gave the prodigal son
a second chance.
gave him a feast.
by amy g dahla
taciturn| Her father didn’t know she was coming. Well, perhaps he did. But not because she’d told him—she hadn’t told anyone. She didn’t want to count the years since she’d last seen her dad, but she’d had no contact with him since she was a child. Back then he had an uncanny way of knowing things. And it always seemed to be greater than her skill in hiding them. So, after all these years, she thought that, somehow, he might sense that she was near.
the bitter taste
what she had done
in her stomach
echoes| For the moment, her memory spiraled backward three decades. When she was a child, she and her father were inseparable. The pair were architects, building forts and playhouses out of appliance boxes in the backyard. On other days they were explorers, forging new adventure trails in the wilderness. The two built a special world to explore. Together.
As she grew, her relationship with her dad flourished. He enjoyed hiking and running, and she joined him on these forays from infancy in what she would later call her “running buggy.” The stroller, designed with all-terrain tires and extra ground clearance, allowed them to log many a mile through neighborhoods and along park roads and wilderness trails where her dad was a park ranger. As she grew, they learned to rollerblade together, expanding their exploration. When her baby sister was born, the three of them continued the tradition of togetherness. He would run, she would rollerblade, and her new sister assumed the seat of honor in the running buggy.
Later came snorkeling— first in a bathtub, and later in the sparkling Caribbean. Her baby sister was snorkeling by the age of four. At home, the three constructed and painted plywood Disney characters for Christmas decorations—enough to fill the entire front yard. It became a tradition for the neighborhood kids to come and help paint each year’s new addition.
And then there were the other moments that seemed at the time not so terribly important. Peanut butter on a shared banana, one dollop at a time. Two sisters and a dad rolling down the hill in the front yard, lawn clippings and laughter.
She smiled—only a bit— as she recalled how she and her father spent more days chatting than she could ever hope to count. Sometimes about silly things, and other times she was in tears over a problem with friends at school. Her father was a storyteller. He’d spin a tale about a young rabbit or small bear facing a similar situation. Then they’d talk about how the outcome of a story can change, depending on how the character chose to respond. Her dad never gave her an exact answer, but through the stories and discussions, things had a way of working out.
Now, she was a parent and holy cow! It was not as easy as she had hoped. When she was a little girl, her father had once given her the advice that for every word she spoke, she would be wise to listen to ten, or a hundred, or a thousand. As she reflected, she hoped she had inherited his knack for listening.
in this moment
more than any previous moment
the single word
echoed in her mind
a shout into a deep canyon
and the resounding voice
was her own
silence| She coasted the car to a stop beneath the shade of a grand old oak tree, not yet ready to open the door. With the ignition off and the windows closed, she became acutely aware of the silence around her. At this moment there was no sound whatsoever. The term deafening silence suddenly took on a specific meaning, as the resonance of her own voice slowly faded in her mind. She gasped as she realized she had been holding her breath—a moment too long! She abruptly engaged the ignition and lowered a window. The car was immediately filled with fresh air and the sounds of life outside the vehicle.
Perhaps it was her silence for so many years that haunted her. Most people knew her father as a bit quieter than most, especially in large gatherings. Many who knew him well had determined that his life and experience on various islands around the world had simply instilled a laid-back attitude. Maybe that was part of it, but he was also content to sit back and soak in his surroundings. And of course, listen.
resounding| She directed her attention outside the car. Her father had moved here only months before. The elements of nature were what she would have expected. Here in late summer, in a place far removed from honking horns and exhaust fumes, she noticed that the melancholy drone of cicadas was the first sound to shatter her reverie. Drifting in through the car window the hum was hypnotic, as she once again drifted through the mist of memory. Some of her favorite times, she now realized, involved listening.
The sounds of nature illumed the shadows of memories in the long-darkened recesses of her mind. There were tranquil afternoons of swinging in a backyard hammock with her dad by the river, listening to the twilight chorus of frogs and crickets. He’d explained that the nocturnal symphony could only be brought forth by a composer powerful enough to create the entire universe.
Rewinding her memory next brought back evenings of lying under the stars on a Caribbean island, locating constellations. In this remote location, a dad and two daughters could scan the dark skies and imagineer their own personal, mystical constellations. She’d reveled in these creative tales, spun wildly together, as the constellations slowly swirled around the North Star.
the night sky
held its own music
And how many evenings had they swum at sunset, watching the sun porpoise into the Caribbean Sea? If you didn’t blink, you might see the elusive green flash, and hear the haunting resonance of the momentary exodus sonata.
