for mine. This is a man who has committed his life to protecting children: passing laws, establishing programs in schools, and catching child predators and other criminals through his television show “America’s Most Wanted.” It would have been easy for him to justify holding me back, but he has never confused protecting me with stifling me. Along with lots of personal safety advice, he also gave me an adventurous spirit.

His example has shown me how to take a risk in order to follow one’s dreams. He gave up a successful real estate career when he was driven to establish an organization for missing and exploited children. It was with his encouragement that I made huge changes in my own life and landed in New York. In 2006, I was a recent college graduate, living in North Carolina, and engaged to a surgeon just starting his residency. We’d had an engagement party in South Carolina, the big day was months away, and I was in the midst of planning for a safe, stable life that most fathers dream about for their daughters. I came to New York City to take care of the final wedding details, such as designing the wedding invitations. Though I’d been here before, it was only for day trips, after which I would wonder how anyone could live in such a strange place. This visit was longer, and I found myself inspired by New York and suddenly unsure of my decision to get married. I worried about the stereotypical role of “doctor’s wife” and thought of the old joke: “What’s the difference between God and a surgeon? God doesn’t think He’s a surgeon.” In any case, I realized my ideas about what I wanted most out of life had changed.

As an artist interested in fashion and graphic design, I suppose I was destined to fall in love with New York. When I got back to North Carolina, I called my parents to tell them the wedding was off, and that I was moving to New York. Everything that they had helped me to plan was scrapped, and a whole new plan was in motion. Talk about having to let go, and yet my father supported my decision 100 percent. He never made me feel like I was making a mistake or a decision I’d regret. He didn’t swoop in and do everything for me, but his support made it easier to face the chaos of packing up my life and dealing with crazy real estate brokers. 

Since moving here, Dad often checks in with me and never stops with the safety tips. “Always have your key out when you get home,” he’ll say and then tell me about how a girl was murdered last night because she didn’t do that. Throughout my teenage years, Dad kept an even closer watch on me. I was the last of my friends to ride in cars with boys or go to the movies without an adult. We had body guards, cameras around the house, and telephone numbers in other names. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had become fed up with my parents’ curfew.  I still remember the day I screamed at Dad from the top of the stairs, “I am going away to school in five months, and you won’t know where I am all the time.” I stomped away, and he looked dumbfounded. He was genuinely surprised and hurt by my outburst, as I rarely questioned his rules. That night he summoned me to the designated love seat where we had all the serious family talks. My parents acknowledged that I was right; they trusted me and had faith that I would make smart decisions, so the curfew was lifted.

When I moved out to attend college in another state, I know it was hard for Dad, but he also knew that I had always been responsible. For the most part, he really let go. However, if I didn’t answer my phone right away, he would threaten to put out a “BOLO” (Be On the Look Out), which is a police call for missing persons or criminals. Thank goodness he has finally learned to text, so I can respond quickly, putting him at ease even when I am unable to speak with him.

Many students at my college took a semester abroad. I was intrigued by the idea of a foreign adventure, but I felt that many of the programs were a way to get your parents to pay for an extended vacation. I was studying Eastern Religion and Philosophy with an offbeat professor from Calcutta. She shepherded a group of students each year on a backpacking trip through India. I decided this was the program for me, so I called my parents to ask permission. My dad was not surprised at my choice, given my independent spirit. He was, nonetheless, concerned for my safety in India.  He talked to my professor, studied the full itinerary, and finally agreed to let me go.

On the way there, my flights got messed up, I was delirious from medications I’d taken for the trip, and upon seeing our first accommodations, I was really horrified.  Perhaps it was the hostel’s stained sheets atop a thin wooden board or the spigot-and-bucket shower that pushed me over the edge. I telephoned my father as soon as I could. I was completely freaked out, pleading with him, “Dad, can I come home? This place is scary.” He spoke in that calm John Walsh voice and said I was just tired. He told me to drink some water and make a “cozy set-up” for myself. Then see how I felt in the morning.  His reassurance gave me the courage to stay.

A few years later, my parents took my two younger brothers and me to India. Though it was a different experience with first-class hotels and drivers, some of the chaos was unavoidable. The streets are unimaginably packed with people, cars, cows, motorbikes (often draped with sheep across the driver’s lap).  Dad tried to let me be the tour guide and leader, since I was the only one who had been to India. On an 8-hour van ride to the Taj Majal, we had to stop and pay a state tax. I knew the spot well, crowded with homeless people who had monkeys on leashes, trying to get money for pictures. I warned Dad it would be best not to get out of the vehicle, not to make eye contact, not to take a picture, and especially not to bring out the “wad.” As soon as my stubborn father stepped out to take a picture, our van was surrounded by monkeys and men tapping on the window saying, “Monkey. Picture. Charge.” Mom was annoyed, as they were trying to open her window, and then scared as the men and monkeys became increasingly aggressive. My younger brother Cal was laughing as he videotaped the scene from the back of the van. 

After the Taj Majal visit, Dad began to respect my knowledge of India more. Later in the week, I informed him I was going to a temple by myself. Dad said that he would come with me, but I reminded him I had done walks like this In India before. He tried to insist that I take a car and driver with me, but I had been looking forward to the walk alone. In the end, he let me go, trusting me to find my own way through the churning masses. Though Dad was not at my side, I felt his wisdom in my soul guiding my every step. Safe inside the temple, I worshiped in peace.

John Walsh is an American television personality, criminal investigator, human and victim rights advocate and the host of America’s Most Wanted. Walsh is known for his anti-crime activism, which he became involved with following the murder of his son, Adam, in 1981. Walsh is part owner of the Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington D.C.

Meghan Walsh is a designer, artist of fine paintings and owner of Blank Silk Artist’s Studio in New York City. Meghan is currently living in India.