I hold the metal door open for Caity and the other 4th graders pouring out of the red brick school building onto the black topped playground. I smile. The squealing and laughter of lunchtime recess hasn’t changed in the 25 or so years since I was that age. The colors and style of clothes have changed (Caity always prefers “pinkish-purple-ish” outfits), but the squealing and laughter is just the same.
The sun shining in the crisp clear sky did little to keep the brisk autumn breeze from cutting through me. I thought it would be warmer. I should have worn an overcoat. My trousers, already baggy after 7 weeks of chemo, whip against my emaciated legs like signal flags on a ship at sea. I feel exposed, vulnerable.
I felt so much stronger this morning, and was thrilled at the chance to surprise Caity for the lunchtime visit. I don’t feel so strong right now. The large, vibrant red “C”, invisible to all around me, weighs me down and slows my gait. Only a handful of parents show up two days before Thanksgiving for the annual Monroe Elementary Turkey Trot. I want to be one of them. I want to be strong for my Princess.
The only hairs I have to bristle are my eyebrows. Everywhere else is pale and smooth. I feel more like a ghost than a man. Perhaps sensing I need her strength to keep walking, Caity takes my hand; I become her father again.
We cross the faded lines marking the out-of-bounds for the basketball court. To our right, the goal with the frayed, white nylon net whips, like my trousers, in the breeze. To our left, leaning against the goal with no net, two girls huddling together, point in our direction. Their giggling cuts through the breeze and stabs me a thousand times.
Mean girls suck.
My heart sinks. Caity squeezes my hand harder, drawing herself closer to my side, protecting me from the harassment. My heart soars. My chill leaves. No words are spoken. I feel worthy. I feel total and unquestionable love. We are taller leaving the court than when we had entered it; now outside the lines, we are at the starting point. I bend over and kiss the top of her head next to the purple scrunchie. Caity looks up at me and smiles warmly.
Already, she has won the race.