The Gentlest Warmth

May 1, 2008
By Ariel Clark, Lewisburg, OH

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!

That was the saying my mother taught me when I was little, because I got teased by the kids at school for being different from everyone else. I didn't like the things other people liked, things like celebrities and reality shows. I didn't watch much television, it just wasn't my thing. I didn't listen to music much either, so I could never join in conversations about that kind of stuff. I pretty much grew up without friends. I spent most of my time reading and writing. While most kids were hanging out with friends and going on dates, I had my nose in the latest Laurell K. Hamilton novel, or my head in the clouds trying to come up with new ideas for my short stories and books. I wasn't like other kids.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!

This saying kept me going, it made me strong. It helped me endure the teasing and keep doing the things I loved despite the criticism of those around me. I grew up believing in this saying one-hundred percent.

I pressed my forehead against the cool glass of the car window. As of the moment, my parents and I were heading home from a New Year's Eve party at my aunt's house. My older brother was with my Nana for New Years, and my little sisters were going to stay the night at my aunt's house with my cousins. We went there every year, and every year my parents always assigned a designated driver between the two of them. This year it was my dad.

I glanced at my dad from my seat in the back of the van. He was singing along with a song on the radio, his low voice very off key. I smiled, that was dad. He was the world's biggest goofball. Yet, despite his silliness, he could be very thoughtful. On more than one occasion, he had gotten me a book he'd seen from a series I liked just because he knew I hadn't read that one yet. Or he'd find a book he thought I might like and gotten it, and since we have similar tastes, he was usually right. He could cheer anyone up, and always knew best how to make me laugh. He would often rub the stubble on his chin against my neck, because he knew I thought it tickled.

I glanced at my mom, asleep in the passenger's seat. She'd taught me the saying that made school life bearable. She herself had been made fun of, as she had told me. She feels insecure about her weight, and I don't think she considers herself beautiful. But to me, she is the most beautiful person in the world. I think my dad thinks the same way I do. She was a nut like dad, and they were well suited to each other. She loved the color pink, tended to be a neat freak, and loved, loved, Tinkerbell. Our bathroom has Tinkerbell in it, for God's sake. Her specialty is painting, and she's very artistic. She would give painted pots out as presents for weddings, holidays, and birthdays. On Halloween, she tends to paint pots with witches on them, and she once painted a pot with pink flamingos for my grandmother. It's not just pots, though. When I was little, when we lived with my grandmother for a while, she painted my room aqua blue, and on one of the walls painted an underwater scene from the movie The Little Mermaid, since I was named after the main character.

I closed my eyes, and turned my head so that my cheek now rested against the smooth glass. God, I loved my parents. In a world where parents are getting divorced left and right, I considered myself lucky to have these two people as mine. I could never ask for a more loving couple. They fight like every couple, and on a few occasions it's been worse than others, but know matter what, they always make up in the end. They go out of their way to do things for me just to make me happy, even though they know they don't have to, but they do it anyway. They're always willing to listen if I want to talk to them, and cheer me up when I am sad. There were times when I would just go up and randomly hug them, unwilling to let go, and they would say, 'Hey, Ariel, you okay?' I would always reply, 'Yes, I just wanted a hug.' Mom or dad, whichever one it was, would just laugh, and then make me let go after a minute or so. The truth was, though, that when I did this, in my mind I was always thinking, what would I do, if I were to lose this precious person tomorrow? What if I never saw this kind, gentle, loving parent ever again? When I thought this way, I would just focus on trying to plant into my mind how it felt to hold this person in my arms, the warmth I felt from them, the gentleness of their touch, the feel of their shoulder against my head. If I were to ever lose them, I thought, this is the thing I most want to remember.

A screech broke through my thoughts, and my eyes snapped open. A blinding light broke through the front window, and my dad slammed the brakes. Normally, it's said that during an accident where something happens quickly, the viewer is unable to recollect very much afterward and the scene is foggy in their minds because it happens so fast. For me, this was untrue. I saw everything with startling clarity, as if for a moment time stood still and nothing moved nor made a sound. I saw my mother's panicked expression as she started awake at the jerk of the car. I saw my father's mouth open in a silent scream, fingers gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. But the clearest image, and the most frightening, was that of when both of my parents turned in their seats to look at me, the headlights of the oncoming car shining on the back of their heads so their faces were shadowed. All but their eyes. Their eyes I could see quite clearly, and they filled me with the worst kind of dread. In that moment those eyes seemed to send me a message that they didn't have time to say out loud. Those eyes told me that this may be the last time we meet, and that they were afraid. But mixed in with this, was a feeling of love. As though they were trying to tell me everything with that one look that they feared they would never get another chance to say.

