One day I shall stop grieving.
But not today. Today I have an important errand. It’s the reason I’m sitting outside the gate of the small city park at dawn, watching the sunrise without even seeing it. I’ve got Zoe’s hair clip in my hand, with the lock of her perfect blonde hair.
It’s the strand of hair her doctor gave me, that I held clenched in my trembling right hand, while I felt my wife’s hand slipping sadly out of my left.
Aubrey never came back. I didn’t expect her to. All her love went to our little girl, and it died the moment that she did.
I screamed at the sky until all I had left were hoarse sobs. I began an existence that I would never accept, one of a childless father, and a husband with no wife. That’s all it was, an existence. It certainly wasn’t living. Days of no note went by. Days of life that lacked joy, light, color, life.
The scratching at the door was ear-splitting in the silent dark, as I sat in my recliner one sleepless morning. Just past midnight. I opened the door, but not quickly enough for her liking. An impatient mewl punctuated the insistent clawing. I looked down and saw what looked like a scrub pad on the doormat. One with icy teal eyes. Then the tiny ball of steel wool stuck out a pink tongue, and demanded, needlessly, that I pick it up. I knew this creature already. It was the kitten I’d promised Zoe for her birthday. Which was, for barely minutes, that very day. I dried her off, feeling the vibrations of her grateful purr, and got down the saucer that Zoe and I had picked in expectation of her kitten’s arrival. I filled it with milk that was quickly lapped up. She looked up at me, whiskers dripping, and I named her.
Kitty. Zoe already had her name chosen. “Kitty?” I’d questioned her. “That’s kind of…” She cut me off sternly, lips pursed in a pout, but her eyes laughing. “Kitty is the perfect name! She will be a lady, and Kitty is a lady’s name.” I wisely agreed, and that was that. I looked down, and Kitty was nudging my leg, graciously, forcefully. I scooped her up and felt her purr against my chest. I brushed her fur carefully and fastened the tiny pink clip on top of her fuzzy head. I looked at Kitty with eyes full of tears. She looked as if she had a blonde extension. She looked just right.
We fell into routine, Kitty and I. While I drank my morning coffee in my recliner, she’d be up against my leg, as close as possible, rattling away. I’d leave her food and water, promise my return, work my joyless job. She’d watch me from the front window as I got home, pretending to be bored and disinterested. By the time the door was unlocked, she was sitting directly in front of me, rebuking me with a silent stare. I looked in her eyes and saw Zoe’s mock petulance and mischief. The scolding was brief, and then Kitty rubbed against my legs, encouraging me to refill her bowl, and to give her some attention. Afterward, up she would jump, landing on the recliner and on my leg, as I ate my mundane microwaved meal. I told her all about my Zoe, our Zoe.
Kitty would sleep nights curled up on top of the blankets, complaining softly if I moved my feet. Every morning she’d bat my nose playfully, as if she knew it was exactly one hour before I’d set my alarm to rise. Sleep time was over when Kitty deemed it to be.
I marveled at how thick and sleek Kitty’s smoky fur got, how graceful and acrobatic she stayed even as years and pounds added up for the both of us. While I snoozed in my easy chair, and she purred, the world turned. Stocks, my stocks, doubled, tripled. I amassed what some call a fortune. It was enough to have paid even the most inconceivable ransom, had there only been one. Worthless digits and decimals are all I really had. I gave away as much as I could as often as I could. “We have each other,” I told Kitty, pretending as if that were enough.
The night before she left me, she let me know. I picked her up, and she complained softly before giving in to her familiar purr. When had she become so bony, her mousy fur so patchy, I wondered. I found her saucer, the same one from almost two decades ago, and filled it with milk. She lapped at it, gave me a grateful look, and we retired.
The alarm woke me the next day for the first time in a long time. I brushed Kitty’s fur one last time and took the clip from her head before I buried her.
Roney’s Ranch is where I found the pony I’d also promised Zoe long ago. I already knew its name too, Zoe had picked it a billion nights ago, when I would read horse stories to her at bedtime. “Black Beauty” was her favorite; her horse would be named Beauty, she announced with conviction. “Are you sure?” I asked, knowing she’d pucker up her lips in mock exasperation. “Yes, Daddy!” she said, tiny hands on her tiny hips. I gathered her up, and she squealed with delight as I promised her that she’d have her horse one day.
Jim Roney met me at the corral of the ranch that I had bought, but he owned. Jim’s a good man, hard muscled, hard worker. He looked like he was going to give me a hug, then decided a handshake would suffice. Beauty was a five-month old Friesian filly. Jet-black and full of fire, she trotted right up and picked me out. “She’s a real beauty,” Jim said, and Jim was right. Beauty was mine, he told me, no paperwork, no transaction required. Then his eyes looked above and to the right of me, and I knew he was going to talk about Zoe. His mouth opened, and my heart prepared to erupt with love and remembrances. I saw Jim swallow, then, like he was keeping something big down. His throat bobbed, and his mouth closed. It was the last we ever talked. Or never talked.
