We're slowly under way, leaving the long parking lot on the way to school. She'd eaten her breakfast and is happy, singing a Christmas carol in her sweet little voice. As we make a turn a huge flock of birds, grackles I believe, sweep in and take perch in the oaks.
There are hundreds of them. Before I can stop her she unsnaps her seat belt and pulls herself up for a clearer look. "Oh, Papa, look at the beautiful birds."
"I see them, Honeybun, now put your belt back on please."
She snaps the belt, and then, "Papa, I want to be a bird."
And here is where it all began. I didn't give a thought to my response, I mean whom among us would have second thoughts to such a statement.
So, I said, "Not me, Sweetheart. I like the way I am, human."
We ride. I look towards her and she's taking in her part of the world on the right side of the truck. It's cold outside. Heavy clouds have painted our part of the country gray. Nice weather. I said. "Penny for your thoughts."
She took a deep breath, and in one continuous sentence, which is her way at times, "Papa I don't want to be a bird either then because if you don't want to be a bird then I'm not because I always want to be where you are and Nana too because I don't ever want to be alone again or anymore 'cause I'll cry and be lonely if you and Nana aren't with me." Or, words to that effect.
Deep breath, then again, "Papa, will you always be with me?"
There it is.
It hit me like a rock. How does one answer such a question. She's six for pete's sake. How am I supposed to face down my mortality in the few minutes we have left before I drop her off at school. I'll not lie to her. Then again, I have no desire to spoil this beautiful little girl's morning with the knowledge she has a full day of school ahead of her. And, I won't be able to speak with her again until the next morning.
I glance over and she has those big brown eyes locked on me. She wants an answer. So, I tried.
"Sweetheart, I'll try to always be with you."
Blink, blink. She frowned. I knew she didn't buy it.
"Will you always be with me?"
"Honey, can we talk about this another day, please."
Now tears have developed and are making their way down her soft pretty face. I knew it. I blew it. Should have lied.
"No, Papa. Please tell me, will you always be here for me."
"Little Bit, do you remember when your friends mother went to heaven a few weeks ago?"
"Yes." She's red faced now. Then before I can continue she goes, "Oh, Papa, are you going to heaven to live with God too?"
A quick, "No," from me. "Listen, Honey, Papa's fine, I'm not going to heaven anytime soon."
I said the hell with it (to myself) and pulled over. I didn't care if we were a bit late. When the truck came to a stop she jerked off her seat belt and climbed into my arms. I held her, hugged her, kissed her, spoke softly to her. The tears were full on now. I explained that people of a certain age always pass on and 'go live with God.'
I talked softly and further stated that Papa would be with her for many more years. I gently pressed my lips to her ear and said, "Honey, nothing in this world can keep us separate. You'll be much older, a grown-up, when Papa has to leave this world. Even then Nana will still be here with you, and when I'm gone I'll still love you, always. I'll keep watch over you. I'll be your guardian angel. Papa will forever be a part of your life.
She has a vise grip on me. I dug out a paper napkin and tried to dry away her tears, wiped her nose. I teared up too. Hate it, but there it is. This, was breaking my heart.
"You promise, Papa. You really promise."
"Yes. Papa promises, I'll be with for a very long time."
Just like all women the world over, she took the napkin and pulled down the visor mirror and cleaned her face. We had a couple more seconds of hugs and kisses and then continued our journey.
Just before she stepped from the truck, she turned and, "Papa, you promise, right?"
I told her I always keep my promises.
She waved and was gone.