When I was nine years old, I accidentally knocked over my father’s vase. It was the last decoration his late wife bought for the house before she passed away, and I was told she left it for me, “to have something to associate home with when all else fails.” It was the glossiest piece of glass I’d ever seen, and I would always try to recognize my reflection in its opaque surface that exaggerated my features. Whenever I stared at it, my eyes would strain to make out my frizzy hair and sandy skin and plump cheeks, which the people in my father’s church loved to squeeze. One day, I picked up the vase to get a better view, but discovered that it was a lot heavier than it looked.
The sound of the glass shattering on the floor paralyzed me, and the sight of what was once a beautifully constructed piece of art that seemed to complete the living room, was now broken on the ground in shiny fragments of different colors.
I darted up the stairs and locked myself in my room.
It wasn’t long before I heard footsteps in the house. Saturdays were always gardening days for my father, and I pictured him in his usual sun hat, gloves blackened from dirt, sleeve dampened from wiping his brow, sweat drenching his shirt, and feet bare. My father always did his gardening without shoes, saying that he loved to feel the earth beneath his feet when he was tending to it. I always thought that he looked something like an explorer with his hat and beige gloves on, as if he was charting the undiscovered square footage of our backyard. But I was startled away from this image by a sudden cry I heard from downstairs.
“Samantha!” he cried.
I cowered in the corner where my stuffed animals were.
“Samantha,” he said again, this time more stern than alarmed.
I could feel myself trembling and closed my eyes to the pervasive silence I had locked myself in my room with. A few eternal minutes passed me by before I heard a knock on my door.
“Samantha,” his voice sounded calm.
I shook my head and receded further into the corner, hoping to blend in with the rest of the stuffed animals.
“Open the door, honey,” he said, “I’m not going to hurt you.” He tried turning the locked handle and I watched in terror as it rattled. My hands, now bracing my temples, were trembling violently as if a blanket of biting cold had unfolded over my room.
“I promise, Samantha, you don’t have to be afraid anymore,” my father said.
I closed my eyes again, hoping that I would open them to anywhere else. There was more silence, the uncomfortable kind that I had found myself falling asleep to most nights back then. But it wasn’t long before I flinched myself awake to the sun in a different position in the sky through my window and the day a slightly deeper shade of light. I slowly climbed my way out from the pile of stuffed animals in my corner, and, careful not to make a sound, walked to the door.
When I opened it, I saw him sitting on the floor, head resting against the wall and eyes closed. With utmost caution, I tiptoed over him, fighting the impulse to run down the stairs and risk waking him with my footsteps.
“Samantha?” I heard behind me.
I froze, every nerve in my body felt tense.
“Samantha, turn around please,” he said, kindly.
I listened this time, and turned to see him looking up at me from the floor, his hands calmly clasped on his lap. The porcelain pattern of his palms was interrupted by dried stains of crimson. My father was too good of a gardener and knew every stem, tool, petal, and even thorn too well to be harmed by them. I could see the sharp incisions on his hands where the shards of broken glass from the vase left their mark. I knew that these cuts and bruises were my fault and found myself overwhelmed by sorrow with my face buried in my palms at the thought that I had caused them.
I could feel him approaching me and, knowing I deserved punishment, didn’t run from him this time. But instead of a lash or rebuke or scorn, I felt his arms wrapped around me and his gentle voice shushing my cries.
“It’s okay, sweetheart, it was an accident,” he said.
I wept in his shoulders.
“This doesn’t change anything. I’m still and always will be your father. And you will forever be my daughter. I promise. Once a daughter, always a daughter, remember?”
When I was thirteen, a rumor had been circulating around my class that Brian Philips, the notorious nuisance in our grade, had developed a crush on me. My friend, Tara, was the first one I heard it from, then word started trickling in pretty consistently afterwards. I didn’t pay too much attention to it, only making an extra effort to avoid his stares during lunch.
It was a Tuesday when our class huddled outside for P.E. We were on the baseball field that day, the uneven blades of grass protruding from the ground as if the clay had sprouted hair. After the teams were assigned, we all took our positions on the field with the soles of our shoes stained with adobe-colored soil. I was on third base and stood idly in my position as other kids began to fuss at one another before the game began. The first kicker was up and, after pegging the ball with a grunt, made it to second base. The sun was relentless that day. I saw a haze just above the ground and it didn’t take long before I felt beads of sweat escaping from the surface of my skin. I shielded my eyes with my hands and looked away from the game for a while as coach began to help another student with his technique.
