I opened my eyes to see the large blue eyes of my daughter staring back at me, a grin that could be described as both toothy and toothless plastered across her face. My body was supporting the weight of hers, and I couldn’t be sure if she had just arrived, or if she had been there for a while waiting for me to awaken. My entire life I had hated being woken up. Sleeping was my favorite activity for most of my existence. Any time I woke up to her face though, it was a great moment.
“Morning, Daddy,” Scarlett said, her breath pungent from a long night’s sleep and a complete disregard for brushing in the morning.
“Good Morning, Sweetness,” I said back. “What time is it?”
“7 o’clock,” she said. “You said if you weren’t up by now I was supposed to wake you up.”
I sat up in bed and wiped the sleep from my eyes. I looked at my daughter and my heart broke slightly at the fear of what this day held. She had no idea what was going on in our world, as I had worked hard to shield her from any problems that would arise from my past. I never wanted her to know about any of the heartbreak that occurred in the first few months after her birth.
“Where are we going today?” she asked me, her eyes filled with excitement.
“It’s a surprise,” I said, swinging my legs over the side of the bed. “I’m going to shower. I want you to brush your teeth, using toothpaste, and pick out your most favorite dress.”
Her smile grew abundantly wider when I said this, “Oh, we’re going to a fancy place.”
Faking a smile I nodded, “Yeah, sweetness, something like that.”
I grabbed my cell phone and took with me into the bathroom, searching for the right album for this morning. It was a morning filled with anxiety, concern, hope, as well as fear. After scrolling through my extensive music collection uploaded into my personal cloud, while sitting on the toilet, I decided the best album for today was Disintegration by The Cure. I pressed play and reached into the shower and turned the hot water all the way on. Today was not going to be a day in which I would want to be eased into life with a comfortable water temperature.
Stepping into the shower I thought about the beginning. I thought about all the nights I spent listening to Scarlett cry. Walking around, holding her, patting her back, wishing she would go to sleep so I could do the same. At the time those nights seemed never-ending, and I wished they would come to an end, but today I appreciated each and every moment I spent with her. Every memory, even the ones filled with stress and anxiety, was cherished.
I thought of her mom, April, and as the water that was scalding my skin washed over my body, leaving my skin pink, and sore, I wished I would have never met her, while also glad she gave me the greatest gift of my life. I thought of her short dark hair, her blue eyes, the way we would joke around about life, and how we were meant to be, knowing that we probably weren’t going to be together forever, but in the eyes of young love anything seemed possible.
I lowered my head as the water cascaded down my hair, over my body, washing the sins from the night before off my body, when I sat in bed crying, wanting a different life. April was the love of my life, even though the age difference between us seemed to make it an impossibility that we would have made it as long as we had.
She and I had met at work and, when I met her, I thought she was older than she was. She had an air of maturity about her that gave off the impression of a woman in her mid-twenties as opposed to a barely legal teenager. People talked about our relationship when it began but shortly into it everyone, including us, began to see that it made sense. A misconception that would eventually cost us everything.
When we discovered that the one missed period was more than any scare I had experienced before and that soon she and I would be parents, we were filled with excitement. Sure, we were scared about what the future would hold, but we knew that the two of us would be able to make it through any challenge presented to us.
Both of us immediately began to inhale every book on raising children that was written. We discussed names, schools, hopes, dreams, prayers, and fears, none of which were as scary as what would eventually happen. The day we discovered we were having a baby girl I remember the feeling of fear that swept through my body, because I knew there were guys out there like me in my youth whom I would want to protect her from her entire life. April told me not to worry because she knew the two of us would be there for her in every situation, and how there wasn’t a problem that would arise that we wouldn’t be able to guide her through.
April’s love of the book Gone With the Wind and my love of old movies landed us on the name Scarlett and at night, while we lied in bed next to each other, I would whisper to her through the thin layer of skin that protected her from the world. I told her we would love her forever, that our family was one of destiny, and whatever other cheesy things one says to their unborn child out of ignorance of what to say.
There were, of course, complications. Well, not so much complications, but worries as there are with every pregnancy. In the end though Scarlett came out perfect in every way. It was so odd to feel the exceptional amount of love for a being who only the day before wasn’t among us in this world. Her beautiful blue eyes, which she could have inherited from either April or myself, were filled with joy and happiness. There was hope exploding from every inch of her body, and at first we were the idealistic family. Nothing could have ruined our world.
In the aftermath many people had plenty of explanations about what happened. Some told me April was suffering from a severe case of postpartum depression. Others said she was too young and didn’t know how to handle the new amount of responsibility that had been thrust upon her. Some just said there was no acceptable explanation and felt for me, which I hated because I never wanted to receive someone’s pity. No matter the answer I will never forget the heartbreak I experienced that day.
I came home to see April sitting in the corner of a dark room, holding Scarlett ever so carefully, and I could hear the sound of crying, but not a baby’s cry, the cry of a woman.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She looked up at me, half surprised she didn’t notice me come in, half embarrassed I was witnessing her in this rare moment of weakness. She stood up and walked over to me, cradling our child.
