A story that delivers a compelling message for parents and their teenage or young adult children. In it, we find that love—even with the challenges the relationship presents—is what’s important… it can heal and if you’re lost… it can bring you home.
Jolted awake by the buzzing on the nightstand next to me, I focused on the clock’s numbers projected on the ceiling above: 02:18. I had to be up in less than three hours and at work in four. I blinked, shook my early Monday sleep-muddled head, and reached for my phone. “Hello?”
“Daddy?” It was a bare whisper over the static. That line hiss something I’d not heard in years. When the frantic sound of a young voice crying became clearer, my heart pounded. I gripped the phone and glanced over at my wife, who was turning on her side to face me.
“Daddy, I know it’s late, but don’t… please, don’t say anything until I finish. And before you ask. Yes, I’ve been drinking. I ran off the road a couple of miles back, and…”
I drew in a sharp, thin breath, pressed my hand against my forehead, and rubbed my eyes. Sleep still fogged my mind. Something was wrong.
“I got so scared, and all I could think about was how it would hurt you and mom if the police came to your door and told you I’d been killed. I want…” she took a deep breath, “I want to come home. Running away was wrong. I know you’ve been worried sick. I should have called you before now, but I was afraid… so afraid…”
Her sharp cries pierced me. Immediately, I pictured my daughter’s face, and my senses cleared. “I think you–”
“No! Please let me finish! Please,” she pleaded. I paused to think what to say. Before I could, she continued, “I shouldn’t be drinking… especially now, I’m sorry, Daddy, but I’m pregnant and… and… I’m scared, Daddy. Really scared!”
The voice broke again, and I bit my lip, hard. I looked at my wife now sitting up, as she silently mouthed, “Who is it?” I shook my head, and she shifted closer to me, putting her head next to the phone held to my ear.
“Are you still there?” Worried at my silence, the faint voice continued, “Please don’t hang up! I need you. I’m so alone.”
I squeezed the phone tight in my hand. “I’m here, I won’t hang up,” I said.
“I should have told you. But when we talk, you just keep telling me what to do. You read all that stuff on how to talk about sex and all, but all you do is talk. You don’t listen and won’t let me say how I feel. It’s as if it’s not—my feelings aren’t—important. Because you’re my father, you think you have all the answers. Sometimes I don’t need them; I need to figure things out first and not jump into an argument where we both get mad. I love you, Daddy, but I just want you to understand.”
I choked down the rising lump in my throat and thought about all the how-to-talk-to-your-kids information I’d read. “I’m listening,” I whispered.
“Back there sitting in my car on the side of the road, I started thinking about the baby—I made a mistake, it’s my fault—and how I had to take care of my child. I couldn’t get a cell phone signal, it’s a cheap service, so I started walking. I saw this phone booth, and in my head, I could hear you going on about how people shouldn’t drink and drive. So, I called a taxi.” The shuddering of a racking cry came through the phone. “And I had to call you.” Her voice thickened with sobs, “I want to come home.”
“That’s good,” I said and let out a breath I didn’t know I’d held, “come home.” My wife laced her fingers through mine.
“I think I can drive now. I’m going to–”
“No!” I snapped and squeezed my wife’s hand. “Please, wait for the taxi. Don’t hang up on me until it gets there.”
The line crackled and hissed. “I just want to come home, Daddy. I love you and mom.”
I didn’t hesitate, “Come home but do this for your daddy. Wait for the taxi, please.”
I listened, in fear, to the white noise on the line. When I didn’t hear her answer, I closed my eyes and prayed she wouldn’t go—hadn’t gone—back to her car. “Honey!” Then the static stopped.
“I think this is my ride.” A car engine sounded louder in the background. It slowed to an idle. A tick-tick-ticking sound. Someone—a man’s voice—called out, “Hey, you call for a cab?”
The taut muscles across my chest and shoulders eased. I took a deep breath and let it out.
“Hang on just a second,” I heard her reply to the driver, and to me, her voice still shaky but not as unsettled, “I’m coming home, Daddy.”
With a click my phone went silent, its display dimming and going dark in the moment I sat staring at it. Releasing my wife’s hand, I put it back on the night-table and moved from the bed with tears spilling from my eyes. I walked into the hall and down it to stand in my sixteen-year-old daughter’s room. A silent darkness but for the soft susurration of the spinning blades of her ceiling fan and thudding of my heart. My wife came in, wrapped her arms around me, and rested her chin on the top of my shoulder.
I wiped tears from my cheeks with the palm of my hand. “We… I… have to listen to her.”
She turned me around to face her. “We will. You’re a good father.” She hugged me tightly, and I squeezed back, my head at the nape in her long hair as we held each other for an armful of heartbeats. I pulled away and watched my daughter asleep in her bed.
My wife’s hand stroked the side of my face, warm in the cool air. “Do you think she—the girl on the phone—will realize she dialed the wrong number?”
I looked at our sleeping daughter, then back to her. “When that girl gets home, she will… and maybe it wasn’t really a wrong number.” I leaned down and kissed my wife on the forehead and straightened, “At least not for me, and I hope not for her.”
“Mom, Dad, what are you doing?” The voice came from under the covers. I walked over to my daughter, who had sat up to stare at me. The phone in her hand—as a nightlight—shined on her face. “We’re… I’m learning,” I replied as I sat on the edge of her bed.
“Learning,” I whispered and brushed the hair away from her face, “to listen, Honey.”
A NOTE FROM DENNIS
A few years ago, I read different—shorter, rougher—versions of this in the public domain without attribution. Bits, pieces… one of those–often apocryphal–things found strewn about online.
Being the father of four daughters, I thought the gist of the message compelling but the story lacking. And that stayed with me. So, I took the kernel of it, refined and expanded and think this version is worth sharing.