In the distance a little ways, I saw fireflies dancing in the air with one another. Then I saw another class file into the field from a further distance away – Mrs. Kathy’s fourth graders. She had the best reputation of any teacher in the school, because she made it a point to play games with her kids during recess. I didn’t know how much I could like a teacher until enrolling in her class when I first started at Greeves Academy.
Then, suddenly, I felt a sting on the side of my face.
“Brian!” I heard Tara wail.
I turned around to Brian who was on second base, trying his best to hide a smirk on his face.
“Coach!” yelled Tara, “Did you see that? Brian just pegged Sam in the face! Aren’t you going to do anything?”
Coach looked up from his clipboard, his eyes were squinting to avoid the glare of the sun. Brian’s friends were laughing in the distance as Tara fussed at them.
“Shut up!” she shouted, which only seemed to augment their laughter.
“Forget it, Tara,” I said, “Let’s just keep playing.”
Tara looked appalled, and then gave Brian a dirty look before forcing her attention back to the game.
Afterwards, when we were in line on the way to the locker rooms, Brian made it a point to stand behind me. As my class walked through the building entrance, I heard him joking around with his friends. They were teasing him for liking me, and though I couldn’t avoid hearing their conversation, I refused to turn around.
Brian denied it, insisting that he never liked me and that he had just proved it on the field. However, this didn’t stop their teasing him.
Then, I heard Brian say: “How could I like someone who’s adopted anyway? She doesn’t even have real parents.”
Without thinking, I turned around.
I wrapped my hands around Brian’s neck and, before he was even aware of what was happening, forced him to the ground. One by one I sunk my fists into his face as hard as I could, fighting the flailing of his arms. Everything went quiet and eventually dark. Where I thought I would hear the shrill voices of my classmates shouting at me to stop, I heard nothing but silence all around me.
How I ended up in a chair opposite of Mr. Fremont, my school principal, with my father sitting next to me is still a blur to this day. My father’s eyes were serious and his jaws were tense as my principal talked.
“What Samantha did today cannot be overlooked, Mr. Henry.” He said to my father. “We do not tolerate any sort of violence here. In my 27 years of working in education, I’m afraid to say I’ve never seen such an unexpected response from a student. And how we handle this as a school reflects how seriously we take situations like these.”
Mr. Fremont was sitting forward in his chair. His full head of obsidian hair, which was cut just short enough as to never touch his collar, dramatized the sloping angle of his cheekbones and the severity that always seemed to reside in his apple green eyes.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to expel Samantha, Mr. Henry,” he continued.
“But this is her first offense, Mr. Fremont, is there any way that she can be let off with a warning maybe?”
“That would depend on the gravity of the situation, Mr. Henry. And I am of the opinion that putting a kid in a hospital is a grave enough offense to merit expulsion.”
“But there must be something that can be-”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Henry,” Mr. Fremont interrupted, “but my decision is final.”
My father, with his hand intently pressed against his mouth, eyebrows lowered, and eyes stern, sat there for a few minutes. Then, stood up and calmly slid his chair underneath Mr. Fremont’s desk.
“I understand,” he said and extended his hand towards Mr. Fremont who took it without hesitation.
“I’m sorry that it has come to this, Mr. Henry,” he said, “Samantha has always been a teacher favorite to my understanding.”
“I’m sorry too,” my father replied. I could hear the disappointment in his voice.
My father looked like he was lost in thought on the way home, rubbing his chin similar to the way he did whenever he became stumped during studying for one of his sermons. Though getting expelled was the most trouble I had ever gotten myself in, it was the silent car ride home that was the worst part about that day.
A few weeks later, on a Wednesday, I found myself taking another car ride with my father. He was wearing a hat, green, his favorite color, and whistled as he drove. It wasn’t long before the car came to a slow stop in the hospital lot and, once we were parked, I realized that it felt like I had been holding my breath for the entire drive.
“Ready?” he asked, now looking over at me lightheartedly.
I nodded my head.