Tell Dylan we love him. Tell Bailey we love her. Tell Lacey we love her. Tell them we'll miss them. Tell your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, everyone, that we love and will miss them. Tell everyone that we'll see them again someday. Tell your siblings to grow up strong. Tell them we'll be in a good place. Tell your brother to do his best in accomplishing his dream as a rock star. Tell your sisters that they will be able to accomplish their dreams. Tell them to do well in school. Tell them to try their hardest. Tell them to never give up. Tell them we hope they'll find happiness. Tell them that we cherish them all completely. Tell them to believe in themselves. Tell them to take care of themselves.

We love you, Ariel.

Time unfroze. The other car slammed headlong into ours, and I didn't even have time to scream before I was knocked back and hit my head on the rear window hard enough to knock me out.

When I awoke, I was in a hospital. A nurse at my side looked down at me, breathing a sigh of relief.

"Good, you're awake. We were afraid you might have been knocked into a coma."

I drew a shaky breath. I was hooked up to several monitors, and an IV was in my arm. I tried to shift my body, and winced when pain flashed through my chest.

"You won't want to move too much, Dear," the nurse said. "You're going to be sore for a while."

I looked up at the nurse, slightly dazed. "What happened?"

"An oncoming car collided with you at a high speed. You have a severe case of whiplash, and a large bruise on the back of your head where you collided with the back windshield."

"And my chest?" I asked, tenderly moving my hand over the sore area.

"A flying piece of glass from the front windshield pierced your chest. You were taken in for emergency surgery. It barely missed your heart."

I blinked as the words slowly sank in. A sudden thought flew through my mind, and I sat up suddenly, pain coursing through my chest, neck, and head at the quick movement.

"Honey, be careful!" the nurse warned. "You need to rest and recooperate, right now. Lay back down."

"What about my parents?" I asked quietly, voice barely a whisper.

The nurse's eyes grew sad. She whispered, "I'm sorry, Dear. They...they didn't make it."

My body froze. My mind went blank. I felt as though my heart even stopped beating. I lay back slowly against the bed, eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling.

"I'm sorry, Dear," the nurse repeated, voice still hushed. "The impact of the vehicle...they were crushed. The airbags didn't deploy, and by the time we got there, there wasn't anything we could do." The nurse stood. "I'll give you some time alone. Call if you need anything using that button." She indicated the button, then left the room.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!

They didn't make it. With those four words the nurse had spoken, I realized just how wrong that saying was. Words can hurt, they can hurt worse than any wound. They can do more damage than any wound, because they damage the soul and heart. With those four words, I felt the complete and utter hurt and pain that mere words can cause. Pain that all my life I had believed didn't exist. This was a pain that time could never completely heal, a pain that would leave a permanent scar on my heart.

I closed my eyes as the first of what would be the largest flood of tears I would ever cry in my life trickled from my right eye, and in my mind I recalled the warmth of what it had felt like to hold those two precious people in my arms.

It would not be until several years had passed until I found another warmth. This warmth was the one I felt as I held my husband in my arms, but it wasn't the same as the one I had felt when holding my parents. This warmth was similar, but didn't amount to the one I had felt back then. Two years later, I had my first child. A little baby girl. As I held this baby in my arms, I felt the warmth that had eluded me all these years. That same gentle warmth that I had felt when holding my parents.

As my daughter grew up, I would walk up to her and hug her at random moments, much to her embarrassment. She would always tell me to stop, and would sometimes get annoyed, but I still did it. Because if anything were to ever happen to me, I wanted to be sure that for as long as she lived, she would never forget this gentle warmth. My daughter's name was Lori, after my mother, and I wanted her to know what the gentlest warmth of all was.

Because the gentlest warmth, is the one that exists only between that of a parent and their child.

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