The Last Night
I promised her I’d stay by her side until she fell asleep.
We talked through the night, her exuberant, high-pitched voice never waning. A few times, her little eyelids would flutter and I’d gently caress her cheek with my index finger and they’d flit right back open as if taken by a soft breeze, and her lips would curl up into that impish little smile, capped by those irresistible dimples.
“Daddy,” she squeaked, and slapped my arm playfully. “You keep wakin’ me up!” That endearing, frolicsome grin killed me.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. You’re just more fun when you’re awake,” I said with a wink.
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She rubbed her sky-blue eyes with two miniature fists.
“Daddy, when are we going back to the zoo?”
“Soon, honey, I promise.”
“And can we please just stay a little longer this time?”
“Of course we can. As long as Mommy doesn’t get cranky. You know Mommy.”
I winked again and she giggled.
“Oh, and I’ll drive this time! You and Mommy can just sit in the back and re-e-e-e-e-lax. That way you’ll have plenty of energy!”
She laid on her side and was crunched up in a ball. I placed my hand on her arm and glanced at Monica, her mother and my wife, sleeping for the first time in over a day on the gray chair next to the window.
“What a fantastic idea,” I said softly. “You’re such a generous girl.”
She raised her eyebrows up in a playful expression of pride.
I began stroking her hair and thought I’d be perfectly happy for the rest of my life sitting at her bedside, stroking her light brown hair, and teasing her into that frisky little grin. I lived for that. I lived for her.
She sighed tiresomely.
“Daddy, I’m sleepy.”
I looked at her affectionately.
“I know, sweetheart. But tonight’s the only night you get to stay up as lo-o-o-o-ng as you want.”
“The only night?”
“The only night, sweetie. Remember Daddy told you this was our one special night.”
“Okay, Daddy.” Her eyes lit up, abruptly alarmed. “But what about movie marathon night?”
“Well of course movie marathon night.” Her face softened in relief.
“But that’s not for a while.” I winked.
“I know, I know,” she said.
I glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand. 2:48 a.m. If there was a god, he’d have to give me a few more hours.
But the minutes passed and her alertness declined. I tried to keep up the conversation, bring up her favorite things — elephants, cars, karate. But her pallid face was draining of color like an old painting, her body consumed by something I couldn’t protect her from. The doctors had said there was nothing left we could do. The cancer had spread too far. I imagined it, devilish and cunning, ruthlessly eating away at her insides, drilling its black ugly teeth into her innocence.
Looking at her expressionless face in that moment, I remembered her first tee-ball game. She wore the brand new white baseball pants I had just bought her along with her blue uniform with the number 5 inscribed plainly in white on the back. When she pranced up to the batter’s box, her black, far-too-loose helmet shook with each step so that the brim often protruded down over her face, forcing her to adjust it once she reached the box.
“C’mon Shayla!” I yelled. “You can do it, sweetie!”
Her coach observed from the dugout and offered similar encouragement.
“Eye on the ball, girly,” he yelled. “Sock it outta here, number five!”
She stood motionless for a moment, staring at the ball as if eyeing her prey, her shoulders moving up and down with each enormous, nervous breath.
Then suddenly she swung, a mighty, violent whiff that caused her whole body to swivel around in the opposite direction. The ball remained securely perched on the tee.
As she swiveled around, we made eye contact. I noticed her somewhat shocked expression, as if she had never considered the possibility of missing the ball altogether.
I scowled, trying to remind her of what we talked about in the car.
What would you do if the ball said something mean to Mommy?
Upon pondering that for a moment, she grimaced and glared and growled while clenching both of her fists.
When you get up to bat, I said, pretend like the ball is Mommy’s worst enemy. I want to see exactly that face.
She promised to treat the ball like Mommy’s arch nemesis and I certainly did not doubt her potential for fierceness.
So when I scowled at her from the bleachers, she nodded as if remembering our little agreement, and then she scrunched up her nose, frowned, and glared right back at me before facing the tee once more. Then, with little hesitation, she offered a thunderous swing and the ball sailed over the shortstop’s head and into the grass in left field before rolling all the way to the fence.
I leaped from my seat and cheered fervently like a child, losing my breath, mindlessly ecstatic at watching her succeed, witnessing my little girl getting her first hit.
Her helmet fell off before she reached first base. As she bolted through the base paths, she maintained that very same expression of ferociousness, and I didn’t think anything would stop her from propelling her adorable little body around that diamond. Her scowl finally broke into a bright, elated smile before she reached home plate and by this time all the parents were on their feet, cheering number five on to a home run. She was invincible.
Gazing down at her from beside the hospital bed, I yearned for that day at the ballpark. My watering eyes distorted her glistening chubby cheeks, and unexpectedly I yelped like a moaning dog and cast my arms around her tiny body and laid my head upon her chest and wept.
“Shayla,” I whispered through a wall of moisture. “Daddy loves you.”
I imagined her making eye contact with me from the batter’s box, her playful grin awakening everything inside of me that was good, everything that was meaningful, everything that was worth something. My head against her heart, I felt her fall asleep for the last time.