By Nelson E. Ward.
The first grade class room was filled with fathers scrunched awkwardly in tiny, pint-sized chairs seated next to their child. Comically, their knees nearly touched their chins. The party-day included fruit juice, cupcakes and cookies in a brightly decorated room humming 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 laid upon the seat. Her mother stood nearby with her arms crossed, tense and unsettled.
Eventually, each child and father went to the front of the room where the youngster proudly boasted of his dad, who stood by and smiled self-consciously at the class. 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 to her mother, who responded with a thin-lipped shrug. That morning, she explained to Melah that the teacher had given her and a few of her classmates a play-date – a free day from school – so that they could 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 this day.
Oblivious to everyone, she 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. And 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 in prison or on drugs,” followed by laughter.
A stern look by the teacher and a couple parents brought silence.
Either she didn’t hear them or she was too young to comprehend the malice behind the words, too young to understand hate. When she got to the front with the roomful of strangers staring back she paused, but remained resolute. 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 approving smiles of friends.
“My Daddy can’t be here today”, she started in a soft low 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 almost 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. And then he would tuck me in my bed.”
She hesitated as if reliving times past, before quietly continuing in her little voice – slowly, as if picking and choosing her words with care. “Last winter when it snowed, we went sled riding on the hill behind our house where we used to live. 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 a bomb went off. And Mommy said he went to heaven.”
The other kids and their fathers suddenly hushed and grew quiet, drawn to that little girl who stood before them trying to explain to strangers why her Daddy was absent on this special day. She was strong, but tears began to slowly trickle down her cheeks, leaving little wet tracks in their wake. Her lower lip grew taut and her chin quivered as she fought back the emotions, those of a little girl who desperately missed a father she so dearly loved.
She raised her drawing so everyone could see. It was crude and marked with crayon, showing two stick-figure people holding hands. In her wobbly voice, she explained, “I drew this picture of my Daddy the day he left last time.”
Slowly she lowered it to her side, clutching it tightly as if he stood next to her holding her hand in his. Looking down at the floor, she murmured to no one in particular, “Sometimes when I am all alone, I can hear him saying he loves me.”
Wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand, she quietly finished, “But mostly when I am by myself, I miss my Daddy.”
Then she made her way back to her seat. The sharp clack of her shoes echoed in the room that had grown silent and somber on this joyful day, Father’s Day.
NELSON E. WARD is from Ohio – a dedicated Buckeye fan, no less – but lives in New Jersey with his wife and two daughters, and the family Labs and cats. He has published previously in Long Story Short. firstname.lastname@example.org