Fourteen years later, I still dream of her....
I find myself slipping back in time as if not a day has passed. The images are fragmented, not in any particular sequence, as if they are occurring at the same precise moment in time. But I can't miss the scents of vanilla and pizza ... the sound of oldies playing in the background ... the glisten of her brunette hair in the afternoon light. Then comes the relentless sense of dread, building into sudden panic, and the slippery feel of her silky blouse in my fingers ... the momentary burst of relief ... she's safe ... and the final piercing echo of her scream.
Usually when I awaken, I'm gasping for breath and soaked in sweat. Donna wakes up beside me and touches my shoulder. "Are you okay, Stephen?"
I swallow hard, then nod. I'm sorry I've awakened her, and I hope she doesn't ask any further.
"The same dream?"
I'm tempted to fudge my answer: a little different, or kinda—just to spare her feelings. But Donna knows the truth, and although she pretends otherwise, my answer breaks her heart. I give her assurances which she accepts graciously, and then she strokes my back momentarily—sleep tight, Stephen—and turns over.
Later, as I feign sleep and as Donna slumbers beside me, I ponder the dream, and in spite of myself, I still wonder....
What if I had saved Alice? Where would all of us be? Alice, Donna, and me.
I'm aware of my wife's gentle form beside me. In the stillness, I sense the rise and fall of her breathing. I gently place my hand on her hip, feel the warmth of her, and guilt consumes me.
When I think of our sleeping daughter, Alycia, I get up and wander my way downstairs to open her door quietly—my little girl hidden beneath a mound of pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals. I watch until I detect the rise and fall of her breathing.
Another shudder of relief washes over me, not unlike the dream, only this one is real.
Alycia was only ten when she came to me with a matter of life-and-death consequences. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was relaxing on our secondhand pea green couch watching an exhibition game on our fuzzy TV. My spirits were bright because the Twins were pummeling the Rangers.
Wearing faded jeans and a pink Hello Kitty T-shirt, Alycia meandered into the living room and plopped herself onto a brown corduroy floor pillow.
I turned on my side and appraised her sudden melancholy. "What's the matter, Alley Cat?"
She looked away and sighed. "I throw like a girl."
This is as earthshaking as it normally gets for my melodramatic daughter, but rarely am I presented with such opportunities. "Maybe because you are one?"
"Da-ad," she whined. "It's not funny." She twisted on the floor to face me. "I want to make the team, okay?"
The team? "Surely you don't mean ... the boys' softball team?"
"Yes," she said, her squint intended to nip my playful chauvinism in the bud. "They're letting girls try out."
Her squint turned into a frown. "So what am I supposed to do?"
I was reminded of my own childhood obsession with the sport—collecting cards and plastering my walls with pennants. I wasn't much younger than my daughter when our next-door neighbor gave me an old ball and mitt, and I remember bursting into our trailer, hoping to persuade my dad to throw with me. He did, lasting all of five minutes.
"Got an idea for you," he said, heading back in. "You're gonna love it, Stephen."
Next day after school I found a strange, beat-up apparatus in our side yard, resembling a sideways trampoline. My father introduced me to my new "friend."
"It bounces the ball back to you," he told me. "That way you don't need me." He tousled my hair and returned to the trailer as I proceeded to throw the ball against the canvas monstrosity. I lasted all of five minutes.
I now turned to my daughter, and with what I hoped was a twinkle in my eyes, said, "I'm afraid you'll have to accept your lot in life. You're a girl and girls don't—"
Wham! The brown pillow hit me squarely on the head. Gleefully Alycia leapt to her feet and began pelting me. My arms provided little protection, and my chortles only riled her further. Finally, with the pillow lodged against my important air cavities, we reached a truce.
Instead of our usual father-daughter activities—kite flying, bike riding, or library lurking—we commenced vigorous training sessions. For several hours each day after school, I taught her the rudiments of the game—how to throw and hit, how to catch grounders, and how to pitch. All that was missing was the theme from Rocky.
Six weeks later she tried out, and later that evening, I was the one who took the call from Coach Wolf: Alycia had made the team. I'd never seen her so psyched. By the end of summer, I was in the stands when my daughter, the only girl on the boys' team, hit a home run. She crossed home plate, turned and waved to me, and the catcher followed the direction of her gaze. My heart swelled with pride as I read her lips. That's my dad!
After the final game, she hung up her cap and never looked back. "Been there, done that."
"That's it?" I complained. "After all our hard work?"
"I'm a girl, remember?"
