All through the night, Little Lisa wondered what her dad would be like. Was he tall? Was he handsome? Was he funny? Was he very serious? But as her anticipation grew, so too did her concerns. If seeing him was as simple as a long drive, why hadn’t he come to see her? Did he have a new family? Was he mean? Did he not care about her? What happened if they drove all the way out to see him, and he didn’t like her?
She kept thinking about her mother’s concerned look. She had been so excited to learn that she was going to meet her dad that she hadn’t paid attention. But now, her mother’s words of caution hung in the air. ‘I’m only coming to support you. I just don’t want you to be disappointed.’ Why would she be?
It was still very early when Little Lisa’s mother came in to her room. The sun was just coming up but she and Darnell were already dressed. Her mother packed a bag with some bathroom supplies, a nice pair of shoes and her Christmas dress. Within an hour, Little Lisa, her mother, and Darnell were all in the car.
Little Lisa, despite her anxiety, was still groggy and slept for a large part of the drive. When she did wake up, the sun was high in the sky and she recognized where she was. They were nearing her grandmother’s house.
“We’re going to Grandma’s?” Little Lisa asked, shaking off sleep.
“Yes, We’re going to stop off at Grandma’s house first and get you washed and dressed. We’ll have some breakfast, and then we’ll head out.” Little Lisa’s mother said.
Little Lisa couldn’t believe it. Her grandmother lived pretty far away and they had further to go? How far away was her dad?
When they pulled into the familiar driveway, Little Lisa was excited to see her grandmother and uncle. Little Lisa loved visiting them because her grandmother always cooked whatever she wanted and her uncle always had fun games to play.
She wished she could visit more but it was far and her mother didn’t like going. She complained that the neighborhood was bad and kept trying to convince her grandmother to sell her house and leave. But Little Lisa’s grandmother was a stubborn lady and her uncle had nowhere else to go. They weren’t going anywhere.
Little Lisa’s grandmother stood in the doorway and waved excitedly as they pulled up. Once they had parked and exited the car, she was there, with arms stretched out wide to receive Little Lisa and her mother.
“Merry Christmas baby!” Her grandmother said, planting a kiss on her cheek.
“Merry Christmas Grandma!” She said back. After Little Lisa’s grandmother gave her mother and Darnell hugs she ushered them hastily inside.
The house was warm and smelled of gingerbread. Little Lisa’s uncle lounged on the couch watching sports. For a moment, wrapped in all that her grandmother’s house represented, Little Lisa forgot both her excitement and her anxiety about meeting her father.
Breakfast was already on the table and the family gathered around for a large hearty breakfast. The table was piled high with French toast, fruit and bacon. Little Lisa was so busy filling her stomach, she nearly missed the adult conversations being held.
“You sure you want to ruin a perfectly good Christmas visiting that bum?” Little Lisa’s uncle grumbled from his seat.
“Little Lisa wants to meet her father. She’s made that very clear and she has a right to see him if she wants to.” Her mother answered, her gaze never leaving her plate.
“Yeah, but it’s Christmas Eve. There are better places to go…”
“Leave it alone.” Her grandmother’s authoritative voice commanded from the head of the table. “We don’t have to agree with it, but you have to respect the decision they’re making as a family.”
There was something about the tone of her grandmother’s voice that Little Lisa found unsettling. For the rest of the meal, Little Lisa’s appetite disappeared. Her nerves had returned.
After breakfast, Little Lisa took a shower and put on the dress her mother packed for her. Her mother plaited and decorated her hair with ribbons. Once Little Lisa was thoroughly dolled up, she, her mother and Darnell piled into the car once again and took off, promising to be back to have dinner later that evening.
They drove an hour. Little Lisa watched the buildings become trees and cement streets become gravel roads, wondering where they were going. There was a clearing in the trees ahead of them and Little Lisa could see a massive building.
“We’re here. You ready?” Darnell asked from the drivers seat. Little Lisa’s mother sat like a stone statue in the front passenger’s seat. Her silence made Little Lisa nervous but she was ready. She’d been waiting for this for so long, she couldn’t afford to regret it now.