She and her father shared many sounds through the years.
She realized that her father often spoke in poetic verse. Here amidst the time- machine-whirr of nature sounds in her car, this was the first time that she noticed her thoughts about her father following that same, sing-song pattern.
strain| One thing she would never comprehend is what kind of elixir her father held within his soul that drove him to pick up an acoustic guitar and tease from six strings and an imperfect voice the songs of his soul. The first song he wrote was about her. Well, in truth the song was about losing his father and gaining his first daughter. But the final chorus was about finding comfort with a new child.
a new life to love
of one recently lost
that was definitely
Then there were her favorite songs over the years, and he added many of those compositions to his big songbook with the well-worn pages. How many evenings had she fallen asleep to those refrains, wafting down the hallway outside her bedroom? Which reminded her…
She picked up an envelope from the car seat beside her. Her name was printed on the outside in her father’s careful hand. He must’ve kept the contents for decades before mailing them to her. In truth, the receipt of this letter helped inform her decision to make today’s visit. She carefully pulled out the yellowed paper inside. Inscribed thereon, by her twelve-year-old fingers, were her own words about her father. “The Soloist. Being a seventh grader, I come across many problems. Dad is always there.”
She could not help but glance into the rear-view mirror, as seventh grade seemed an entire lifetime behind her now. The road behind the car was empty. But what she saw was a mirage-view of her own life path. Grown, now. Married. A family of her own.
She glanced back down to notice a slight tremble in her fingers, grasping the page she’d shared with her classmates so long ago. The final words read, “Years from now, I’ll still remember how he had all the answers to my troubles, helped me play the guitar, and stretched my imagination as far as it would go. So, when
i hear that beautiful guitar
with my dad’s soft
i know he’s there
to love me
as long as i live.”
reverberate| She reached up and tilted the mirror a bit to find herself staring into her father’s eyes! She spun around to see the seats empty behind her.
It took her a moment to recover from the fright of the apparition. She caught her breath and angled the mirror to reflect her own face, more fully. The eyes she had glimpsed were her own, after all. But for the first time, she noticed that her eyes could easily have been his. In a way— much more real than she wanted to admit— her eyes were her father’s.
She took a moment to allow her heartbeat to return to normal. In the rapid-breath moments of recovery, her thoughts turned toward fate and the inevitable. There are many things over which we have no alternative. But there is also Choice and Consequences that we live with. Sometimes for too long. That the eye in the mirror could have been her father’s: that was fate. That she was here today to speak to her father for the first time in decades was a choice. But not without consequence.
The recovery from her disconcerting glance into the mirror provided her with the impetus to notice the faded paper, still in her hands. She carefully folded and placed her seventh-grade self on the seat beside her.
bearing witness to memories
she opened the car door
and stepped out
into her father’s world
translation| She found herself cloaked in dappled sunlight, filtering through the leaves above. Lofty branches swayed in the dog-days breeze that beckoned the changing of the season. She remembered lessons of nature from her youth, and how her father explained to her that a dry summer can bring about an early, faux autumn when the lack of moisture in the ground can cause trees to turn color and drop their leaves early.
Leaning back, she peered upward, squinting. She soaked in the blue sky shining through the playful kaleidoscope of leaves. Raising her hand for shadow, she absorbed the foliage glowing in flaming color as the sun shone through. She shifted her stance and heard a familiar crunch. She dropped her gaze to see beneath her feet the beginning of what would be nature’s winter carpet.
anniversary of her birth
a dry summer
her father’s new place
The calico collection of leaves and the haunting of seeing her father’s eyes in her own reminded her that her father was partially colorblind. But he always told her that once someone pointed something out as a certain color, in his mind he could then see the color. It had been many—too many—years since she helped him see a tree with brilliant yellow, flaming orange, or deep red autumn foliage.
She could never quite understand how his mental image could be so transformed, vicariously, through her own eyes (the picture in his mind’s eye being inexplicably not colorblind).
She closed her eyes and heard echoes of her own youthful voice painting the world anew for her father. She smiled as she recalled the sparkle of wonderment in his eyes. She knew that her words had transformed his world.
words have power
in the yin and the yang
of life’s precarious
has an equal
hearing| Her father’s new environs were both familiar and foreign to her. He had moved away many years ago and had lived in several different locations, as witnessed by the return addresses on the letters he had written over the years. She’d never bothered to acknowledge any of them. It wasn’t until after they stopped that she decided to visit him. Her feet began to crunch the leaves, slowly guiding her in his direction.
