Heads turned as Gerald stepped out of the midnight-black limousine. One woman even stopped and lowered her sunglasses to stare at this tall, silver-haired man in the dark, pin-striped suit. Oblivious, focused on the task ahead of him, Gerald climbed the stone steps of the cathedral. At the top, he paused.
From his suit pocket, he pulled a tiny, pink-and-white button. He gazed at it, fingered it and returned it to its place. Then he pushed open the mahogany doors and stepped inside. The doors slammed behind him, creating a rumbling echo.
No one here, he thought. Do I have the wrong day? He adjusted his tie and headed into the nave of the church. Once there, he sighed with relief.
Pink flowers adorned the main altar, pink carpet covered the aisle floor and pink bunting draped the empty pews. Definitely the right day. He smiled. After looking around, he walked to a side aisle, plopped into a back pew, closed his eyes and folded his hands—not to pray, but to remember.
Gerald was only thirty-two when his wife died. He plummeted into a black hole then and would have stayed there had it not been for their baby daughter. She was all he had left and he adored her: reveled in holding her chubby hand, experiencing her toothless smile and hearing her first words.
He wanted to be with her all the time, but that was not possible. Even though he found an excellent daycare facility, Gerald cringed every morning when he left his little girl in the care of strangers. He wanted better. He wanted relatives. When his mother-in-law offered to leave her home and husband in South America and come to Florida to help, Gerald accepted.
The arrangement worked well. But, after some time, Gerald noticed that, although his mother-in-law’s face brightened when she looked at her grandchild, it darkened when she looked at him. Soon, she started leaving the room whenever he entered. She’s avoiding me, he thought, puzzled. Maybe she’s lonely. Maybe she misses her husband. And maybe I can help.
“Would you like to go home to South America for a while?” he asked.
She kept her eyes down and did not respond.
“I will pay for a return ticket.”
Her head popped up. She grinned and nodded. “The little one, she come with me?”
Gerald’s eyes widened. “I’ll think about it,” he said, furrowing his brow. After a while, he decided it would be okay; it was only for two weeks and he would be joining them for the second week anyway. So he made the arrangements, took them to the airport and bid them good-bye. Everything seemed fine.
However, after twenty-four hours of trying, and failing, to contact his in-laws, Gerald knew that everything wasn’t fine. He looked up the emergency phone number. His heart pounded as he remembered how reluctant his mother-in-law had been to give him that number. Hands sweating, he picked up the phone and punched in the digits. He listened. He counted the rings… One, two… eight, nine…
“Hello, hello,” panted Gerald. He stumbled out a question. He waited.
“They move. Leave no address, mister.”
He dropped the telephone and slid from his chair.
Gerald tried everything to find his daughter: phone calls, e-mails, police, letters and private detectives. Over and over, the powers-that-be reminded him that his daughter had left the country with his permission and in the care of the guardian he had selected. “It’s out of our jurisdiction, sir.”
No one could help. Even his many trips to South America were fruitless. His in-laws never stayed in one place for long. Every time he got close to them, they moved. Again and again.
Eventually, he gave up.
Devastated, he burrowed into darkness. Sat for days in his basement, curtains drawn, no hope. In his hand, he clutched his last connection to his only child: a white button with a pink tulip engraving. She had given it to him at the airport.
“A button fell off my sweater, Daddy.” Her eyes were filled with tears. “Can you fix it?” She held it up for him to see. Gerald gently removed it from her hand.
“How about if I hold onto it for you? I promise I’ll keep it safe in my pocket until I see you again. It will be my good luck charm.” The little girl smiled and her misty eyes twinkled.
Gerald kept that button with him, always.
As time went on, Gerald began living life, or at least going through the expected motions. Every day, he got up, placed one foot in front of the other and just kept going. Hour by hour, minute by minute. Just killing time, he told himself. Yet he knew that the truth lay in a quote he read somewhere once: Men talk of killing time while time quietly kills them. It didn’t matter. He felt dead anyway. No hope. No light. On and on. Days. Weeks. Months. Years. Decades.
Then, just last month, a letter arrived. And with it an invitation.
He read the letter four times to comprehend it. He read it four more to believe it.
You barely know me but I am your father-in-law. We, my wife and I, have caused you much pain and I need to set it right. Please try to understand—the loss of our daughter was too great for my wife to handle and she had to have her grandchild with her, here, in her homeland. She desperately needed that and I could refuse her nothing.
My wife is dead now, and our grandchild—your daughter—is getting married in a few weeks. It is you, not I, who should be giving her away, Gerald. She wants that and so do I.
You do not need to respond to the attached invitation but I hope you can attend. Nothing would make me happier than to see you when I walk into that church. Can you find it in your heart to forgive the unforgivable?
Yours in regret,
The sound of the church door snapped Gerald back to the present. He looked up to see an elderly, well-dressed man shuffling down the centre aisle. The man appeared nervous, glancing this way and that, searching. Gerald continued to watch as the man stopped, sighed, and shriveled into a stooped position.
“Antonio.” Gerald’s voice was a mere whisper. Yet Antonio heard, straightened and turned. He began walking fast now. The anxiety in his face had transformed into a smile by the time he reached Gerald. There he hesitated, tentatively extending his gnarled hand.
Gerald stood to accept Antonio’s hand, and fearful of placing undue pressure on the crippled fingers, shook it gently. At first, he sensed tension in the older man’s body but, within seconds, that tension seemed to just melt away. When that happened, Gerald noticed, with great surprise, that his own body was calm as well. For a long time, he had fantasized about this moment and, in his mind’s eye, this time was always one of revenge. Where had the rage gone? When had it left?
“You’re here. Thank you, God and all the saints. You’re here!” exclaimed Antonio.
“Yes, Antonio. How could I stay away?”
“I am sorry, Gerald. So sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”
With truth and tranquility, Gerald replied. “I didn’t think I would ever be able to. Forgiveness was a foreign word to me for a long time. But I am here. I am grateful to you for contacting me. And yes, Antonio, I forgive you.”
“Gracias, Gerald, gracias.” Antonio placed his other hand over Gerald’s. “You will give her away, then? You will do that?” His gaze was direct, pleading. Gerald’s eyes flooded with tears.
“I gave her into someone’s care before, Antonio, and I lost her. And now,” he sighed, “she won’t even know me. It has been too long. She was just a little girl. Time has surely dissolved her memories.” He slowly shook his head. “She won’t even know me.”
Antonio just smiled and looked over Gerald’s shoulder toward the door. From behind him, Gerald heard a rustling noise. Releasing himself from Antonio’s clasp, he turned. A beautiful, dark-haired bride stood before him.
“Time could never dissolve my love for you. My only fear was that you may have forgotten me,” she whispered.
With tears streaming down his face, Gerald reached into his pocket and withdrew a tiny button with a pink tulip engraved on it. He held it up for her to see.
She, in turn, held up her bouquet. Woven among its flowers were replicas of the same tiny button. “There’s just one missing, Daddy,” she said, “but I always hoped you’d return it, just like you promised.” She held out her free hand.