That retort inaugurated a spirited chase around our house—living room to kitchen to bedroom to hallway back to the living room, over and over again—followed by a visit to the Ice Cream Shoppe on Sixth Avenue, where we discussed my daughter's next big challenge.
"Sewing?" I suggested, licking my cone. "Cross-stitch, perhaps? Or ..."
She narrowed her eyes.
" ... basket weaving," I finished excitedly. "There's an idea worth exploring."
"I'm thinking brain surgery," Alycia replied, licking her own cone. "But I might need a few years to prepare."
"A few," I agreed.
As we sat in the frenetic atmosphere of an ice cream store, the casual observer would have seen the kind of father-daughter relationship that often takes decades to develop, if it ever materializes at all.
But things were different for Alycia and me. Her mother occasionally lamented that she felt like an outsider looking in on a private party, a perception I tried to dispel with little success. The truth was, Alycia and I had a special bond.
Alycia—pronounced Ah lee see ah, which she later shunned for the more traditional Ah lish ah—was a pretty brunette girl, waif thin, approximately five feet of pure energy. Graceful like a cat, she seemed destined to avoid the usual adolescent awkward stage, and yet, in spite of her athletic gifts, her heart-shaped face was almost doll-like—ivory soft with high cheekbones, expressive blue eyes, and the cutest little Minnie Mouse ears.
"She's all eyes," her mother liked to say, and sometimes Alycia, in the right light, seemed European, a reflection of my distant French ancestry. To me, Alycia's features were reminiscent of an adolescent Audrey Hepburn—only with wavy curls. When I first told her this, her face clouded with despair. "Audrey who?"
"You know. My Fair Lady."
"Just you wait, 'enry 'iggins!" I taunted her as only a father can, to which she covered her ears and moaned.
As with all pre-adolescent girls, "appearance" dominated Alycia's attention. About a year after her home run, she arrived home from school on the brink of tears. In spite of our persistent inquiries, she refused to open up. "It's just so ... terrible," she finally wailed. "It's too terrible to say."
I might have been more concerned if I hadn't been familiar with Alycia's tendency for theatrics. She slunk off to her downstairs room, closed the door, and turned off the lights. She sat in darkness for nearly two hours until I decided it was time to make another effort.
When I knocked, a quivering voice whispered back, "What does a girl have to do to get ice cream?"
At the Ice Cream Shoppe she finally fessed up. I'd been prepared for something earth-shattering: perhaps a popular boy had looked at her wrong, possibly one of her best girlfriends had dropped her, or maybe she'd blown a test.
Instead, she pointed to a bald man across the room, eating an ice cream sundae. As he did so, his unusually large ears twitched.
"That's it, Dad. That's my fate." Her voice carried the tone of deep regret.
I was confused. "You're losing your hair?"
"Da-a-d! Pay attention!"
I took another hard look and caught the man's eye. He smiled at me, and I returned it, then looked at my melancholy daughter for a much-needed explanation.
Alycia wilted. I was supposed to read her mind. She swallowed hard, and her eyes became circles of vulnerability. "Dad ... my ears stick out."
I resisted the inclination to smile. "Yes, I know. It's cute ... like Minnie—"
"No, Dad. My ears really stick out." Angrily she pulled back her chin-length hair. "Still think it's funny?"
I felt my eyebrows rise. She wasn't kidding. Somewhere between age ten and eleven they'd mushroomed.
"Jeff called me Shrek-a-lina."
I frowned. Shrek-a-lina?
"You know? Shrek? From the movie?"
I paused, then moved quickly to potential solutions. "So ... try a new hairstyle."
"They'll just stick out no matter what I do," she whimpered. "And look even worse."
I leaned forward to analyze the situation. "Maybe it's temporary," I suggested. "Maybe in time they'll ... flatten, or shrink, or ... maybe your head will grow larger!"
Her eyes glistened. "Home-school me."
"How can I do that?" I asked. "Your mother and I both work."
A new wave of despondency fell over her.
"Why don't you try sleeping on them ... you know, flatten 'em out?"
"I already sleep on my ears," she shot back. "C'mon, everyone sleeps on their ears!"
After driving back home, I brought Alycia into the brightly lit dining room. "Sit down," I said. "And hold still."
She frowned but complied. At the table, I examined her ears, pressing, pushing, prodding, and analyzing the intricate folds.
"No more jokes," she warned.
The next week, I promptly commenced research on the Web, and later, during the weekend, I spent three hours at Alexander Mitchell Library. Convinced I was on to something, I called several Ear, Nose, and Throat doctors, suffering through countless referrals for plastic surgeons. Since insurance wouldn't cover a penny, I finally settled on the plan we could afford. Having cautioned me to be extremely careful, Donna was still at work when I sat Alycia down in the living room, her expressive eyes wary but hopeful.