As she absorbed the song of cicadas and the whisper of a late summer breeze through the trees, her silence descended upon her again, like a darkness. The void of that silence had broken her father’s heart.
The notions of Living and Life mean making mistakes. When her father left her mother, that was a mistake she could not accept.
“I HATE you and never want to speak to you again!”
Her teenage scream echoed through the decades. And she meant it. She felt abandoned. It mattered not that her father intended to retain the relationship with his daughters. Her mother would not allow that. Her mom’s bitterness became her own, as she witnessed the destruction of all remnants of a life that had previously given such great comfort. Over time it simply became easier to hold onto the anger and the hurt than to face the challenge of healing. She chose silence.
discord| It is human nature to look for things that validate our choices. In alienating her father, she fortified her justification over the years. The extended divorce battle between her parents was enough to buttress this for a lifetime.
Through the years, he had never stopped trying to reach her. Sure, there were some tough times in the beginning when they were both angry, but the final decision was hers, alone. Over the years she fought dreams of a life that had been forever lost. They fed a creeping awareness that had become a dark-shadowed burden on her heart.
As a few years turned into many, his methods of contacting her diminished. She made sure of that. Despite her persistent evasiveness, he would somehow find a way to reach out to her. The cards and gifts were never acknowledged. Many were discarded, unopened. Over time, the wall she built around her own heart was stone-solid. But no barricade could insulate her from a world that brought back memories for fleeting moments through a song, or a sunset, or a twinkling star.
In the end the strength of nature, and the universe— and a father’s love—all proved to be stronger than her wall. Here she was, walking toward him after all these years. Once again, she had a deep sense that he was prepared.
pause| Her pace slowed as she came into view of her father’s humble abode— nothing at all like her childhood home. Moving closer, she was not fully prepared to see her maiden name—his name—
in writing. Somehow this made the moment more real. There was no mistake. This was the place. Now was the time.
She froze and could not swallow, choking on the moment. Her breath came as a struggle; her heart stuttered. Looking around, she found no other person in sight. This was her preference, and it calmed her. Only a little.
She was uncertain what she might say to her father. She only knew the word she would say first. Then she hoped to trust her instinct for what might follow.
Maybe she would describe the colorful leaves. Breaking such a long silence is not easy.
In this instance, she realized that fate had as much to do with her presence as did choice. Shaking with emotion, she moved forward with silent resolve.
Over the years, she’d entertained brief thoughts about what it might be like to dial her father’s phone number or knock on his door. She always knew that when this moment arrived, she would break the chasm of silence. Unannounced.
But this was more difficult than she had imagined. An inescapable sense in her heart informed her that he already felt her presence. She felt his, unmistakably.
in all the time
all the distance
through all the silence
she always knew
the last moments
the last few steps
would be the most difficult
deafening whisper| The daughter found herself at last on her father’s doorstep. She reached out her hand. The last few inches felt impermeable. She stood frozen in the moment, in a chill of her own making. The final barrier between her and her father was not fancy. It held no window through which her father might glimpse her. She was powerless to knock. The gravity of the moment drank her thoughts, her breath, her resolve.
Her chest and shoulders quaked as she fought to inhale, hoping to steady her voice. She felt unready, as if in not speaking to her father for so long, she had never spoken at all. Would he listen?
For a moment she battled the urge to turn and flee. Standing there, far from resolute, she struggled to say the one word that she knew she must utter. Her eyes glistened as she sought her voice. This was not going as she had planned.
She was startled by the sound of a single escaping sob, as her eyes struggled to focus on the face she knew she would someday stand before.
Time had taken its toll. Nature created his visage. The years had shaped it. But in the end, her father made the final choice. A man with eyes the color of granite, but now there was only… cold marble.
simply his name
carved in stone
save one exception
that reached her
His epitaph read: “I Will Hear.”
She dropped to her knees on the soft earth, turned barely a month before. It took a moment to still the quivering of her mouth and throat. Her body convulsed as her tears watered her father’s grave. She began again.
amy g dahla is a retired park ranger and naturalist who spent a career writing creative nonfiction for museums, visitor centers, and magazines. Their work has been featured in national visitor centers, museum displays & brochures, as well as by the Associated Press and the National Science Center. Their current work in poetry and prose combines both natural and human elements, sometimes aligned but often juxtaposed. amy currently resides on the slopes of Mt. Ogden with their partner, thirteen guitars, and a well-worn pair of hiking boots. “resonant” recently received awards from the League of Utah Writers for best fiction.