The rush-hour traffic is merciless outside my office window and twelve stories down. I should be out there right now, creeping along with the rest of the sluggish vehicles and honking horns headed toward home. My wife, Anne, probably has dinner in the stove right now; Helen is undoubtedly curled up with a book on her bed; and Timothy should be getting back from baseball practice. And I should be driving home to join them.
But I’m not. All my papers are packed into my briefcase and my computer is off, but my mind is in a different time and place. I glance at the clock; the dial flashes five o’ two. Five years ago today, and just about this time, I discovered the importance of love. Heather taught me; sweet, precious Heather who was my oldest daughter until five years ago.
She had always been the carefree, joyful child, constantly laughing and smiling and doing everything possible to make everybody else’s life a little bit easier. She never asked for anything or longed for the things other girls had, but was content with life. The only gift she had ever desired was to ride a white stallion. Ever since reading one of Marguerite Henry’s novels in the third grade, her most treasured dream was to ride a white steed. Heather insisted that he didn’t have to be beautiful or well-trained; he only had to be pure white. She was sure that someday she would get her wish, regardless of the fact that San Francisco isn’t the best place to find a horse, let alone a white stallion.
I am now ashamed to admit that I never took her desire seriously. I was entirely absorbed in my lawsuits and honestly saw no particular reason for trying to fulfill a dream that wouldn’t have any true value. Everything was dollars and cents to me, and a single expensive ride on a filthy animal didn’t seem to fit the budget. I have often regretted that decision.
When she was fifteen, Heather was diagnosed with cancer. At first, panic shook the entire household, but Heather’s calmness and demure acceptance of the treatments seemed to soothe the whole family. Heather was too angelic and loved to die; we were sure that she would overcome the cancer. Our insistent hope blinded us. We were oblivious to Heather’s declining state of health, until another test revealed the vast extent of the cancer. The doctors gave Heather four months to live.
I was shocked to say the least. As a lawyer, I despised losing my case to the opponent. As a father, I couldn’t bear to see my daughter’s life vanquished by an insurmountable opponent. But it was happening right before my very eyes. Frustrated, heart-broken, and confused, I threw myself into my work with more vehemence than ever, frightened to stay home with a saddened family and a pale, dying but still bravely cheerful child. I now know that my actions were cowardly and that I was running away from my fears and foes. Ignoring the fact that my family needed support and love, I chose instead to be at a place where I could engross myself in a battle I could actually win, regardless of the fact that I was deserting the real war.
One late summer evening, as I was studying briefs in the living room, Heather came to me. Her thin, frail body and prominent cheekbones spoke only too clearly of her suffering, but her eyes shone with a radiance and courage I couldn’t bear.
She stopped beside my chair, gently fingering the worn edges of a coffee table. “Dad?” she asked.
“Mmm?” I replied without looking up from my papers.
“I need to ask you something.”
I saw her shift her weight and take a deep breath. “I want to ride a white stallion.”
I looked up at her, wondering why she had never forgotten this one, ridiculous dream.
“Please,” she begged, “could you try?”
It was the first time I had ever seen her look desperate. Her white hands were clutched before her and her eyes peered at me with a burning insistence. I fiddled with my papers and swallowed hard. “I’ll try,” I answered.
Heather smiled and relaxed before throwing her bony arms about my neck. “Thank you, Dad,” she whispered.
Maybe I still didn’t want to admit that my daughter was leaving me. Maybe a part of me was still resolutely holding to the idea of dollars and cents. Either way, I didn’t try to find a white stallion. And four days later, I lost my chance when Heather was placed in the intensive care unit.
One look at her ashen features and shallow breathing told me the truth. In the dim room, alone except for my daughter, I shed tears of remorse, pain, and despair. I regretted all the time I had ever spent after hours at the office; I regretted avoiding Heather and the rest of my family over those past months; I regretted not facing my fears. More than anything else, I regretted not trying to make one simple dream come true for my own daughter.
Now, it was too late.
As I stood by her bedside, cradling her cold, limp hand, I wished with all my heart that I had thought about my family before myself.
“Dad?” Heather’s broken voice called.
“I’m here, darling,” I assured her, bending close to her face.
Her eyes fluttered open, but they were glazed and stared past me into some distant place I couldn’t see. She blinked quickly, as if straining to see something, and then weakly gripped my hand. “Oh, Dad,” she gasped. “He’s beautiful.”
“Who is?” I asked.
“The white stallion. Oh Dad, can’t you see him?” A note of ecstasy had crept into her voice as she gazed at something beyond the confinement of human sight. I knew that I was forever losing her.
“I see him,” I choked.
“He’s so gorgeous,” Heather murmured, closing her eyes in pleasure. Her body relaxed and she smiled peacefully at her waiting mount. “He’s nodding his head at me. He wants me to ride him.” Her eyes opened and turned to me. Her eyes focused on mine. “Can I go, Dad?”
In that instant, I felt as if the entire world had stopped turning and my heart had stopped beating. The time had come to let go. But could I? Could I honestly relinquish this daughter that I loved so much, this beautiful young lady who might have grown into a charming woman? I stared into her pleading blue eyes. I realized that I couldn’t refuse her again. For once in my life, I would put my daughter’s desires before my own.
“Heather, you may go,” I said. She smiled joyfully, and closed her eyes for the last time.
Now, as I come out of my reverie, I glance at the clock again. Only a few minutes have passed, but I know I need to hurry so I can take the family to Heather’s grave tonight. I grab my luggage and head out the door. I don’t want the night to end sadly, so I’ll make sure we go out for ice cream afterwards. I need to study for a case I have next week, but there will be plenty of time for that. I just need to remember that Timothy has a ball game on Thursday and Helen wants me to help her make a cake for Mom’s birthday on Friday. And of course I’ll take Anne out for a special date on Saturday. I clamber into my Buick and make a mental note to let Timothy practice driving tomorrow. He needs to earn some hours for his driver’s license. And then we have family game night on Friday and church on Sunday.… I chuckle as I turn the key. The list goes on and on.
As I pull out of the driveway, a swinging motion near my rear view mirror catches my eye. The dangling figurine of a rearing white horse with a girl on his back makes me smile.
There are numerous white stallions in this world. We just need to make the time to find them.