“Yeah!” Little Lisa called from her seat. The bravado in her voice masked the fear in her heart. The car reached the clearing and she could see the large, wire topped walls. Uniformed men were visible in a tower in the distance. Little Lisa finally understood where she was.
This was a prison.
The car pulled in to the visitor’s parking lot. Little Lisa was surprised to see so many people there. Many of them were children; some were even dressed up just like she was. They followed the stream of visitors to the entrance where her mother signed them in.
By now, Lisa was unsure of how to feel. She was no longer afraid but she was still nervous. She understood now why her father had never come to visit her. Her mother’s reluctance to talk about him, Little Lisa guessed, was because she was embarrassed. She looked over at Darnell. He’d been pretty calm and light-hearted the entire trip and she needed someone to calm her nerves.
Little Lisa stole a glance in Darnell’s direction and noticed his face was very serious. The look made her even more nervous than anything her mother, grandmother, or uncle had said.
Darnell spotted Little Lisa looking at him. His face changed immediately and he gave her a gentle smile.
“Don’t worry Little Lisa. He’s probably even more nervous than you are.” Darnell winked at Little Lisa. The gesture helped ease her fears somewhat.
Their turn was up. An intimidating looking officer came to collect the three of them and bring them to a table in the corner of a large cafeteria. All around people sat across tables speaking to men in blue jumpsuits. There were armed guards posted at every exit, their eyes searching for any sign of trouble, like hawks searching the ground for prey.
This wasn’t what Little Lisa pictured.
A guard in the far corner of the room yelled something Little Lisa couldn’t understand and the door behind him opened. A lanky man with shoulder length braided hair and lots of tattoos appeared in the doorway. His hands and feet were shackled and he moved with reluctance towards their table.
The man took a seat at the table and suddenly, all the questions Little Lisa had; everything she had wanted to say, was gone from her head. She was frozen. The man she’d longed to see for so long was sitting on the other side of the table but she couldn’t utter a word.
“I didn’t think you were ever going to come see me.” The man said to her mother.
“I didn’t think I was either.” Her mother answered with a stiff jaw. A long pause followed.
“I see you got a new man. Old boy looks like a regular 9 to 5 kind of guy. That’s good.” Another long pause. Little Lisa’s mother was obviously in no mood to talk. Eventually, Darnell broke the ice.
“Darnell.” He introduced himself, arm outstretched. “Nice to meet you.”
The man considered Darnell’s gesture for a moment. After giving him the ‘once over’ he took his hand.
Taken over by sudden inspiration, Little Lisa thrust her hand towards the man as well. The motion was urgent, as though if she didn’t do it quickly, she’d never find another opening.
“My name is Lisa Little. I’m your daughter…” She blurted out loudly. Suddenly all eyes were on her. It made her feel self conscious and she no longer knew how to proceed. “I’m 8… and… nice to meet you.”
Sam’s face shifted to an amused smile. He took her outstretched hand and shook it politely.
“Nice to finally meet you Lisa. I’m Sam Little. You’ve gotten pretty big. I’ve only seen baby pictures of you.”
Sam had a nice smile when he spoke. It was warm and genuine. The fear and apprehension Little Lisa had melted away instantly.
“Really? Well-” Little Lisa turned to Darnell, but he was already on top of it. She knew he had brought a few wallet sized school pictures with him. He’d given that year’s pictures to her grandmother and uncle but he had a few more in his breast pocket along with her kindergarten and 2nd grade pictures. She wasn’t sure why he had them initially, but now she was glad he did.
Darnell handed Sam three wallet sized photos.
“These for me?” Sam asked Little Lisa with a grateful smile.
“Yes. You can have them.” Little Lisa replied. “I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.”
“Same here. I heard you sent my baby sister a message. You’re a smart kid.”
“Yeah, but I got in trouble.”
“For taking things that don’t belong to me and for talking to people I don’t know online.”
“That’s your auntie, you can talk to her whenever you want, that’s family. You don’t have to feel bad about that. Sometimes you’ve got to bend the rules, especially when it comes to family.”
