Dadddies Don't Die
December 16, 1969 was a cheerful sunny day, in spite of the light dusting of snow that covered sidewalks and car hoods. You must keep in mind that we were children and had wished for more than the light dusting we received. The weatherman forecast an overnight snowfall and we had kept a faithful vigil until we could no longer keep our eyes open. Eventually we went off to the Land of Nod with visions of snowball fights and mountains of cold slush dancing through our dreams. In the morning, we rushed to press our noses against the cold of the glass pane only to discover there would be no snow day called. Our wails of disappointment could be heard two floors below where our mother was preparing the glue she called oatmeal.
Being obedient children, we quickly dressed and made our beds, before attempting to think up new excuses to forego the hot meal experts insisted children needed to properly start the day. Under usual circumstances, our excuses would already be fixed firmly in our minds before closing our eyes in slumber, but our attention had been grabbed by thoughts of the snow predicted to fall. Since Mom never accepted our excuses anyway, it was a small price to pay for dreams of creating forts and snow angels.
We hurried through our “nourishing” meal, trying to swallow before we actually tasted the gruesome stuff. Gathering homework and books, we rushed into our winter gear. I, being a “Daddy’s Girl” ran up the steps to give my special Daddy a special kiss goodbye. I waited patiently in the bathroom doorway, watching him expertly glide the razor over cheeks and chin. He leaned down to give me my kiss and got shaving cream on my nose. Laughing, he picked me up so I could see my reflection in the mirror before he wiped away the foam. Then he swatted my butt as I thundered down the steps; long brown hair flying in all directions, making a mockery of the headband my mother had struggled to place just so. I drove her crazy with my tomboyish ways, but I had four brothers to influence me. I hated being a girl, except when I was with my Daddy.
The morning hours melted away as quickly as the light dusting of snow. When the lunch bell rang, I tore my coat from the rack at the back of the classroom and flew down the hall as fast as my nine-year-old legs could carry me. Ricky was always reminding me that he was the oldest by thirteen months. Somehow, he equated that with being the best at everything. I was going to teach him a lesson. I intended to be home and half way through lunch before he finished closing the zipper on his jacket. It wasn’t to be. We collided at the school exit, pushing and pulling on each other until we were down the steps and on clear ground. The race was on!
The school was located a little under a mile from our home. By the time we had run about three quarters of a mile, we were both too winded to keep up the pace. Neither of us wanted to admit to our sagging stamina, afraid the other would declare an imaginary win in our make believe game. In mutual agreement, we linked arms and gradually slowed our pace to a fast walk with only a block to go. By the time we reached the corner by our house, our breathing had returned to normal. I was relieved not to be huffing and puffing. My mother had no patience when she thought I was disgracing her with my lack of girlish behavior. Thinking back, I realize I couldn’t have been very ladylike with my dress flying up in the wind while my feet pounded the pavement.
Ricky tightened his hold on my arm, halting me in front of the house. Something was wrong. The street was lined with familiar cars. There was Nana and Pap’s car parked right in front of the house. And Aunt Linda’s. And Uncle Kenneth’s. And more, so many more. It didn’t make sense, their being there. It was lunchtime on a Tuesday. The only times the family got together was for planned Sunday dinners and weekend events. But never on a Tuesday.
We tiptoed into the entrance hall. I had never realized how empty and echoey it sounded. Our footsteps were hollow, resonating, bouncing back at us. I peeked around the corner into the living room. There were people everywhere, some familiar, some not. Most were hanging their heads and wringing their hands. A few were talking in hushed whispers, glancing furtively into the dining room. Taking a step into the room, my eyes followed their carefully hidden stares. My mother was sitting at the head of the table, not her usual place. My grandfather stood to the right of her, holding and patting her limp hand. Nana sat to the left of her, surrounded by a group of women, tears rolling down their middle-aged cheeks. I looked around at the sea of faces, but he wasn’t there.
Ricky stepped back into the hallway and sat at the foot of the stairs, head resting on his arms and knees. I remained standing there in the mournful silence, waiting to be noticed. Someone must have said something to my mother. I remember how slowly she lifted her head and pushed herself away from the table. She walked toward me like a person walks when she’s up to her hips in water, the movements resisted by the force. And then she was there, hugging my head against her, telling me terrible lies.
I pushed her away from me and slapped at her hands. I didn’t believe her. Daddies don’t die at the age of twenty-nine. Daddies don’t die leaving four children behind, and daddies don’t die when their little girls can’t live without them. Not MY Daddy, any way. I turned on my heel and ran back the way I had come. I would go back and finish my school day. When I got home, Daddy would be there, telling me they made a mistake.
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I stopped at Diane’s house so we could finish the walk back together. Besides, her mother, Kitty, was a very good friend of my father’s. They had worked on campaigns together. I didn’t really understand what that meant, but it must be important work if my Daddy did it. I thought that Kitty would know if it was really true, but she hadn’t heard until I arrived with the news. I watched her knees turn wobbly before she sank into a nearby chair. I ignored her concern for me and refused her offers of a ride home. If she hadn’t known, then it couldn’t be true, I reasoned. Important people would know such things, and she was an important person, too.
The atmosphere in the school had changed in the few moments since I had raced through its doors. Teachers were standing around in little clusters whispering. My fourth grade teacher asked me what I was doing there. I remember looking at her like she must have lost her mind. It was a school day. Why else would I be there? Then she and another teacher began whispering that it was probably the best place for me. It would take my mind off of things, don’t you know?
I was to receive no peace. Diane decided it was her duty to inform our classmates of the tragic turn of events. I remember their utter curiosity. So many of them wanted to know what it was like, to have a parent die. I couldn’t tell them, because I knew it was all a mistake.
The big hand was moving toward the hour when the bells would announce the ending of another day. I was told to get my books and anything else I would need for the next week, and go to the Principal’s Office. There was some kind of mix up because my mother didn’t seem to know my whereabouts. Mr. Cox had always struck me as old and stern, almost mean. That day he held my hand with the gentleness and care one would use to hold a baby chick, and he quietly told me to collect my little brother from his second grade classroom. My Aunt Deedee was coming to get us.
I trudged down the hall we older kids had dubbed “Baby Hall”, forgetting that we too had been residents of that hall only a few short months before. I worried about what I would say to David’s teacher. I didn’t want to tell her our father had died, because that would be like accepting the lie, but I couldn’t think of anything else compelling enough for her to release my little brother into my care.
He was excited to be getting out of school early. He badgered me for the reason. He was so little. I couldn’t bring myself to admit to the lie again. He was only seven, much too young to carry so heavy a burden. So I chose to carry it alone. I tried to be cheerful; joking with him, telling him the mystery would be solved when he reached home. But he must have seen my misery, because he looked up with great green eyes, shimmering in his sorrow. No adult can ever understand the innocent intuition of a child.
“Daddy died, didn’t he?” he asked, and wrapped his tiny arms around me, his big sister who always protected him, and held me while I cried.
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