Wandering Far

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Frankie kept talking but still refused to look at me, making his words seem more a soliloquy—a prayer, even—than a conversation. “I remember going to the store with Tara when she was six,” he said. “I got to talking to this guy I knew. Just shootin’ the breeze, you know? Tara wandered off.” I leaned back in my chair and took a sip of coffee. Frankie’s, I noticed, was still full. Customers milled about chattering of weather and news. Like Frankie and me, they spoke of things unchangeable. “I just looked down to rub her head, and she was gone. Gone. Know how that feels?” I didn’t know whether to nod or listen. I nodded. If Frankie saw it, he let it go unmentioned. “I just panicked. Just turned and left, leavin’ the guy I was talking to standing right there in the middle of the store. I ran down every aisle, asked people if they’d seen my daughter, everything. I swear, that was the worst feeling in the world.” “Until now,” I said. Frankie stared out of the window toward the parking lot, looking. I knew that what his gaze searched for wouldn’t be found out there. I also knew he had to look anyway. “Know where I found her?” I had the faint urge to say that yes, I did know. That he had told that same story to me three times in the last week. But I didn’t. It wouldn’t matter. And it would have been cruel. Frankie continued, “Nowhere. I didn’t find her at all. She found me.” He continued his watch outside, both studying faces and seeing none. “She just came skipping up the aisle right at me. I gobbled her up in my arms like…I don’t know. Like someone who’s lost a limb and is trying to put it back on. Guess that sounds a little gross.” It did, but I shook my head as if it didn’t. “It was just the strangest thing, you know? I was the one upset, and she was the one calm and relaxed. I was almost cryin’ I was so scared. And she’s just promising over and over that she’d never wander far. Never.” Frankie stopped then. His point, though perhaps weak, had still been made.

I wondered for a moment what hurt him more—the fact that his daughter had left, or that she had broken her promise. “What’s she thinkin’?” he asked, this time not to the window or himself or God, but to me. “I don’t know, Frankie. Kids that age do stupid stuff. I did. You did. It’s part of growing up, I guess.” There was a flash of anger in his eyes. “I tore up mailboxes and egged the teacher’s car. I didn’t run off with some druggie who’d just as soon smack my own daughter in the face as say hello.” He was right. It was my turn to stare out the window. “Know what’s the worst?” he asked. “Kim and I, we raised Tara to go to church and believe in God. To know what’s good and what ain’t. We have a tight family, you know? We love each other. Always have. More than anything else, that’s the worst—we did everything right and everything still went wrong.”

Those were the words that stuck to me. My own children were still safely ensconced in the loving arms of not only their father, but their innocence. We had a long way to go before either of them were old enough to decide they knew what was best. A long way before they were deceived into thinking their parents were the enemy and the heart always spoke the truth. But I knew then on that day I had been deceived as well. I thought that if children were brought up well enough, everything would always be good. Not fine, of course. But good. Frankie and Kim thought that, too. Then their daughter became a stranger to them. Then she left. Frankie looked at me for the first time. “She wandered that day but she found me. Do you think she’ll find me again? You think I’ll get to gobble her up in my arms?” I didn’t know. Couldn’t know. We raise our children to battle this world, but we cannot fight for them. We teach them to walk, but we cannot choose their path. And we can give them light, but they are the ones who must shine it.

Post by Billy Coffey of Photo by Kelly Langner Sauer of {this} restless heart.