Nearly all her memories of him were Polaroid-instant-photograph-fragments, blurred, faded, and dim. Then a snapshot captured suddenly clear and precise would grip her, freezeframe her in time.
“Your father has always been in a wheelchair? How weird. A cripple” The girl had turned and walked off leading the rest of the pack away with a sniff that let everyone in the school know that her Third-Grade-Majesty’s royal opinion had been decreed: The person no one was to like this year was the preschooler with the cripple parent. A second grader snuck her a sad sidelong glance before turning to walk away, a slight lift in her step at having finally escaped the label “The Untouchable” after two years running.
Cripple. Words echo and bounce in the child brain that had known her father only as someone who loved and protected her, a man who inhabited his own personal throne. Not cripple.
A plaintive call from the dark “Janice, can you come here. I can’t. My teeth. Can’t even brush them. Damn it! The tooth brush is too heavy. Help me.” A hummed response, padded footsteps and soft comforts, Mother to child solaces “It’s okay. Long day. Tomorrow you’ll feel better.” “I don’t understand. Don’t know. How you… Can you live like this…?” weeping, drunken grief make the move to wheelchair a series of bumps, squeals, moans and apologies. The chair wheels slowly through the hall, body lumped on the chair, head wheels back, face strained with misery “Why? You deserve-- I don’t know, better… you should find yourself someone with two legs… strong” Backing away from the crack in the doorframe, wary of the helpless stranger in the chair she stumbles back to her bed and cries in the darkness.
An unaccustomed gaiety lights his eyes and he fingers her over “Sit here on daddy’s lap.” She slides awkwardly onto a knee as he breathes into her hair. “What do you want for Christmas?” Bubbly holiday cheer has champagned the evening. Bouncy ball children entertain glassy-eyed adults and they sit quietly watching the three-ringed soiree. Nearby a tot grips the forefinger of her father, trawling him to his feet and twirls lightly on her toes. She watches the impromptu pas de deux and blurts out “For you to dance with me, daddy.” Her feet thud roughly to the ground and she pretzels around to be overtaken by her father’s now familiar storminess as it rolls back in, a growing tsunami of unhappiness. He twirls around in a single fluid motion and thunders out of the room.
Mesmerizing herself in the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree in the quiet hours past midnight, she snuck out to the tree after the deep breathing of the rest of the house assured her solitude. “In a few more nights he’ll be on his way,” Realization gives her a shiver. “I should make my wish NOW, the real wish, not the silly list mommy made us write. At midnight like this, it would be like magic, I would think…” holding her breath, she closes her eyes and gives voice again to her Christmas wish. “I wish I could dance with my daddy.” Time protracts as she opens her eyes and listens for rolling fury. In the unbroken silence of the house, she finally creeps off to bed hopeful her midnight plea has been heard.
“Tell us what you got for Christmas,” the teacher has them sitting in a large circle, legs criss-cross apple-sauced.
“A doll”curls bounce jauntily.
“A truck and a football,” several boys nod approval.
“Santa brought me the best gift ever…” The words almost catch in her throat. “My daddy danced--”
Unfinished words are buried beneath the sudden outbursts of her classmates, “Santa! There is no Santa!”“What a little baby!” “ Haven’t you figured out that your parents are puttin’ the gifts there?” “Oh my gosh, did she say…?” “What a dope!”
“There is a Santa.” Inaudible words escape from her throat. “He made my daddy dance with me.”
Clapping hands interrupt the taunting and teasing “Children, children, that’s enough. Go to your desks and get out your pencils and pads. Since we can’t be a polite audience we will start our spelling.”
“There is. There is a Santa.” As if an enchantment, she repeats the words in a whisper as she puts her head down on her desk, recalling her father’s hand in hers, her feet tiptoeing next to his. His feet… on the ground. They were… weren’t they?They had danced because she had wished… from Santa. Santa was? Wasn’t? Tears stream down her cheeks and a sob bursts out of her throat. A desperate glance… escape? The teacher nods assent as she flees to the safety of the hallway.
“After your grandfather died, I mostly remembered his unhappiness. He had gotten so weak that he couldn’t do much of anything for himself anymore and he was worn out.” She curled the child’s fingers in her own and breathed the scent of outdoors that clung to curls. “I was very angry with him for making us all so unhappy. But then one Christmas Eve night under the tree I remembered that night under the tree and how I wished Santa would let my dad dance with me…”
“Did he, Momma?” the child’s eyes were waterfalls cascading with wonder and magic. “Did Santa make Granpa dance?”
“He danced with me, he did Clara. But the real magic” She kissed her daughter fiercely, fighting off the echoes of days long gone. “was that after he died… I remembered that wish. Each Christmas eve I have a dream that your grandpa asks me to dance with him by the tree. And we twirls around the floor for hours. And I always ask him if he will come back and dance with me next year and he always says yes.”
Hopeful eyes lock onto the mother’s “Can I ask Santa if Granpa will dance with me too, Momma?”“You can, honey. And Santa will listen. You just have to believe. Make your wish now. You don’t have to wait till midnight, on Christmas Eve when it’s magic you can make these wishes. Just close your eyes and say it very softly…