“Because that worked out so well for you.” Lisa’s mother retorted. Her voice sounded almost venomous. Sam’s happy smiling face disappeared in an instant. The look he shot at her mother looked dangerous. It shook Little Lisa to her core.
“I don’t regret anything. I look out for my family. I don’t run away like a little punk. Like some people here. It just is what it is.”
“You can dress it up however you like, Samuel, but the fact is, the choices you made to look out for your ‘family’, robbed you of a life knowing your child. Your blood. She will never get to spend a day with you and it hurts her. But go ahead, look her in the eye and tell her you don’t regret anything.”
At this Sam’s face softened slightly. Little Lisa could tell he was still angry but he didn’t look quite as dangerous as before.
“Lisa,” Sam’s focus returned to Little Lisa, his voice less edgy
“Sorry I wasn’t around.”
”It’s okay. I understand why now. I didn’t know you were in jail. Um… Maybe when you get out of jail, you can come to my house and I can show you around.” An awkward silence permeated yet again. It was becoming a regular occurrence during this visit.
“Actually… I’m not getting out.” Sam confessed.
Little Lisa’s heart dropped deep into the pit of her stomach. What did he mean? She struggled to keep her face natural and relaxed, as though what he said didn’t bother her, but she was failing.
“You’re in here for life?” Little Lisa asked for clarification. She was hoping against hope that she’d misunderstood.
“You really did something that bad?” Little Lisa knew her question was rude but she couldn’t help it. This visit wasn’t going at all the way she’d hoped. Her father, Samuel, wasn’t only in prison but he was in prison for life. She thought about all the things she’d hoped to do with him when she met him. Have Christmas dinner at her house, show him her school, drive around town. They were little things, but they were things she desperately wanted to do with her dad. As the words “life sentence’” rang in her ears, everything she’d hoped she’d be able to do with him one day, slowly slipped away.
“Your mom never told you, huh?”
“No.” Her mother answered. “The choices you made are yours. You have to answer for them, not me. You want her to understand? Explain it. Tell her why you’re here. Tell your family, your daughter, what it is you did that got you locked away from her forever!”
“Babe!” Darnell stopped Little Lisa’s mother from saying anymore. He didn’t raise his voice very loud, but his eyes were clear. They said ‘enough’ and Little Lisa’s mother complied.
Little Lisa looked at Sam and knew he wanted to say something but no words escaped his mouth. She was conflicted. At first glance, Little Lisa thought Sam looked scary. The way he’d stared down her mother sent chills down her spine. He was certainly someone who was quick to anger. But there were moments, when he looked at her when his face was so kind and genuinely happy seeing her; she believed, truly, that he could be a great dad. She had momentarily let herself believe that this man would walk out the doors of this prison and come home with her and be her father. But that wasn’t ever going to happen. He’d done something bad enough to get locked up forever.
Her wish for having a father to greet her by the Christmas Tree was never going to come true. Little Lisa would never have a father.
Little Lisa’s mother had warned her that this visit might be disappointing. She found herself wishing she could go back to the day before and never find out that she’d be fatherless forever. But she promised her mother she wouldn’t be disappointed. Little Lisa did her best to smile through the pain.
“It’s okay.” She said to Sam. “I can write you letters and you can write back and…” But the words were getting caught in her throat.
Little Lisa had nothing else to say. She couldn’t. Otherwise, she’d start crying.
“I’d like that.” Sam said. There was sadness in his voice.
“You mind giving us a minute?” Darnell asked Little Lisa. “I want to talk to your dad for a minute. Guy stuff.”
Little Lisa was more than happy to oblige. She was having trouble holding back her emotions and she had a strong desire not to let her dad’s first memory of her be of her crying.
“It was nice meeting you.” Little Lisa held out her hand again for a hand shake. It was less eager this time around, more formal.
“Nice meeting you too Lisa. Remember to write those letters.” He took her hand in his. They were long, skinny hands. Dry and coarse – but warm. As she shook his hand, she could hear the shackles rattle against each other. It made her heart hurt.
“I will. Merry Christmas.” Little Lisa let go and took her mother’s hand. Both Little Lisa and her mother stood up and left the cafeteria, leaving the two men to talk.
