91941_000_009Even though the world outside was trying to reach her, Heather was sharing the prison cell with her father.
I opened the door a little, but an enormous barrier divided us still. I stood back, away from her. I felt swollen and sore from so many tears, forever isolated by shame and disgrace, absolutely empty of any hope of future happiness. The girl at the front door was a numbing reminder of the most hateful part of all: that everyone knew.
But into my unyielding dimness, Karen spoke quietly. “Come back to school, Heather. No one will hold what your dad did against you.” That was all. I closed the door firmly without a word.
I listened to her walk away, my feelings unraveling with each footstep, my thoughts trailing backward.
My 13-year-old world fell apart when the local newspaper revealed, without feeling, the enormous surprise: Mr. David McPhie, * bookkeeper and owner of McPhie Accounting, was convicted of embezzlement and would serve his sentence in the jail across the river. It seemed so impossible, so comically bizarre. But it was so painfully real.
The subsequent events are unclear and without sequence to me now, obscured not only by time, but by the confusion and withdrawal I was feeling then. Dad was gone. He never said “I’m sorry I have destroyed you” or “I regret turning out to be a stranger you never really knew.” Mom was unreachable, struggling herself to cope. She offered no explanation of why this had happened or how to go on.
The sheriff came into our home. Everything of value was seized: records, books, furniture, the bed Dad had made me with the headboard shelf for pretty things, the piano. Mom and I slept on mattresses on the floor of one empty bedroom. Did we cook and eat? What activities filled the empty days? I can’t remember. Focused on my own grief in an intense and self-centered way, I clung to one determination: I would never go back to school.
I don’t know how many days I’d been away from school when Karen came. And I don’t know how many days it was after she came that I went back to school.
Karen was there for me when I went back, gentle, with no questions. And other friends I didn’t know I had were there, too: enough of them to elect me secretary of the student council; to teach a shy girl that if you are brave enough to smile first, others will smile back; to show me I could survive.
In the years that followed, our lives went different ways. My family was put back together. I learned to love my dad again. Then I moved miles away.
Through the rest of growing up, through high school and college and marriage and children and all the ups and downs in between, I’ve often thought about Karen. About a principal calling a few students into his office to show them a newspaper headline and to ask them how they could help. About one girl saying, “I’ll go.” About which way my life might have gone without that one pivotal act of reaching out.