"I can't feel the unfurling of my wings, Daddy."
I was not her father. I had entered her life when she was two years old, and she called me Daddy since she never knew her real father. Her mother's death two years ago made me the sole, living parent of an eleven-year-old, and I never felt like I was the right person for the job.
"What do you mean, Asrin?"
"Mom always said that when puberty started I would be the swan that emerged from the ugly duckling. She said I would be able to fly gracefully towards my dreams. But, I don't feel it."
As much of a woman as she was becoming, she was still a child. I wanted to answer her question, but I really had a hard time discussing her blossoming womanhood in the middle of a laundromat. Her pretty eyes were pleading with me, but I told her we'd talk later.
Janet had told Asrin a lot of things before she succumbed to the cancer. The last week or so of Janet's life were morphine-induced fantasy, I think.
Janet and I had met during cancer treatment. She had developed ovarian cancer while pregnant with Asrin, and the doctors felt it was a miracle she'd carried full term. My cancer had left me unable to have children, and I had bonded with Janet over the treatments and the second chance at life we'd been given. By Asrin's second birthday we were both in remission, and we were married right after her third.
Asrin complained of being cold from the time she could speak, but the doctors could find nothing wrong with her. Her body temperature showed as normal, and she was always healthy. They theorized that it was a nervous condition, possibly brought on by the cancer in her mother’s body during the pregnancy, or by the minimal treatment of the cancer they performed while Janet was still pregnant.
So, we left Ohio for the warmer climes of Florida. This did not seem to help much, though. She would tell us that summers were better for her, but she always wore pants and a long sleeved shirt. November through March, even in Florida, she would sit around with a hooded sweatshirt on. When we were at home, she’d be sitting, snuggled up to one of us on the couch if she could be.
Times were good for us in Florida until Asrin was eight. The subprime mortgage market collapsed, and Janet's job in the timeshare industry was gone. The next year, I was forced to take a pay cut. The next year, we lost our house and Janet's cancer resurfaced. The next year, Janet was gone. It was just Asrin and I, living in an apartment and trying to make the best of it with our parakeet, Louie.
The night of the question of the unfurling in the laundromat, I felt tired and did not revisit the issue. Janet had tried to have “the talk” with Asrin before she died, but I don’t know how lucid and clear it was. I’d had my sister in Ohio answer some questions over the phone for Asrin once, and that seemed to help, but this one was more about her own perception of herself. How could I help a girl find her way to being a woman? I had no idea, and that night I really just rushed her to bed so that I could get some sleep.
The weeks went by, and we were very, very busy. Asrin had her chorus performance, her dance recital and her state exams all within a two week period. My parents came to stay for two weeks for the dance recital and chorus performance, and that meant I slept on the couch while they took my room. I woke up tired every day, and Asrin even tried to convince me to sleep in her bed. I wasn’t going to let her stay up in front of the TV all night, so I suffered the couch.
At the dance recital, another parent asked me if the girl with the pretty green eyes was mine and how I had named her Asrin. I had to explain, politely, that Asrin’s birth father had named her, and that I really didn't know the origin of the name.
Janet had told me about the cruise ship tryst with the tall, dark stranger with the even stranger accent that had resulted in Asrin. When they were done, he had said only two things to her. He said “Name the child Asrin” and “I’m sorry.”
Now, why she would follow his wishes, I don’t know. I guess we were both young and foolish before we got cancer, and I’d had my share of impulsive evenings before I got sick. If she chose to name her child based on the wish of the father, who was I to judge?
I had thought that after my parents went back to Ohio that my sleep would get back to normal. After three days in my own bed again, I was still tired. Two weeks later, I feel asleep at the wheel of the car after dropping Asrin off at school and drove off the road. I didn't hit anyone, I just put our car in a ditch and managed to get away with a few bumps and bruises.
At least, that’s what I’d thought I’d gotten away with. When I was brought to the hospital after the accident, the physician talked to me about the fatigue and my past medical history. Next thing I knew, I was admitted to the hospital for testing.
My cancer was back, and it was apparently in my lymphatic system. It had spread widely, and I hadn't even realized it. Asrin stayed with a neighbor until my parents came back, and they stayed in our apartment with her while I was in the hospital.
I’d like to tell you that I felt hope, but every test and every treatment brought nothing but murmurs of “radical therapy” and “alternative treatments” and “we’ll have to wait and see.”
If the hospital staff would let her do so, Asrin would spend time curled up in my hospital bed with me. She didn't feel cold to me, but I knew she was. I didn't know what to say to her. Her radiant green eyes were still pleading with me, but she didn't ask any questions.
Finally, I was brought home to die. The hospice team was there to help me transition, and the lawyers had made sure that my parents would get custody of Asrin. We didn't have much else left in the world, but whatever material possessions and money I had went to them to help pay for her upbringing. All I really wanted was pain killers and for it all to be over.
For the first few nights, Asrin slept in my bed with me. She had always been a skinny, almost frail, child, and she was that way as a teenager. She could still fit her frame in the bed next to me. It actually hurt to have her there, snuggled up against me. But, I was too weak to put the energy into denying her the last bit of warmth I could ever give her.
On the fourth night, I expected her to be there. As I opened my eyes from a pain-killer induced sleep, I saw her standing over me in the night, her green eyes visible inside her hooded sweatshirt.
“Cold?” It was all I could say and then I opened one arm to welcome her in the bed.
“I’ll always be cold, Daddy. I understand now that when you’re gone, I’ll always be cold and I’ll always be alone.”
I was pushing the edges of mortal consciousness then, but I realized something was different about her. Her eyes didn't seem to have that puppy-dog, pleading look anymore.
“My parents. They will be with you.” Sentences were hard for me at that point.
“I know, Daddy. They’ll raise me, but I alone will take care of them soon.”
I didn't know what she meant just quite yet.
“Let me take care of you, Daddy. I love you.”It was then I saw her wings unfurl, and her eyes were strong inside that hood. She reached out gently, and used two fingers close my eyes.