She spotted the bright blue gift card as we waited in the checkout lane. “#1 DAD” it declared in bold white letters. She reached up, fingered it, traced the letters with the tip of her ink-smudged index finger. She shrugged and a small sigh escaped.
‘“We should’ve got this for Daddy.”
Then she brightened. “We COULD still get it and tie it to a balloon and send it to him that way.”
I smiled, “Do you think Daddy needs a gift card in heaven?”
“Well,” she considered, “no, but he could just HAVE it. Because he’s number one.”
And I wanted to laugh and cry and hug her little self tightly to me. Did you hear that, Kev? You’re NUMBER ONE!
Anyone who knew Kevin could probably tell you all about his little girl. When she started walking, talking, reading, singing…no detail about her was too small to be shared. His greatest joy was being her Daddy.
Before she was born, he filled her room with little things picked up here and there. A beautiful plaque with an engraved good-night verse; a ridiculously large ride-on stuffed elephant we promptly named Ronnie after Kev’s favorite president; an adorably fluffy pink poodle cape set, complete with scarf, mittens and pocket purse.
She had Daddy wrapped around her finger from the very beginning and it only took a smile, a kiss, a “Pweese, Daddy?” and he’d cave. Ice cream after supper? Sure. Piggy-back ride around the house? Hop on, little Bear. Stack the blocks so she could knock them down…over and over and over? No problem. They cuddled in his recliner to read and faced off over intense games of Monopoly Jr. She was Daddy’s girl and he reveled in it.
I will never forget the day he was diagnosed with cancer. He struggled to wake up from the colonoscopy’s anesthesia. And then, finally he did. He looked at me, recognized me, tightened his grip on my hand.
He tried to speak, his throat thick and his mouth thirsty. The words that came out of his mouth chilled me: “I’m never going to see my Bear again.” Then huge, wrenching sobs shook his body, his composure completely unraveled.
Shock doesn’t begin to describe what I felt at that moment. What? What did he just say? What is going on? Why would he say something like that? I couldn’t make sense of his statement. Frightened for him, I felt hot tears forming in the back of my eyes.
“Oh, honey, you are going to see her again,” I reassured him in a voice that shook with my own tears, barely held in check. “She’s with Mom right now, remember? She’s at home. She’s fine. She’s just waiting for us to come home. Wake up, honey. When you wake up, we can go home and see her.”
He was inconsolable. No matter what assurances I gave him, despite my every attempt to reason with him, he was distraught over the idea of never seeing his daughter again. And then, the doctor returned to the recovery room and in one simple sentence – a few words at the most – our world completely changed.
“Okay, then. Well, I found a tumor in the colon and I’m 99.9 percent certain it is cancer.”
The doctor’s words stunned us into silence. Cancer? Did he just say cancer? My mind was racing; my mind was frozen. My eyes caught Kevin’s eyes, reflecting the fear and disbelief that we both felt. Cancer.
From that moment on, everything he did was for his girls. He had eighteen inches of his colon removed, had a portacath installed under his skin. He worked all week, then fought nausea weekend after weekend as chemo drugs dripped into his body, destroying healthy cells along with cancerous ones. He fought with everything he had because he wanted to see his daughter grow up.
I was sorting through papers the other night. It’s what I do when the bed’s too empty and I can’t sleep. And I cried when I came across a stash filed away in a small crate. Page after page of our girl’s love for her Daddy, scribbled in vibrant colors. She was three, maybe four, at the time. Child-like stick figures depicted Daddy, always with brown hair, glasses, and blue jeans. One showed him in bed and she’d instructed me to write on the side: “This is a picture of Daddy. He is holding me. It is day and the sun shines outside. Daddy is laying on the purple bed because he is sick. The blue medicine makes Daddy feel better. Songs make Daddy feel better. I sing music. Let’s hug Daddy.”
There are others, showing stick-figure Yankees and Cowboys – Daddy’s favorite teams. There are homemade Father’s Day cards with crooked rainbows and shaky printing: “I love you, Daddy!” Two pages taped together, titled “My Family” with these words: “My Daddy is good. He loves me.”
And the note that broke my heart wide open. “Daddy, I love you. You do so much for me.”
He did. He really did. He loved her unconditionally and he tried so hard, so very hard, to stay here with her as long as he could.
That’s the kind of Daddy love she knows, and that’s the kind of love she returns. And that’s why she wants to tie a “#1 DAD” gift card to a balloon and send it to him in heaven.
Because to her…he will always be #1.