“You gonna be okay?” Her mother’s voice was tender and thoughtful.
“Yes.” Little Lisa answered. She looked up at her mother’s face and could tell she was fighting back some emotions too. “Are you?”
“Don’t you worry about me. I don’t get sad about it anymore. I just wish you could’ve gotten the kind of dad you deserve… He’s not a bad man, you know. He’s here because he makes dumb choices. He let’s people talk him in to doing bad things, but he’s not a bad guy.”
“I could tell.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t talk about him more. There’s a lot of hurt in my heart where your dad is concerned and I guess I just thought that if I didn’t show you how much it hurt, I couldn’t infect you with it. You understand?”
“I didn’t before but I think I do now.” Little Lisa did understand. She knew how hard it was not to look at her mom during that visit; how hard it still was, because she didn’t want her mother to see the scope of her pain.
Little Lisa gave her mother a hug.
“How about ice cream on the way back to grandma’s? I could use some ice cream.” Little Lisa’s mother said, trying to sound more chipper.
Darnell joined them shortly after and the three of them signed out and returned to their car.
When the car pulled in to their grandmother’s drive way, Little Lisa’s uncle was already there waiting for them. His expression was serious. Darnell put the car in park and rolled down the window.
“Hey guys,” her uncle said casually. “Listen we were just about to call you.”
“What’s the matter?” Little Lisa’s mother asked.
“Some of Sam’s old crew just came by.”
“What!” Little Lisa’s mother yelled then cursed loudly. Little Lisa could hardly believe her ears. Her mother never cursed. At least not when Little Lisa was present. “How did they know we’d… Agatha… Did she get caught up in all that nonsense?”
“Aggy? Yeah, she’s been in with Sam’s old crew for a few years now. She knew you were coming to see Sam?”
Little Lisa lowered her head in guilt. She wasn’t sure exactly what was going on but she recognized that they were in trouble. Agatha Little was the name of the woman she sent the Facebook message to. Her father said she was her aunt and that she could trust her, but maybe she wasn’t a good person after all.
“We should get home.” Darnell said putting the car into reverse. “Get back in the house and watch yourself.”
“I’m so sorry about this. Give mom our love, okay.”
“Will do. Love you Sis.” Her uncle blew a kiss to Little Lisa’s mother and waved goodbye as the car reversed out of the driveway.
Little Lisa felt bad that she couldn’t have dinner with her grandmother and uncle but at the same time was grateful that she was on her way home. She was trying hard not to regret her Christmas wish, but everything; from learning of her father’s life long incarceration to having to run from his ‘old crew’, was making her wish she’d never written that letter, never had that talk with Darnell, never taken matters into her own hands, never learned the truth.
Her Christmas wish was a bust. Her father wouldn’t be waiting for her under the tree tomorrow morning. She would never have a father. Alone in the back seat of the car, with darkness as her shield, Little Lisa gave in to the sadness she felt in her heart. She closed her eyes to curb the sting of tears and allowed the gentle rocking of the car to lull her to sleep.
When Little Lisa awoke, she was in her bedroom. She had no memory of leaving the car or putting on pajamas but that is the state she found herself in. The sun was up. It was Christmas morning but there was no joy in Little Lisa’s heart. She knew, without a doubt, that no jolly fat man had placed her wish under the Christmas tree. There was probably no Godly being living within her either. Little Lisa had given up hope. She turned in her bed to face the wall, not ready to face Christmas day.
As Little Lisa stared at the wall, she could hear a man’s voice downstairs. He was talking to someone, unheard. The voice was muffled but it was probably Darnell, Little Lisa rationalized. She did her best to tune out the voice but curiosity got the better of her.
Little Lisa crawled out of bed and tip toed down the steps. As she came closer, she could recognize Darnell’s voice distinctly. He was talking on the phone to a woman named Mildred. She recognized that name. He was talking to her the other day when he picked her up from the school bus.
A cold dread spread through Little Lisa. Darnell must have had a new girlfriend or another family. Maybe all the drama from yesterday was going to scare him away. This was it. The inevitable break up. She’d been through it before with her mother’s other boyfriends but it hurt even more this time around.
