“Checkmate,” she beamed at her father, looking up from the board, completely pleased with herself. He’d let her put him into checkmate a thousand times if it meant getting to see that smile plastered on her face. She looked older to him, different somehow, he’d missed half of a year. Cece’s hair was longer, straighter, (she’d done that herself, no doubt) and her clothing was different. She’d switched from bright pink sweaters to more muted tones, athletic wear the only thing she adorned, and behind her ear, there was a tiny strip of purple in her hair. He’d noticed, but not dared say anything. It wasn’t his favorite addition to this new and improved Cecelia, but he was a Dad. And being a Dad meant one thing, you pick your battles. After this morning’s battle of chess, it was time for him to get into another.
“So, Mom said,” He was practicing, it was hard. His hands were sore, weak, and this was so unfamiliar, but the pediatric audiology team had been so patient with him and Pam, as well as Cece, but she’d picked it up the quickest, he moved his thumb to his chin, “that you’re not too thrilled about the hearing aids,” She immediately rolled her eyes at him, and moved back away from the table. Her good ear had been turned toward him, but he watched as she carefully adjusted herself in her seat. This new tactic of his daughters was a way for her to literally tune him out. He was rendered pretty helpless in that bed unless he could sign to her, and that had become his newest challenge yet.
He wiggled his fingers in her direction, You need to wear them, don’t you want to be able to hear everything around you? He struggled, but managed through a sentence. English order first he’d been instructed, and they’d move to more accurate ASL order later. She looked up at him surprised. Cece was convinced her Dad only knew maybe 30 signs or so, but every day when her Mom picked her up from the hospital, and in the weeks prior, he studied. He couldn’t go far, so it was youtube tutorials, and meetings with her audiology team, and finding a local resource center in Austin that would give him lessons virtually. He was as invested in learning this language as he was motivated to get out of the hospital. Neither of these things seemed very achievable each day, but he kept going, and mostly because every morning, he’d wake up to Cece eating her breakfast on his side table, ready for their day of school.
She stared at him for a long moment, and slipped her hearing aids in from her pocket, and he smiled at her. One of the Dad he smiles he saved for special occasions, she knew them all too well. When he saw her in her dress for their Daddy-Daughter Dance in first grade, when she’d taken her first Holy Communion, when she’d fessed up to lying about cheating on a test. Those smiles were just for her, and she immediately moved herself over to his bed,
“Push over,” she instructed, grabbing her notebook and her laptop and pulling them into his bed. The two of them fit rather comfortably side by side, and she’d show him her work for each class, he’d assist when necessary, and continued to keep her motivated by asking for treats from the nurses station most of the day. Ginger ale had become Cece’s new favorite beverage of choice, and she knew every nurse by name. They ended their day with a quick ASL lesson she’d give her Dad. Today, she was showing him how to sign classroom.
“Classroom sure looks a lot like the sign for family,”
“Yeah,” she muttered, showing him the sign again.
“Do you miss school?” He asked, raising an eyebrow.
She paused, taking the time to ponder. She was never one to answer quickly, always thinking, “No,” she said firmly. “The kids in school don’t know how to sign, I can’t hear very well with everyone talking, and I’d rather be here with you, Daddy,”
Daddy she knew the key to his heart. He sighed, pulling her off his lap and next to him in bed. He was so glad to finally be wearing his own clothes, and surrounded by familiar blankets and pillows from home.
“I get to ask you a question now,” she spoke up after a few minutes, her face scrunched up into his side.
“Go right ahead,”
“When are you going to stand up?”
He’d tried. Well, maybe tried was a strong word. He’d made some attempts, became frustrated, and moved back to his chair or the bed,
“Honey, I don’t know,”
“Mom says she knows you can do it. But that you don’t think you can,” she immediately covered her mouth as though she’d let something Pam asked her not to say slip out. Cece had a way of always keeping him on his toes. She was so much like him, yet Pam’s reminder of his abilities and his purpose was always on the verge of Cece’s lips. She was full of gratitude, reminders of courage, and wanting to support him; when all the while, he’d been concerning himself with how to support his daughter in these new challenges.
He hung his head for a moment, then reached up, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Can I tell you a story?” He asked. She nodded, moving to face him so she could easily read his lips.
