I parked my car in front of my daughter’s school and walked up to the front door. As I rang the bell I smiled. This is the best part of my day.
The door buzzed and I walked in. “Whose daddy is here?” the teacher called out as I walked down the hall. “Whose daddy is here?”
I heard giggling and the patter of little feet. Then my daughter poked her head around the corner and her face broke into a big smile.
“DADDY” she cried, breaking into a run. “It’s my Dad! My Dad!”
I knelt and held out my arms wide. One day Natalie won’t be so happy to see me. That’s the way it goes with parents and their children. But for now, I’m soaking it all up.
“Hello, darling,” I said, as Natalie crashed into me.
“Daddy…” Natalie cooed.
I planted a kiss on my daughter’s head and smelled the shampoo her mother used to wash her hair. “How was school?” I said.
“We played dinner party,” she said, taking me by the hand. “Come see.”
Natalie escorted me into the playroom and led me to a toy table groaning with toy food – plastic grapes, a rubber T-bone, pretend French fries, apples, bananas and a toy tea set.
“Wow,” I said, picking an item up. “That’s a lot of food. What’s this? A hamburger?”
“That’s bread,” her classmate said.
“Yum,” I said, pretending to take a bite. “Thank you.”
“Natalie asks a lot of questions,” her classmate said.
“We all have questions,” I said, smiling.
“I guess,” the girl said, rolling her eyes.
After collecting Natalie’s belongings and watching her hug everyone good bye, we walked to the car. “Do you want to go to the park?” I said.
“Yes, please!” Natalie cried. “Can I have an ice pop?”
I looked at my watch. Try as I might, I can never avoid the ice cream truck when I take my daughter to the park. Early, late – it doesn’t matter. The driver always seems to find us.
“We’ll see, Natalie. We’ll see.”
As we drove to the park I had the radio playing. Natalie asked, “What songs do you like Daddy?”
“I like lots of songs.”
“What’s your favorite?”
“Hmm…” I said. “Hang on for a sec.”
I pushed a switch on the steering wheel and, when the car’s computer voice prompted me, I asked it to play a golden oldie. “You’ll like this song, Natalie,” I said.
“Now playing,” the computer said.
Suddenly, I was a small boy sitting in the back seat of my parents’ Dodge, watching as rain drops pelted the rear window and danced across the thin orange wires of the defroster grid. My parents were in the front seat and we were parked in front of some place. Then my father tuned on the radio and someone started singing about jet planes. I loved jet planes.
“I heard this song when I was little,” I said. “I’ve always liked it.”
“Sing it, Daddy,” Natalie said. So, I sang along.
So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
‘Cause I’m leaving’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go
By the time Peter, Paul, Mary and I were done singing, we were already at the park and tears were running down my face. “You’re crying, Daddy,” my daughter said. “Why are you crying?”
“Sometimes we cry when we’re happy,” I said, wiping my face. “Daddy’s okay. Did you like the song?”
“That’s your song, Daddy. That’s your song.”
Soon my daughter was sliding down the slides, swinging on the swings and teetering on the see-saw. Parents smiled as she ran past and other children started following her, drawn into Natalie’s delight. Sitting on a park bench I thought about my emotional display. “Leaving on a Jet Plane” is one of my favorite songs because it’s one of the first I remember. I didn’t know what it meant then. Now I do.
One day, my bags will be packed and I’ll be ready to go. That taxi will blow its horn and I’ll leave on a jet plane – leaving Natalie behind. I’ll probably hate to go. But then I thought about my childhood and my parents. I thought of Natalie running into my arms. I thought about those signals of transcendence hidden in the everyday, the hymn of the universe playing just out of hearing’s reach. As I listened to children laugh and play, I sang to myself.
Dream about the days to come
When I won’t have to leave alone
About the time I won’t have to say
Kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go.
If Einstein was right, there’s no past, present or future. And I’m beginning to think there will be no separation from the people we love or the very source of that love itself. Natalie and I will be together forever and I’ll never let her go. There will be no waiting for kisses and smiles. Why? Because maybe none of us will ever leave alone. Maybe we will all leave together and all arrive together. And maybe something we cannot imagine will be waiting for us with open arms. Maybe we’ll break into a run too.
The ice cream truck arrived, singing its little tune and causing all the children to race across the playground, begging their parents for sugary treats. I bought my daughter an ice pop and soon her face was a riot of melted colors. As I wiped Natalie’s mouth with handkerchief, I said, “Don’t tell you mother about the ice pop.”
“Let’s go home.”