Jim had seen to it that I had a way in and out of the ranch, to come and go as I liked. Many hours and many days I spent with Beauty. Jose was a bright young groom assigned to the stable, assigned to me. I couldn’t help but realize that he was the age that Zoe would have been. Though Jim Roney had made it clear to Jose that he was my charge, I made it a point to report to him each morning. It made his face light up with a dazzling white smile. Jose talked with the endurance and speed of a racehorse, still, he never looked me in the eyes, never asked me a single personal question. No one ever did. Not one person. Not one question. No one acknowledged the greatest love of my life. The young man trained me in all things equestrian and seemed to enjoy having me “muck out” stables. All my sweat, aches and effort paid off dividends in the moments I spent with my Beauty.
A year and a half of brushing, feeding, and nurturing went quickly. At one per day, Beauty and I would each consume an orchard’s worth of apples. When she was eighteen months old, Beauty was ready to ride. Was she ever. From walk to trot to canter to gallop, quicker and smoother than shifting gears in any car I’d ever owned. We were a hard-working team, and then, we were one creature, running away from nothing and everything. Out there with the sunshine, dandelions, and dragonflies, I would whisper into her mane, tell her all my stories, all my secrets. Often, I’d cry with my head against hers, against the clip of blonde hair that had adorned her since long ago.
Each day spent with Beauty was another lap around a familiar track. I’d curry her sleek obsidian coat, brush her mane and tail, and warm up her rippling muscles. Then off we would go, she as eager as I. On Beauty’s back each day, I would break open, pour myself out, and close back up. Many days I came close to catharsis, close to living.
While Beauty and I rode, the world changed and never ceased changing. Aubrey got married. Millions of people got married, got bundles of joy, bundles of bills, bundles of pleasures and disappointments. I wondered how many fathers had given away their daughter, the way I never would. I wondered how many fathers gave their daughter away the way that I had done. I grieved for them.
Passing years gifted me with brittle bones and countless pains. Beauty sensed it and slowed her pace for my benefit. The furious rides, rushing through the wind, racing it, slowed down to gentle trots. Soon I was content to be at my mare’s side, walking slowly with my hand on her side, discussing the usual things. I looked in those brown eyes the size of tennis balls, and I saw Zoe’s innocence and unconditional love. When cataracts obscured her vision, her ears would prick up and she’d nicker, head turning to face me the moment I arrived.
The inevitable day came when I held the huge head in my lap, brushed it, kissed it, and said goodbye as Beauty’s eyes closed for the last time. Jose hugged me hard as we parted ways. “Good luck, Sir,” he said. He’d only ever called me sir. I left the ranch with familiar heartbreak, and the lock of my precious Zoe’s hair.
It’s clenched in my shaky right hand now, as it was when I first received it.
“You been waiting long?” Jerome greets me. “A few lifetimes,” I answer, and we both laugh without really laughing. He opens the gate to the small park that will bear my name. “I appreciate this, Jerome,” I say. “I really didn’t want to have to go over the fence.” He looks at my cane, my hunchbacked frame, the wisps of white hair peeking out under my cap, and he smiles. I smile too, the same tight smile I’ve been faking for the past sixty-some years. “It is your park, Sir,” he says.
The parks worker leads me carefully to the hole where the final oak will be planted, watches me fumble with the clip until I manage to open it. I hold her Zoe’s hair in my hand, beautiful and golden. It hasn’t aged a minute. I drop it in, tears filling my eyes and pouring down my cheeks. For Beauty. For Kitty. For my precious Zoe. For everyone else who’d ever been cruelly robbed the way I’d been. Jerome steps back and looks away, silently, politely. Everyone has been so polite all these years. So goddamn polite. It’s disappointing, and infuriating. How dare them all. As I turn, Jerome transforms from the statue he had been, moving quickly to place the young live oak gently into the hole. I’m already shuffling away as he scoops soil around the sapling, the unspoken goodbye in the air between us.
When the oak grows large enough, the city will put a plaque on it that bears its name. The one Zoe and I came up with. She’d been laughing and hugging me, head on my chest, trying to burrow inside my very skin. She gasped, and her eyes widened when she heard my happy heart beating. She pointed to the left side of my chest and said “Daddy!” I laughed and said, “That’s my heart, Zoe!” She repeated, “Daddy!” and nodded her head as if I were telling her something she’d already known. It made me laugh again. “Are you naming my heart ‘Daddy’?” I asked. She nodded vigorously before dissolving into the most beautiful peals of laughter. I can still hear them today.
I named the tree “Daddy,” for it is my heart.
The tree will grow to be monumental. Its shade will cover the small city block. Spanish moss will hang from the branches, swaying ghostlike in the breeze. Generations of birds will roost high up near its top. Countless squirrels will make countless nests, countless babies. “Daddy” will be the subject of infinite photographs, and its leaves and acorns will be incorporated into works of art. The grand old oak will weather storms and lightning, it will shelter and nurture life. It will exhale oxygen that the world will breathe in, until everyone has a microscopic part of the tree within them.
Eventually, damage and disease will take its toll on my tree. Strength and vitality diminished, it will slowly collapse under its own weight. Then it will decay and become topsoil and nutrients for future trees to rise, repeat the process. If each one of those trees should ever perish, then, and only then…
I shall stop grieving.