Without preamble, I announced my plan. "We'll pin 'em back."
A moment of incredulous silence passed. "You've got to be kidding."
"Why not?" I argued. "Your friends pierce everything else, don't they? Belly buttons? Eyebrows? Lips? Nostrils?"
Removing a textbook from my leather satchel, I turned to a middle page, showed her some ear diagrams, and explained the finer points of ear flesh and cartilage. The more we discussed it, the more animated she became. "We simply close these two folds with a skin-colored tightening pin."
"Show me in the mirror," she said.
We went into the bathroom, and I demonstrated by squeezing the two folds together. As I pinched, the ears twitched flat.
Her eyes widened. "What does Mom think?"
I gave her the modified version.
"You're kidding. Mom approves?"
I nodded. Although "approves" may have been a bit optimistic, I can say with assurance Donna did not disapprove.
She looked down, considering everything, then looked up. "So ... who would actually do this for me?"
I took a deep breath. "I'll do it."
"You'll do it?"
"I've studied this," I explained. "I know exactly where to punch the holes."
Alycia raised her eyebrows. "Exactly where to punch the holes?"
I touched her right ear again. "If I do it right here and here, we're set. And if it doesn't work, we'll let the holes heal up and try again."
Alycia put her arms on my shoulders and peered into my eyes, as if searching into my very soul. I rubbed my hands together with ghoulish delight and spoke in my well-practiced Transylvanian accent. "So, my little princess ... do you trust me?"
She grimaced, which I accepted as an affirmative gesture. Still rubbing my hands, I stood up, but she pulled me down again. "Dad ... do you think God cares about stuff like this?"
I hesitated, taken off guard. Our eyes met as she waited for an answer. Truth was, as a kid, I did. These days if I so much as dared to send a prayer heavenward, I could all but hear the slamming of a door, the clicking of a lock, and a deep but muffled voice, Go away, we're closed for business!
I knew what Donna might say: The hairs on your head are numbered, remember? So I mentioned it.
"Oh yeah," Alycia said, brightening. "I forgot."
"I'm sure God has noticed your ears as well," I said, then surprised myself by adding, "The Bible also says, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, move, and it will."
The second it was out of my mouth, I felt like a fake. Who did I think I was, acting as an apologist for God? Besides, in a world of famine, disease, and death, I didn't think Shrek-a-lina ears qualified for God's overt attention.
"A mustard seed is pretty small, isn't it?" she asked.
"Tiny," I agreed.
Alycia's excitement grew. "And Jesus healed people all the time, didn't He?"
"Well ... I think my faith is a little bigger than a mustard seed," she announced.
"There you go."
"So ... can we pray about this?"
I cleared my throat. "Sure."
She scowled. "I'll pray, Dad. You just relax."
"I'll do it," I insisted, and she looked at me warily. I reached for her hands, and we closed our eyes. I whispered an awkward prayer, and when I finished, she seemed suddenly calm. "Okay. All set."
Ten minutes later, she sat on a bathroom chair as I proceeded to numb her ears, then disinfect them. Alycia kept her eyes closed, and breathed heavily. Her panic returned with the first punch. She grimaced and whined, "Dad, don't mess up! Don't scar me for life! Don't ruin my romantic future!"
"Sssshhhh...." I whispered.
"I can't sssshhhh!"
"And don't talk about your romantic future to me, please."
"Face it, Dad, I'm blossoming."
I punched the last hole.
"You couldn't feel that."
"It felt like I felt it!"
Finally ... I installed the pins and stepped back. Sniffing tentatively, she stood up. Facing the mirror together, I braced myself as Alycia stared at her image in disbelief.
Amazing. Her ears were hardly distinguishable at the sides of her head.
Alycia burst into tears and hugged me tightly. "I love you, Dad."
I chuckled wryly and demurred her praise, but she shook my shoulders with wild abandon. "I'm serious! You saved my life."
I chuckled again. "Well ... maybe not your life."
Wide-eyed, she shook her head adamantly. "I beg to differ, Daddy dearest." She looked at me with such adoration, it took my breath away. She hugged me again, so tightly, it would have required the Jaws of Life to peel her away.
"And thank you, God," she whispered into my chest. "Thank you for giving me the coolest, smartest Dad!"
While I didn't mind sharing the credit, it all seemed so melodramatic. Then again, my daughter was the ultimate drama queen. You saved my life, she'd said, and yet when I look back on that day, I tremble.
What I wouldn't give to have it all back.