She really liked Darnell. She didn’t want him to leave.
Darnell sounded happy on the phone. His voice was upbeat and joyful and it hurt Little Lisa even more hearing it. How could he be so happy when she was going to be even more miserable when he left? He said goodbye to whoever that Mildred person was and hung up the phone.
Little Lisa was growing very tired of this Christmas filled with disappointments. What’s more, she was tired of trying to keep her disappointment and sadness to herself. Little Lisa was going to give that cheater Darnell a piece of her mind. She marched down the stairs and walked straight into the living room.
Darnell was sitting under the tree, arranging gifts when she entered. When he saw her, he turned and smiled.
“Merry Christmas Little Lisa!” He said. His smile faded once he noticed the very visible pout on Little Lisa’s face. “What’s the matter?”
“Who’s Mildred? Is she your other girlfriend? Are you leaving us? Because you CAN’T. It’s Christmas and it’s NOT FAIR!”
Darnell looked at Little Lisa thoughtfully. He could see how upset she was and felt bad about it.
“Come here, I need to talk to you.”
“No. You’re leaving, aren’t you?”
“I’m not. Promise. Will you come here please?” He asked. Little Lisa thought it weird he didn’t have the guilty look that past boyfriends had. Begrudgingly, Little Lisa shuffled over to Darnell. He pat the floor beside him. Even more begrudgingly, Little Lisa took a seat.
“So you’re not leaving?”
“No. Mildred isn’t my girlfriend. She’s a friend of my mother and she’s social worker. I’ve been getting some advice from her for about a month now.”
“Advice? About what?”
“About you.” Darnell took Little Lisa’s hand in his and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “You’re probably the coolest kid I’ve ever met. You’re smart, you’re brave, you’re creative, you’re funny, you’re the perfect kid. Plus you’ve got a really cool mom too. I love you both… I plan to marry your mom some day. Some day soon. And I think your mom knows that’s what my intentions are, but in the meanwhile, I need you to understand what my intentions are for you.”
Darnell handed Little Lisa a large envelope from under the tree. Confused, Little Lisa opened the envelope. There were lots of papers inside and she couldn’t understand a lot of it but the first page caught her attention immediately. Near the top of the first page amongst all the legal jargon, she saw in bold letters: Application for Adoption of the child Lisa Little.
“What’s this?” Little Lisa asked, still not completely sure what she was reading.
“I’m planning to tell your mom today; I want to adopt you. I want to be your dad.”
The world stopped in place. Little Lisa needed a moment to process what she’d heard. The papers, the phone calls, all of it was because Darnell wanted to be her dad?
“Huh?” Little Lisa looked back down at the papers again as though looking for an explanation.
“That is,” Darnell smiled “If that’s alright with you. I know I’m not Sam but I had a long talk with him. He didn’t want to let you go, he really didn’t, but he agreed. He’s not getting out of prison and he doesn’t want to have you go through life without a father in you life. I know I can’t replace him but if you’ll have me… I promise I’ll be the father you deserve.”
Darnell reached inside the envelope and pulled out a necklace. It was a very simple gold necklace with a round pendant. Engraved on the pendant was: Daddy’s Girl.
Little Lisa was at a loss for words. Her mind was a jumbled mess of emotions. But through all of the confusion was one singular feeling. Joy. Pure unadulterated joy. For a moment, Little Lisa felt guilty that Darnell asking to be her father made her so happy, especially after she’d finally met Sam, but Little Lisa couldn’t help herself.
Darnell wanted to be her dad! He hadn’t even asked her mother to marry him, yet here he was asking her permission to be her dad.
Happy tears filled Little Lisa’s eyes as she took in the scene. Darnell’s smile as he clutched the necklace, tucked in snuggly under the tree amongst all the presents – it looked like something out of a story book.
Little Lisa couldn’t hold back anymore. She wrapped her arms around his neck and help on to him tight. Darnell wasn’t what she was expecting that Christmas but he was certainly what she wanted.
Jenny from school was wrong. Whether it was the letter to Santa or her prayers, Little Lisa’s Christmas wish had come true. Her Daddy was home.