The Right Words
I finally came clean last night. Now, Angie can hardly look at
me. She yelled a lot at first, but when she got it all out of her
system, there was a lot of silence, and a lot more tears. I hate
seeing girls cry, but there's no way I can blame her. Knowing
that I'm the cause of her blood-shot eyes and the salty rivers on
her cheeks leaves me with a cold lump of sorrow where my heart
She's put on her brave face for the kids this morning. We have two together - an eight year old walking, talking question mark by the name of Jazmine, and an 18 month old Energizer bunny we call Carter. They don't have a clue what's going on just yet, but I've decided that it's best not to put off trying to explain to them why their old man won't be around soon.
As I attempt to get the day started, I can't help but notice Angie's eyes are different from last night. The tears are all dried up and there's a fire raging in their place. I can't tell yet if those flames come from an inner strength, or just plain loathing for yours truly. After all of the lies and sneaking around, I'd hate me too.
We've agreed that I'll be the one to tell the kids what's about to happen. I decide to get them out of the house to give her some alone time to process. The three of us drive over to a playground at a park a few miles from home. Jazmine dislikes this one in particular because the swings are all made for smaller kids and she's getting too big to fit into them comfortably. But I figure breaking it to her here is better than tying a negative memory to a place she actually likes.
"But daddy, why did we have to come here?" She asks as we get out
of the car. Frustration is written all over her pretty little
face. "Why can't we go to the park behind the house?"
"It's just for a little while, Jazzy. Take your brother to play for a bit, and, if you want, we can go get ice cream after this. Okay?" I negotiate as we begin walking to the playground.
"Mmm, okay!" she agrees, perking up at the mention of her favorite dessert. She grabs Carter's hand and the two of them skip off.
I make my way to the designated parental zone - a row of benches on the edge of the play area. The park is empty today. That's probably for the best.
As I sit there trying to decide what to say and how to say it, my thoughts begin to drift. An image of my sperm donor floats to the forefront of my mind. I couldn't have been more than five, but I still remember him rubbing my head and saying, "Listen to your mother," before he walked out of the door. He failed to mention that he wouldn't be back to make sure I listened to him. I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen him in my entire life. He was a stranger to me even then. I understood that he was my father, but I wasn't able to understand why he made my mom so upset when he came around. When Angie first told me she was pregnant with Jazmine, I remember thinking I wanted to do better by my kids. I wanted more than anything to be an amazing father. Having a conversation like this was never part of that plan.
My fears begin to creep to the surface. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I can't say anything at all? I could super glue a dictionary to my hand at this point and still find myself at a loss for words. A stifling sensation overcomes me and I feel for a second like I'll never breathe again. I shift uncomfortably in my seat and begin to take slow deep breaths, just to be sure. This whole situation is the shit my nightmares are made of, but I have to see it through to the end for my children's sake.
"Daddy?" I jump a little as Jazmine's voice snaps me out of my daze. "Why are you crying?" Her little brow is furrowed as she stands there staring at me. The concern in her voice is evident. I reach up to wipe away the tear stains from face.
"It's okay, sweetie… Sit down for a sec," I say, patting the empty space to the left of me on the bench. She complies and looks up at me, clearly unconvinced by my words. Carter is a few feet away having the time of his life, bouncing around on a miniature horse. He's oblivious to anything outside of his innocent little world.
"Is it because you and mommy were fighting last night?" she asks?
I look at her, startled. "You heard us?"
"Sorta…" she breaks her gaze and looks down at her hands in her lap, suddenly very interested in chipping away at her left over fingernail polish.
"What did you hear?" I ask. She remains silent. "It's okay, Jazzy. Tell me."
"Well... I woke up to go the bathroom and I heard mommy yelling a lot." she says. "How come she was crying, daddy?"
"It's… because of me, sweetie," I say. I take a second to try to find my voice, then a second longer to try to find the right words.
"Did you do something bad?" she asks. Her eyes look up to find mine, but it's my turn to look away. I look down at my hands and begin to twist my wedding band around my finger.
"Mommy was mad because I kept a secret from her…" I say.
"Well, you're not supposed to keep secrets, daddy. How come you didn't wanna tell her?" she asked.
"Jazzy… I'm sick. I didn't want your mommy to worry until I knew how bad it was. Mommy was mad because I didn't tell her right away."
"What's wrong with you daddy?" she asks. I can't help but smile as her little hand reaches up to touch my cheek and forehead, just like I'd done for her a few weeks back when she came down with a fever. "You don't feel warm. Is it like a cold? Is it bad?" she asks.