“I’m sorry,” she said, still crying. “I just can’t do this.”
She handed me Scarlett, whom I carefully took into my arms and kissed her forehead.
“Can’t do what, baby?” I asked.
“Any of this,” she said. “I can’t do this. I’m not ready for this life, for this commitment, for this…any of this.”
She turned and walked into the bedroom where she already had a bag packed with a small fraction of her clothes. She had so many clothes. So many she refused to throw away no matter how many times I asked her if she needed all of them. Now she was suddenly ready to throw all of them away, along with Scarlett and myself.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t say it enough, but I have to go.”
As I stood there, watching the love of my life getting ready to walk out on our family, I was filled with an anger so unparalleled I could only stand there and shake, attempting to hold myself together while holding the child that bound she and I together for eternity.
“Are you serious?” I asked in an odd shouting whisper that displayed my sudden rage, while trying to to wake my sleeping daughter. “You’re walking out on me? On us?”
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “I just can’t.”
She picked up her bag and started walking toward the door, tears streaming down her face, me holding our baby.
“April,” I said. “You can’t leave us. What am I supposed to do? How can I do this without you?”
“You’re strong,” she said. “I’m not. You’ll be fine. I will only hold you back.”
She stopped and looked at me, her eyes red, puffy, and filled with regret. Reaching out she lightly placed her hand against my face.
“You’re going to make her a wonderful person,” she said. “I would only ruin her.”
She softly kissed me on the lips, then Scarlett’s forehead, and walked out the door. I followed her as quickly as I could hoping to see her change her mind. She continued to walk, getting smaller with each step, because I chased her as far as I was willing to at that moment.
“If you’re leaving,” I called out. “Don’t come back. Don’t think you will ever be forgiven for this. If you leave now, I’m telling her she has no mother.”
April didn’t stop though. I stood on the patio holding Scarlett, who was still sleeping, staring into the empty night feeling completely and totally lost. I looked down at Scarlett and cried. She opened her eyes and looked at me with concern. I feigned a smile, hoping to woo her back to sleep. Instead she reached out and wrapped her little fingers around my nose. A gurgle left her mouth and I felt my heart breaking inside my chest as it was filled with more fear than I had ever experienced. In that moment I was afraid I, too, couldn’t do this.
I still missed April. Almost every day. She was the love of my life, before she gave me Scarlett. Now Scarlett held that title. I still questioned whether or not I was a good father, but I was a father who stayed, which is what she needed. I wished April had stayed. There were days I thought I was going to fail as a parent. There were days I thought I needed the support. I knew there were many of those days to come in the future as well. Scarlett and I were getting by though, and we had made a happy life together.
“Daddy,” Scarlett said from outside the shower. “What time do we need to leave?”
“Soon,” I said, wiping the fresh tears from my eyes the shower just wasn’t powerful enough to wash away. “Soon, baby.”
I got out of the shower, dried off, and stared in the mirror. I looked into my eyes and felt nothing but sadness. A sadness I hadn’t felt since the day that April had walked out on us. I wanted to break down and give up, but I had to be strong today, not only for April, but for myself as well.
“Hey, Sweetness,” I said as I stared into the mirror.
“Yeah, Daddy?” she called, bounding into the bathroom wearing her favorite floral printed dress and pink Converse All-Stars, looking like a miniature girl from the grunge era going out on a date.
“I just wanted to tell you I will always love you,” I said.
“I love you too, Daddy.”
I looked into her beautiful eyes that she had inherited from both April and myself, and was filled with a strange sense of hope for the day, even though I knew how it was going to end. My life, and hers, was going to change.
I quickly got dressed and she and I jumped in the car after a quick breakfast of Lucky Charms, which normally I only gave her on weekends, but today it seemed acceptable to break a few rules.
“Where are we going, Daddy?” she asked again, as I was placing her in her car seat.
“We have to go to court, baby,” I said.
“For what?” she asked.
“We have to go see your mom,” I said.
She looked at me with confusion, fear, and anxiety.
“I have a mom?” she asked.
“You do,” I said, getting in the driver’s seat and starting the car.
“Is she moving in with us?” she asked.
“No, Sweetness,” I said. “She is not.”
“Are we moving in with her?”
“Well,” I said. “I’m not, but the court is deciding whether or not you are today.”
Scarlett looked at me completely unsure of what I was talking about.
“I’ll tell her you have to come too,” she said. “Then we can all live together.”
Tears built up in my eyes. My heart broke inside my chest yet again, and I tried to smile, but the best I could do was grimace.
“It’s going to be ok, Daddy,” she said. “Don’t be sad.”
I looked up at her in the rearview mirror, blinking back tears.
“You’re right, Scarlett,” I said. “Everything will be.”
I put the car in drive, and started out toward the courthouse hoping that my daughter wouldn’t see my cry on the way. I hadn’t been alone in years, and even though Scarlett was in the back seat I felt the impending loneliness creeping inside of my chest. Even though the sun was up high in the sky and there wasn’t a cloud in sight, it was the darkest moment of my life.