A Not-So-Chance Meeting
"Whispy," is what my best friend's son called her in high school. Twenty years later, she had changed little -- the description fit. She was spirited and guileless. Her entire life seemed to be a series of cartwheels, pirouettes, spins and skips. My best friend added for good measure, "You should see her on a pair of ice skates."
I didn't have to imagine Misty wearing skates. Watching her hike was like watching a winged-nymph float through a woodland corridor. Her dark hair swept across her face as she spun away from me and her day pack fell off her shoulder.
A unique way to approach the woods, I thought as I moved closer. "Do you ever slow down," I asked.
"Rarely" she sighed and giggled. "Life is short and one day my bones will be feeble."
An attractive immaturity over-shadowed her, but in her eyes you could sense an unnatural reconciliation with adulthood had taken place.
Still a total stranger to her, I had no idea how to introduce myself among the group of 15 or so hikers. But I knew that I could not leave this trail, this forest, this earth - without meeting this ice skater turned nymph. While I found her mentally exhausting to watch, I envied Misty's girlish optimism and odd lust for life. She was the kind of woman I imagined other women despised. She had the shape to wear anything well including Patagonia's all-weather zip-off shorts. She could turn heads wearing a muumuu, sandals in one hand and her own heart in the other. Her skin was perfectly toned and embellished by the sun and I imagined she spent much of her non-trail time in a sun chaise.
As the hiking gap between us broadened, I watched Misty stop suddenly and slightly stagger. I sped up worried that she might be ill but she just laughed aloud, apparently amused by some fairy-like feat of hers. I remembered what I had learned about Misty's childhood — that she would climb atop her roof and gaze for hours, perched there like a gargoyle. I imagine she used the roof to escape the squalor of life below her. It was rumored her parents were alcoholics. If so, she was likely coping with the pain by vacillating between fanciful eruptions of positive energy and hidden moments of quiet, even dark reflection. An attractive immaturity over-shadowed her, but in her eyes you could sense an unnatural reconciliation with adulthood had taken place. Her dance through life could fill a void, but it also left you empty -- yearning to know more about her.
Misty settled on a log near the edge of an escarpment and I seized the opportunity to join her. She surprised me by offering me an apple. I politely declined fearing it might be her only snack though her generosity struck me. Misty used tiny gestures as we chatted idly and she conveyed a warm and obviously deep intelligence that stunned me. She was simple and unpretentious yet she struck me as very well educated. She leaned forward and kicked the dirt with her Timberland boots as I thought to myself, now is the time.
"... there is something I need to tell you," I murmured like a heartbeat out of step.
"Misty, there is something I need to tell you," I murmured like a heartbeat out of step.
She looked up at me, shocked that I had said her name.
"How do you know my name," she quizzed while methodically repacking her daypack for an escape.
"I mean you no harm," I said as tenderly as possible knowing that I probably sounded like a serial killer on a tangent in the state park.
"I am your father," I added, bleating like a lost lamb. Lost I was.
She could have reacted a dozen ways. A slap across the face would have worked nicely and would have actually been preferable. An obstinate retreat and march into the distance would work just as well. It was self-recognized that I had done nothing to deserve her affection. I had done nothing but abandon her and leave her to the guiles of a troubled mother.
Her once meaningful eyes adopted an eerie emptiness while they seemed to pierce right through me. Was I reading something that wasn't there? Should I wait for her to speak? Was an apology appropriate or should I let the sleeping dog just lie? If I profferred a terminal illness, could I elicit any sympathy? All apologies, terminal diagnoses, and fears aside, I silently waited for her response. It seemed like minutes and then hours passed. Every swift nymph-like move of hers was grinded down to a slow-motion feature film of imminent disaster where we both struggled for the lead role. What could I possibly say or do to make any of this wrong turn right?
A Second Chance
"How did you know you could find me here," she wisely asked. "And how many other times have you followed me?"
Valid questions, I thought and then I tried to answer.
"I swear that I have never once seen you before this very day. I left your mother when you were not even a year old although I have wondered every day of my life what you were doing and what your life must be like." I paused, hoping for a response that never came.
"Misty, I could apologize and make a thousand excuses, none of which would change a thing. I would bestow you with a thousand gifts if I could, still knowing they would not mean a thing to you. I should be hog-tied and hung upside down in a tree for leaving you. There is nothing I am not guilty of and there is no punishment I don't deserve. I don't know if every child deserves a father, but seeing you here today, I know that I never deserved you, muchless a child. I am not asking for forgiveness or even a relationship although I would dearly love to have both. All I am asking for is a 'chance.'
All the girlish optimism that I had seen bouncing down nature's trail morphed into a sullen trepidation. I felt guilty for imposing on my daughter's well-intended life. I felt foolish for impeding whatever progress and happiness looked like to her. I felt ignorant for thinking this chance meeting was a good idea. More than anything else, I felt a hurt that I had never felt before - an ache that I knew only the beginning of - fearing it would have no end save my last breath which would come soon enough.
Misty's words finally came.
"I don't know how you found me," she said, "but it's not like I've been trying to hide. The book of my life has been missing a chapter for decades. Now that I'm somewhere been Parts Two and Three of my life, it seems silly to try and back-write that chapter in. I have already found ways to describe the confusion of my childhood chapter with metaphors, similes, and hyperbole. I've learned that to 'wander' rather than 'wonder' helps fill the empty spaces so I am sorry to report that I have never 'wondered' about you - I just moved on. I am puzzled about what I could offer you now at the age of 35 that I couldn't offer you at the age of 25, 18, or 8 other than a contribution to your own peace of mind. And it's not that I am unwilling to help you find peace, it's just that I'm not willing to rummage through the peace that I've found like it's an old trunk worthy of discovery."
As I stood in my daughter's presence, painfully aware that every word she said was true, I was also proud. She had astutely and accurately summed up my absence from her life. My absence was never the issue. "I" was never the issue. How she filled the gaps was the issue and I was nothing short of an invader on the trail to her destination. Her journey was not a joint endeavor by virtue of a decision I had made years ago.
I managed to mutter, "I am sorry to hear that but I understand and I do not begrudge you that decision. If you ever change your mind, feel free to let me know," and I slid my phone number in the side of her daypack.
Misty sweetly pecked me on the cheek and then continued on the trail with an unsettling austerity. She never looked back at me as my surging adrenaline slowly returned to normal. I turned back towards my car and as I walked through the woods, I came to appreciate what Misty must see and feel in the forest. I understood that her long pause was her gathering her thoughts and that made me proud - a proud I did not deserve to feel but appreciated as much as the rain after a long begotten drought.