“A really long time ago, wayyyy back before dinosaurs, your Mom and I were pretty cool,” she giggled, pulling a pillow to her chest. She’d loved his stories. “But,” he paused, “We weren’t always so honest with ourselves, and we certainly weren’t as brave as you are,” she cocked her head in disbelief. Her mother and father were the bravest people she knew.
“See, I ran away when I got scared to a really busy, and smelly land called Connecticut,” she chuckled at him,
“Dad, I know where Connecticut is,” she rolled her eyes at him and smiled,
“Annnnyway,” he continued, “Your mom and I spent a long time when I moved back to Pennsylvania not trying our best, to be honest with ourselves, and each other. We avoided it because it was hard,” she was listening carefully, he filled in with signs as he remembered them.
“Your Uncle Michael, took us to the beach one day, right before Mommy and I became boyfriend, girlfriend,” he always tried to use verbiage she understood,
She started laughing, “I remember, and Kevin ate so many hotdogs Mom puked, and you sang songs on the bus, and Uncle Michael made everybody play stupid games to see who would be manager, I know Dad,” she replied with confidence.
The kids weren’t old enough for the documentary. Maybe they’d never be, but they’d been kept from it, out of the limelight of their two seconds of fame with PBS, and the DVD’s were stashed away in the house. She may have known some of their story, but only the parts they chose to share,
“Did you know your Mom walked on fire?” Okay, so he was improvising...a little.
“What?” she yelled, her eyes widening.
“Yep, Uncle Michael was going to do it, but he chickened out, and your Mom walked across fire, and then she came and talked to me, and she was the bravest I’d ever seen her. Until now. Mommy’s been pretty brave lately,” guilt made his stomach turn,
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked him, pulling one of his quilts around her, the cool air in the hospital sending a shiver down her spine.
“Because, your Dad’s not being very brave right now,” he stated matter of factly.
“I’m scared,” he paused and let the silence sit between them, his hands clenched lingering near his chest, signing to her.
“It’s my turn now,” she broke the silence between them. He tilted his head, “to tell you a story,” she finished.
“Dad,” she glanced down at her hands, fiddling with a mermaid mood ring on her pinky, and chipping away at the yellow polish on her nails.
“I saw you,” her eyes made direct contact with his, and he watched as they filled, and told him so much with so few words, “I saw you that day, The day we never talk about,” She wiped an eye,
“Cee, you don’t have to-”
“Mom thinks I don’t remember. I told her I don’t remember, because I don’t want to do what Philip had to do. And when I have nightmares, I just stay in my bed, and hold my pillows and I sing the song we sing all the time together, do you remember, the one about being brave?”
“I remember,” his voice was barely audible,
“When I went to Emily G’s house for her birthday last summer, I lied and told you we watched Frozen 3, but really we watched this scary movie about zombies, and I was so scared I couldn’t sleep all night,” she wrinkled her brow, apologizing with every tone in her voice,
“Daddy,” she’d begun to weep, “you were all…” she stopped, putting her hands up against her face, pushing her fogging glasses up against her forehead.
“C’mere,” he put his arms out, and pulled her around his torso, her legs dangling on both sides of him, her head on his chest. She was so tall, so heavy. He moved his fingers through her curls, separating them, and rubbing his thumb against her scalp,
“We’re not always brave Dad, and that’s okay,” she mumbled through tears, “I wasn’t brave that day,” she looked up at him, “but I never thought I’d hear you talk again, and I never thought we’d play games together, or watch Top Gun together when Mom wasn’t home ever again,” her voice was mixed with sobs, and he continued to rub her head, then her back and finally she quieted down after a moment or two.
“Cecelia, you are the bravest girl I know,” he lifted her face up to face him, “look at this scar on your forehead,” he ran his thumb over it, “you are bad ass” he grinned at her.
“You're brave too, Dad,” she sat up.
“That’s why I did this,” she pulled the curtain away from both of them, motioning behind her at his wheelchair in the room. It was covered in slime. Green, wet, sticky, slime. The absolute bane of his existence as a father. He couldn’t help but laugh at what his daughter had pulled off sometime in the midst of a science project, and an afternoon nap.
“Today, we’re going to walk to the window,” she stood up, off the bed and moved around putting her hands out. He wrapped his large hands around her tiny ones, noticing every nail bed was perfectly intact. She’d stopped biting. Who was this girl in front of him?