Something about her eagerness to check on me helps me to realize that I'm already screwing this up. I need to be stronger for her right now. I look into her eyes as I take her little hand from my cheek and hold it between my own.
"Not that kind of sick, Jazzy. What I have is a lot worse. Do you know what cancer is, sweetie?" She stays quiet, but the look of recognition on her face is unmistakable.
"Peyton, from school, his grandpa had cancer and he died… Does that mean you're gonna die too?" she managed to croak out as the tears welled up in her eyes.
"With the kind of cancer I have… yes, sweetie. I don't have a long time left."
Before I know what hits me, she locks her arms in a vice grip around my torso. As her face buries itself in my chest, her shrill cries stab my soul. I hug her in return and gently stroke the back of her head telling her, "It'll be okay." I feel her shake her head "no" in response, but I can't distinguish her words from her muffled sobs. Carter hears the commotion and comes over to see what's happening. The sound of his sister crying makes him burst into tears as well. I reach an arm down to scoop him up. As he gets settled, he locks his arms tightly around my neck. The two of them feel as if they're trying to somehow squeeze the life back into me.
The three of us sit in the empty park looking like one big miserable mass of tear soaked flesh and cotton. Time passes slowly, but, eventually, Carter calms down and busies himself by leaning over and playing with the leaves of a bush behind the bench. Jazmine finally stops sobbing. She sits there next to me, curled up in a ball with the right side of her face pressed against my chest. Her arms are still clinging tightly to my midsection. I think she's listening for my heart beat.
"But why do you have to have cancer? I don't want you to die, daddy…" she says in a small shaky voice.
"I'm not going anywhere right now. It's not going to happen right away," I tell her. "I still have some time left to be with you guys and mommy before I… before I have to go. We're gonna do a whole lot together before then. I promise." She looks up at me.
"But… what's going to happen to you when you die?" she asks.
"You won't be able to see me anymore," I say. "My body is going to go away… but part of me will always be with you, and your brother."
"How?" she questions as she looks up at me hopefully.
I take my index finger and tap her on her temple, "In here," and then I tap her over her heart, "and in here." Her expression shifts from hopeful to puzzled. "You'll always have the memories of the time we spend together. I'll be with you every time you think of me. And I have sooo much love for you in my heart that I can't possibly hold it all. I'll need you to hang onto some of it for me. Can you do that?" She nods. "That part of me will stay with you too. I'll be with you every time your heart beats."
I turn to look at Carter who is now playing with a ladybug he found on one of the leaves from the bush. "You know, Carter is still pretty little." He turns and smiles as he hears his name. "Promise me you'll always look out for him. When he gets to be as big as you are he won't remember a lot of the things we've all done together... Tell him about me… okay?" I pause for a time as my voice begins to fail me. Carter mutters something as he makes an attempt to put the ladybug in my mouth. I dodge at the last second and blow the ladybug off of his finger. Jazmine and I both smile. "Don't let him forget that I loved him too."
"I promise, daddy," she says.
As we prepare to return home, I ask Jazmine if she still wants ice cream but she's no longer in the mood. The car ride home was short and quiet, save for a few sniffles and Carter's baby-speak. As we pull into the driveway of the house, Jazmine hops out of the car fast and waits in front of my door with her arms open wide. I get out and reach down for her. She jumps up and latches onto me like a little monkey, wrapping her arms around my neck and her legs around my middle before burying her face between my neck and shoulder. She doesn't say a word. It's clear that she has no intention of getting down any time soon, but I don't mind. With Jazmine attached to me, I have to get creative in order to extract Carter from his car seat. After a little bit of struggle I finally have him out.
As the three of us turn up the driveway and start towards the house, Carter yells, "Mommy!" and darts off towards the front door where Angie has appeared. She scoops him up in one arm and kisses him on the cheek. As I reach the door, her expression is hard to read. One thing is clear, the fire from this morning is still in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Angie. I-," she uses her free hand and presses her index finger to my lips to cut me off. Then, she cups my face in her palm before leaning in around Jazmine to kiss me.
"I'm sorry," she says. "You're not in this alone in this. I don't want you to ever feel like you are..."
Inner strength it is.
I wrap her up in my long arms, trapping Jazmine and Carter in the middle. The love I feel from their embrace instantly thaws that cold lump in my chest, and I pour all of me into the hug in return. I don't need to speak for them to understand that I would be content to quietly hold them here like this until I draw my last breath.