The weathered old door swings open
and they emerge in a profusion
of hot pink and green, fuchsia and teal,
the colors of kiddie fashion flashing
like Broadway marquees–
“Now Appearing, The Cute Corps”–wrapping
four little bodies
in superficial gaiety, opposing
what is in their hearts
and what they must express.
They bound forth,
breathless, with rose cheeks,
the elders bearing the spring-loaded storm door
for the little ones.
I kneel curbside,
leaves crumpling under my knee,
and my pants soak up yesterday`s cold rain.
I reach out
for tardy embraces I once thought lost.
Crazy Four`s out the door first, bulling
past the line of scrimmage
with a smile as wide as the 50-yard line, demanding
“Daddy, where have you been?!”
and then another and then another and then another
joins the huddle, so close
our tears mingle from the sweetest pressing
of cheeks against cheeks, and
I inhale their love words
into my breaking heart.
They have missed me!
What have I done to deserve such grace?
I am a mess of tears and snot.
My hands are shaking;
it takes me ten minutes just to buckle them up.
I drive with my left hand;
my right is in the back seat, absorbed
into the breast of a pixie, who
will not let go of it.
“I sad, Daddy,
I miss you, Daddy,
I wuv you, Daddy.”
I drive for 20 minutes
with no destination, soaking
up the chatter competing
for my undivided attention, loving it.
“C`mon, Daddy, you`re kidding,” says the Lion,
“You can come home with us!”
Nine-Going-On-Nineteen sobs deep sobs, gulping
the stale car air rapidly to compensate,
and his tears fall into the pock-marked velour
of the front passenger seat.
I stop the Monte Crappo–so named affectionately
by the scramps–pulling
the watery boy into my chest with my left arm
while my right hand fishes back and forth
to stroke tiny hands and soft hair in the back,
and I look over my shoulder into the eyes of the Quiet One and
she draws me into the silent well of her pain.
“It`s okay, it will be all right.
I love you.
I will never leave you.”
My children! I want to pull out my heart and
stretch it high and wide into a love cocoon and
horde you inside, shielding
you from the pain wrought
even by those who love you so,
even by myself.
In the mall, now, I stoop down, swiping
gently at running noses and wet cheeks,
and we run hither and there, taking
trifling pleasures in the tinsel gaudiness, basking
in the carousel lights bouncing off our eyes, laughing
at the fuzzy toys turning silly backflips, admiring
the cheap kiosk paintings and trinkets, throwing
pennies in the fountain, savoring
the warm salty pretzels that never tasted so good,
until the hours are so wonderfully wasted,
hand in hand, hug by hug, loving
with innocence, without expectation,
without blame, without boundary,
and I drive slowly homeward, scraping
the curb as I come to the familiar stop–on time this first time–and
I relinquish them to the one I loved so tenderly
but know no longer.
My heart is liquid, dissolving
into my stomach
as I soak in the final waves before
the door closes behind them,
and I slump back behind the wheel, sinking
back into the nightmare as my fingers fumble
for the right key, and the cranking engine
sounds like hell.
I heave the car forward, half-blind
from the tears, feeling
I am alone again.
If I can give you a present for Christmas, this would be it: Love your loved ones every single day like it`s the last day of your life.
Happy Holidays, brothers and sisters in firefighting.