by LINDA W. ROOKS
As soon as we passed Everett Street, I spied the tall pine rising majestically above the red tile roof of our house—a welcome flag waving me home. I felt jittery with excitement.
When the car pulled alongside our two-story Spanish house, I smiled at the familiar sight of French-door windows standing open in the living room with rose-colored drapes blowing in the wind. Although I’d been away at college for only a few months, it was good to be home and see everything the same as I left it.
I was still collecting my belongings from the car when the front door flew open. My parents hurried toward the gate, smiling and waving. On the front walkway, Daddy stood back to let my mother greet me first, but even then I saw his smug grin and eyes teasing at me from behind dark-rimmed glasses. As I moved toward him, he extended his arms and drew me into that loving hug that always told me I was his little girl no matter how old I got. After a sweet moment between us, he patted me playfully on the back, a gesture I lovingly returned. We laughed and headed for the front door together.
Hellos and good-byes were Daddy’s specialties. Whenever I left for college or returned home for a break, I knew one of Daddy’s fond wrap-around hugs would be there to send me off or welcome me home. I would see the twinkle in his eye, the familiar grin, his arms reaching out to me and then feel the strong, tender warmth of his fatherly embrace, which lasted a moment or two, but held me securely for hours.
I was his little girl, his only daughter … the one he gave Eskimo kisses to at bedtime; the one who listened to him read “Tom Sawyer” while snuggled in his lap; the one he loved to tease, who laughed at his corny jokes; and the one who smiled back at him while listening to the song, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” I was the daughter he proudly escorted to Dad and Daughter dances and the one he walked down the aisle to give away to a man we both loved, but who would take me to the other side of the continent.
After I married a Florida native and moved 3,000 miles away from my California home, the same warm sentiment that encircled me with hugs evolved into the faithful expression of three treasured words on the telephone. At the end of every conversation Daddy’s voice grew husky and soft. “I love you,” he would say. I could always envision his solemn smile and the warmth in his eyes as he mouthed those words.
And at my end of the telephone wires, I always responded, “I love you too.”
It was our ritual for many years. At the end of every conversation, he said, “I love you,” and I always responded, “I love you too” … except for one bewildering night … the last time we ever spoke.
Whenever I left for college or returned home for a break, I knew one of Daddy’s fond wrap-around hugs would be there to send me off or welcome me home.
A week and a half before our family had arranged to fly to California for a vacation with my parents, my father called to talk to me on the phone about a Dodgers game we were planning to attend. He asked about our airplane arrival and a host of other things. But the conversation ended in a way I have spent years trying to understand. Why, on that particular occasion, did I neglect to do what I had always done before? Had I somehow decided that saying, “I love you,” to my father sounded childish or that it had become too repetitive of a ritual? Was I embarrassed to be heard saying those words from my end of the receiver? Or did I just decide to do something different—not to be so predictable? Why, the last time I talked to my father this side of eternity, did I make the rash, unprecedented decision not to respond as I had always responded every other time?
Daddy ended the conversation as always by saying, “I love you.”
And I? I said, “Uh huh.” That was all. For the first time in all those years, I did not answer by saying, “I love you too,” as was my usual custom. Four words that still tear at my heart every time I remember my odd reluctance to utter them. Because, a few nights later, a week before our trip to California, the angels came while my father slept peacefully in his bed and carried him away to Heaven.
I know it was peaceful. His eyes told me so as I looked at him for the last time in the viewing room at the mortuary a couple of days later. His eyes, though closed, were creased in the corners with that unmistakable smile. I could almost see the glow that must have shone over him as he was wrapped in the arms of angels and lifted On High. I saw no regrets, no pain, nothing that would make me feel I disappointed him. He and I had a special bond. He knew I loved him although I had undoubtedly disappointed his love many times, particularly, I imagine, when I left his beloved California to take a part of his heart 3,000 miles away to the humidity of a Florida climate he never could appreciate. But I disappointed myself in my love for him during those few seconds the last time we spoke, seconds that I’ve spent hours wishing I could relive, the few seconds I neglected to say, “I love you.” But standing there, studying his peaceful face, I said it now. It was my final opportunity to do it right. “I love you too,” I whispered.
One day we’ll meet again. When I picture Heaven, I picture my father coming toward me with that loving smirk and playful expression in his eyes. I know his arms will reach out to me. And even though it’s Heaven, I somehow think I’ll feel tears of joy streaming down my face as those unspoken words finally take form on my lips to my father’s listening ears. At last I’ll get to say, “I love you, Daddy.” And as he enfolds me in his arms, I know he’ll respond, “I love you too.”
In the meantime, I try to stay sensitive to others in my life who may need to hear my words of affection and affirmation, particularly those who are lonely and hurting or advancing in years. Saying, “I love you,” is such a simple thing to do and I never again want to miss the opportunity and know the regret of those unspoken words.
It is also comforting to know that actions often speak louder than words. We give love to others through our actions and choices made every day.
LINDA W. ROOKS is a freelance writer from Florida.