Dad holds my hand all the way to the bus that first morning, anchoring me in the way only a dad can. His hand envelopes mine with warmth and stills some of the trembling. I miss him already, and he’s still so near.
“You’re going to have the best time.” Dad smiles down at me. “You’ll see.”
I’m not convinced. “But what if I...”
He squeezes my hand, a gentle pulse. “Oh, I almost forgot.” He releases my hand long enough to fish around his front pocket for something. When his hand meets mine again, he tucks something in my palm. It’s hard, a strange combination of smooth and rough.
My mouth opens, in true child fashion, to ask a million questions about this unusual gift. Dad raises a finger to his lips then says, “It’s not goodbye. It’s an acorn. When you get lonesome, you have this acorn to remind you of me... and when you get home, we’ll talk about all of your adventures. Deal?”
I nod. “Deal.” And much too soon I’m whisked away from my dad.
All day, I held tightly to the acorn. When I felt frightened, the acorn was my dad holding my hand. When my heart ached for my parents, I clutched the acorn to my chest and it became a hug.
Soon enough, I was home again and the stories flowed from me in a non-stop current of colors, letters, and numbers.
The night of my wedding reception, Dad pulls me aside as guests butcher The Electric Slide on the dance floor. He studies me quietly for a moment, taking in the flush of my cheeks and the way my eyes stray from his to my bride on the other side of the room.
“Here,” he says, extending his hand. “It’s not much, but I wanted you to have it.”
At that moment, everything was changing. A rift had formed between my childhood and everything that would come afterward. I roll the acorn around in my fingers as tears cloud my vision. “Dad, I...” I miss him already, and he’s still so near.
He raises his finger to his lips. “It’s not goodbye. It’s an acorn. You keep it, and you think of me. We’ll catch up on your adventures soon.” Then he nods to Sarah, who, in her glowing perfection, had come to steal me away for a slow dance.
Several years later, Sarah and I stand in the front yard, arms locked around each other, surveying our first home one last time. Behind us, Dad finishes loading the last box on the moving truck.
“That should do it,” Dad announces. “You’ll want to check the pressure on that right rear tire. Looks a little low.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Sarah smiles. She wriggles free from my embrace to hug him. “We couldn’t have gotten all of this done without you.”
Dad and Sarah hold each other for a while, and there isn’t a dry eye around. We knew my new job would mean a big move. I didn’t realize how tough it would be for Sarah. Or Dad.
And before I know what’s happening, Dad places an acorn in Sarah’s hands.
“It’s not goodbye,” he says as he hands me my own acorn. “It’s an acorn.”
Sarah’s mouth drops open as she realizes she’s been inducted into our club.
“Go, have your adventure!” Dad says. “We’ll talk all about it when we’re together again.”
Our club continues to grow over the years, when I discover an acorn on the changing table in Emma’s room after returning from dropping my parents off at the airport. Emma, only two months old, isn’t old enough to appreciate her acorn. I, on the other hand, have to excuse myself to go cry like a baby.
One day, much too soon for my liking, Mom calls me. She tries to sound chipper as she asks about the girls, but there’s no disguising the worry permeating her voice. I grab the nearest acorn and squeeze it in my palm. “Is something wrong with Dad?”
She sighs deeply, setting aside the upbeat act. “You know I didn’t want to tell you like this, but... you should come see him, honey. It doesn’t look good.”
I’ve always hated hospitals. I hate them even more when someone I love is in one. It’s a suckerpunch to my gut when I walk into Dad’s room. He’s so tiny and fragile in that hospital bed, which I never thought possible. When he recognizes me, a grin splits his gaunt face, followed by a swipe at “the blasted air doohickey” protruding from his nose.
We don’t mention the elephant in the room, even though it looms closer and closer with every passing moment. Instead, we talk in fits and bursts, anything he can manage with low oxygen and even lower energy. I stay until his eyelids droop, which is my cue to go. Before I leave, I place an acorn in his frigid hands.
“That’s perfect.” Dad’s eyes fill with tears. “Just perfect.”
“It’s okay, Dad. Go, have your adventure. We’ll catch up when we’re together again.” I don’t want to say goodbye. I don’t even want to give him an acorn. I just want him to stay... but I can’t hold him here.
Several days later, I sit in the front row of the funeral home as Dad’s buddies and colleagues from the plant file past his casket to pay their final respects. I still can’t seem to grasp his absence, that this time it really was a goodbye. Marty, Dad’s best friend, settles in the empty chair next to me with a shaky exhale. “How ya doin’, kid?”
I answer him with a muffled sniffle into a balled-up Kleenex.
He pats my knee. “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, that’s for sure. But isn’t it something?” Marty nods in the direction of Dad’s casket. I’ve been avoiding looking up there. That’s not my dad. I mean, it’s his body, but my dad is somewhere else. On an adventure.
Marty’s face softens. “Look, I know. But you should go see.” With some creaking and groaning, he rises from the chair and extends his hand. I take it because God knows I need a hand to hold right now. We walk to Dad’s side, hand-in-hand.
My dad. My best friend. Smiling eternally, ensconced in satin... and acorns. Easily a hundred acorns nestled around him and tucked in his pockets. Our secret club was a little less secret than I’d first thought, but it was all so perfect.
Untold beauty held in the confines of a dull, unassuming seed. Such a small thing, an acorn, and yet the promise of a forest. When all else withers away, when all seems desolate, a spark of hope waits in expectation of finding roots. Even in the bleakest night of winter, the comfort of the first wisps of green to come remains.
Shelter. Beauty. Hope. Rebirth.
It’s never goodbye. It’s an acorn.