“All right let’s do it,” he unbuckled his seatbelt and stepped out of the car. I mimicked him and followed closely behind, as he walked towards the automatic hospital doors while stuffing his keys in his pocket. After checking in with the receptionist and being directed to the third floor, we found ourselves on the elevator. The slow and steady rise upwards was an odd comfort, and my father’s bright hum added to this feeling. The alacrity in his voice a foreigner within the hospital walls. Then the elevator came to a tightening stop and my feelings of anxiety began to resurface. After walking past several corners and a few open doors that led to rooms that were all too familiar to my childhood, we stopped in front of a room 303, and I stared at the numbers plastered on the door as if it would open itself. My father wrapped an arm around me and knocked. He would always tell me how, often times, though it never felt like we were ready to do the right thing, it’s always the right time to do it. As I continued staring at the door, I saw the handle turn and a woman open it. I recognized her as a member of my dad’s congregation and Brian’s mother.
“Pastor Henry, hi,” she exclaimed, “what a surprise. And you brought your daughter with you, hi honey. Come in.” She held the door open wider.
“Thank you,” my father said walking into the room. Brian was lying in bed, staring at the both of us from behind a bandaged eye and a bruised face. He looked a combination of resentful and curious.
“Sam,” my father whispered, playfully nudging me.
“I brought these,” I said, extending a handful of flowers towards Brian’s mother.
“How nice,” she said taking them and admiring the bundle of silk petals that altogether looked like it was overflowing with hues of peach and violet and cream. “Thank you, dear. Brian, look how lovely these are.” She brought them over to his bed, but he only anchored his hostile gaze on me.
“It’s so nice of you to visit us, Pastor Henry,” his mother said in a futile attempt to break the tension in the room.
“Oh no it’s the least we can do,” my father replied, taking off his hat and running his hand across the top of his head as if he was letting his hair breathe.
“Samantha, sweetheart, how do you like your new school?” Brian’s mother asked.
“It’s nice,” I said, “the teachers are really nice and I like my classes.”
“Good,” she smiled, “Brian can’t wait to get back, isn’t that right Brian?” She turned around at him and he only shrugged his shoulders and looked out the window in response.
“He’s just a little down,” she said, “you’re the first of his friends to come and visit us.”
“She’s not my friend,” Brian interjected, his voice was cold. He was now looking at me as if restraining a host of resentful feelings that were begging to erupt.
“Brian,” his mother said, with a drastic shift in her tone. The room grew colder.
“No, Gretta, it’s fine,” my father said. “Sam actually came here to say something.”
My father looked down at me and mouthed the words, “Be brave.” Then he kneeled and put his hat on me, carefully fixing it on my head and smiling before asking Brian’s mom if she’d like to join him in the hallway. It wasn’t long before I found myself staring at the door that closed behind them. I shut my eyes for a few seconds and exhaled slowly, before turning around to Brian, who was sitting in an upright position in his bed, still glaring at me.
I weakly smiled which seemed to have no effect on him. Then I quickly looked away, doing my best to concentrate on the colorless curtains in the room and the window they housed that let the sunlight in. It was bright yellow, slowly deepening into orange, and left traces of this shade in the room. The shadow it cast danced on the floor in congruence with the leaves that flickered on the trees outside and reappeared in loosely contoured silhouettes on the walls.
“Your room seems nice,” I said, my voice shaking.
He shrugged his shoulders and looked out the window.
I stood there for a few moments, the distance between where I was and where he was seemed to widen and become a valley of its own.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Terrible, actually, thanks for asking.”
Realizing that I walked right into that answer, I looked down at my shoes, which were huddled together as if whispering secrets to one another. The laces were only slightly worn and looked more like whiskers to me. Then I looked over again at Brian, who had taken his gaze away from the window and was now looking at me. His intense glare had softened into a petulant scowl as if he was waiting for me to speak again.
“I’m sorry about hitting you,” I blurted this out, surprised to hear the words leave my mouth. His reaction was similar to mine and his expression began to return to something resembling the one he always wore – mischievous.
“Daddy tell you to say that?” he smiled, a little venomously.
I thought about an answer.
“Don’t answer that,” he said, devolving into hostility again and looking away, which bought me some time to consider his question. The ticks of the clock emerged to the foreground and suddenly, the more immersed I became in thought, the more the extraneous, and as some would call it, insignificant sound around me seemed to magnify, though it somehow did so without becoming a distraction. I thought about my father and remembered his hat I was wearing. It always seemed to have such meaning to him and, even though his wife, the mother I was so close to finally having, wanted the vase to represent home for me, I realized in that moment that his hat already served that purpose.
