By Nelson Ward.
The first grade classroom was packed with fathers scrunched into tiny pint-sized chairs seated next to their child, with their knees nearly touching their chins. The party-day included fruit juice, cupcakes and cookies in a brightly decorated room thrumming with joyful chitter-chatter. Mothers mingled in the back so the fathers could enjoy the devoted love of their children on this jubilant day, Father’s Day.
Melah’s stoic figure stood apart from all the others. Quietly, she nibbled her cookies and sipped her drink, while the chair next to her sat empty – except for a drawing that lay upon the seat. Her mother stood nearby with her arms crossed, tense and anxious.
Eventually, each child and father went to the front of the room where introductions to the class were made. Managers, engineers, a doctor and a few lawyers, the children reiterated. To hear them speak, you would think God had anointed each father with powers of all kinds, including the ability to part the seas.
When it was Melah’s turn, the teacher glanced worriedly toward her mother who responded with a helpless shrug. That morning she explained to Melah that the teacher had given her and a few of her classmates a playdate – a free day from school – to do anything they wanted, including a trip to the park and a visit to the pet store to see the kittens.
But in the end, the bribes and promises came up short because Melah insisted on attending school on such a special day.
Oblivious to everyone, she tentatively made her way to the front of the room. Her toothpick legs and knobby knees were overwhelmed by the starched red dress that parachuted around her. Pretty white bows bounced in the back while her brand new patent leather shoes clacked loudly against the tiled floor. In her hand, she carried the drawing.
Everyone’s eyes were upon her, and the whispers followed close behind.
“Her father is probably still in bed,” one little boy said, as he nudged his friend.
Another snickered back, “Probably got lost coming here,” followed by laughter.
A stern look by the teacher and a few parents brought immediate silence.
Either she didn’t hear them or she was too young to comprehend the malevolence behind the words, too young to comprehend the hate. Standing in front of the class with strangers staring back, she paused. New to the class since moving to this town only a few weeks ago, she had no friendly faces to look upon for support, no reassuring smiles of friends.
“My Daddy can’t be here today”, she started in a low jittery voice, “but I know that he would if he could. I can’t remember everything because my Daddy taught me so many things. I can ride a two-wheeler now, and I couldn’t before. He would let me coast down a little hill, then catch me before I fell. My Daddy, he never let me fall.”
“He would read to me at night while sitting in a rocking chair, and Pecos Bill was my favorite. And when he told me about the Three Bears, sometimes he would add parts to the story and make it really funny. And we giggled and laughed until I fell asleep.”
She hesitated as if reliving times past before quietly continuing in her little voice as if picking and choosing her words with care. “Last winter when it snowed, we went sled riding on the hill behind our house. This winter he was going to help me build a snow fort, the kind I could crawl into.”
Then she paused and looked down at the floor, lost in her thoughts. And about the time her teacher started to rise and clap to commend her on a wonderful job, the six-year old continued, not yet finished. In a voice barely louder than a whisper, she said, “But I know he won’t be back because he went away after the snow melted. My Daddy was a soldier in Iraq, and he never came home. Mommy said God took him to heaven.”
The other kids and their fathers grew hushed and still. She was strong, but tears slowly trickled down her rubicund cheeks, leaving wet tracks in their wake. Her lower lip grew taut, and her chin quivered as the emotions threatened to overcome her resolve.
She raised her drawing so everyone could see. It was marked with crayon to show two stick-figure people holding hands. In her wobbly voice, she explained, “I drew this picture of me and my Daddy the day he left last time.”
Looking down at the floor, she murmured quietly, “When I am all alone, I can hear him saying from heaven that he loves me. But mostly when I am by myself, I miss my Daddy.”
The sharp clack of her shoes echoed long after she returned to her seat in a room that had grown silent and somber on this joyful day, Father’s Day.