“Yes,” I spoke. Brian had since lied back in his bed and turned the television on. He looked at me without turning his head away from the show he was watching, then he shook his head at my answer.
“At least, I came here at first because I felt like I had to. But now I think it’s the right thing to do. So I don’t think I should leave here without saying it one more time. I shouldn’t have hit you, Brian. I didn’t mean to respond that way, it just happened. I think a lot of what I did to you didn’t really have much to do with you, if that makes sense.”
He was now giving me his full attention.
“I know what they say about me, you know. That I’m adopted and unwanted. But when I think about it, I think being adopted might mean the opposite.”
He wrinkled his nose, and I had never before seen him look so confused.
“I mean that my father and his wife chose me. They saw who I already was and chose me to be their family anyway. I wouldn’t be in my father’s life unless they looked for me. I didn’t just happen to him.”
He still looked confused, though more pensive. He was staring at the television though I could tell he wasn’t really seeing any of the images on the screen.
“But anyway…I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me someday and that you get well soon.”
He still stared at the television, still lost in thought.
“Well, I’m gonna go now. Take it easy on our class.” I softly smiled at this last sentence and then walked towards the door. As I turned the handle and opened it, I paused, half expecting to hear Brian utter something of a return apology, but only heard the sound of my father outside instead, talking to Brian’s mother. Though we were in a hospital, a place that triggered some of my worst flashbacks, the sound of his voice made me feel like anywhere could be safe as long as he was there.
That afternoon, on the drive home, we rode by plains of green grass that seemed to unfold before the road like a rolling carpet. The stillness of the blades as we passed miles of plateaued land and the way that the branches on the idle trees subtly shifted – creating motion without commotion – made me wonder if this was what heaven is like. I looked up at my father who had a peaceful gaze fixed on the road. I thought about the first time we met, how I nervously walked into the room where he was sitting and could only see the back of his head at first. I remember sitting down cautiously and taking notice of the vibrant green hat he was wearing.
“Hi,” he said, sweetly. “My name is Henry.”
I only stared.
“I’m really happy to meet you, Samantha. Do people call you Sam?” he asked.
I didn’t respond.
“I’m a pastor. I have a really nice congregation I preach to every Sunday. I think you’re gonna like them a lot.”
I remained quiet, distracted by the brightness in his eyes.
“That’s a pretty hair clip you’re wearing,” he said, “is that your favorite color?”
It matched the shade of his hat. I nodded.
“Hey, mine too. See?” He took off his hat, revealing a full head of hair.
“Do you like this hat? It’s my favorite,” he noticed me staring at the words stitched on top of it.
I didn’t respond, only continued gazing.
“It says, ‘But take heart.’ It’s one of my favorite phrases in the whole world and it was said by my favorite person in the whole world.”
I curiously tilted my head and squinted my eyes.
“Here,” he said, extending the hat to me.
I examined it for a while, then took it from his hands. It was valley green with white stitching and made me think of the forest.
“It’s better if you wear it like this, see,” he carefully adjusted the hat on top of my head. “Perfect,” he said, “it looks like it was made for you.”
There was a mirror on the other side of the room, and, with his encouragement, I got up from my chair to take a look at myself. The hat hung loosely on my head, but I liked the way it looked on me. The words on top of it gave me a feeling of steadiness, though I didn’t understand what they meant.
I spent the rest of that first meeting with my father, listening to him talk about his job as a pastor, his favorite food and movies, his home, his parents, where he grew up, his wife who wished she could have met me but passed away from stomach cancer before she had the chance. This man, who was sitting in front of me, with the gentle eyes and the animated voice, managed to awaken an excitement in me for a life I didn’t even have yet, despite my previous experience in foster homes. Though I’ve thus far spent my life forgetting my past, something I’ll always remember are the last words he said to me that first time I met him, words that I didn’t know I’d been waiting to hear my entire life until he spoke them into existence. He told me: “Before we start our adventure together, Samantha, there’s something that I need to tell you and need you to always remember from now on. Once a daughter, always a daughter. And because you will forever be my child, loved will always be a part of who you are.”
Looking back, something about my father made me feel like I had been loved long before I even knew it.