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Best Christmas Ever
By Dave Franco

It was the answer I least wanted to hear. Yet my mom thought it was just the thing to say to her daddy-starved little girl. It happened when I would notice that my dad was strangely absent from the house. I would ask her, “Where’s daddy?”

That’s when she would say it. “Daddy’s gone on a trip,” she would offer with an odd smile. “And he’ll be back real soon.”

He’ll be back real soon. All that meant to me was that I should get used to being without him for a very long time.

Several times a year—and seemingly always at Christmas, my dad would go on one of these “trips” that had him away from the house for months at a time. I hated it when he was gone. My dad was the most fun person on the planet and he would do anything for his little girl. Any time he was near, I had a grip on him. He’d reach on down and touch my cheek with his big, warm hand and my face would fit right into it. He would bend his giant frame down and look me in the eye and smile his handsome grin. I would purr like a kitten.

When I was 13, my dad, who lived in Carson City, which is just a half-hour drive to Lake Tahoe where my mom and I lived, was going to be at the house for Christmas. I couldn’t remember a Christmas when dad was home and this was going to be my best Christmas ever. Everything came together like a dream, it snowed like crazy that day, Christmas music played on the stereo, the smell of turkey filled the air, and my dad was coming home to be with me.

Sure enough dad came through the doors, like my hero in from the cold. He held me close like always...but there was something wrong.

Sure enough dad came through the doors, like my hero in from the cold. He held me close like always and was excited to give me a Christmas present. But there was something wrong. He didn’t seem to be as happy as I would have liked. I had seen it before—dad’s downcast demeanor caused my heart to worry.

After dinner, everyone was relaxing. There was a pregnant silence in the air. I suddenly noticed that dad was nowhere in view. I looked at the front door, and I just knew. As I burst open the doors, dad was putting his belongings in a car in the driveway, as if loading it for a long drive.
“Daddy, no!” I screamed from somewhere deep within.
“Honey go back in the house!” he yelled at me as I ran through the snow. I took a hold of his waist and held on for dear life. “Daddy don’t leave, daddy don’t leave!”
“Andriece! Andriece! Let go, honey!”

My uncle grabbed me and tried to pull me off, but I was not going to let go. I somehow knew from somewhere that I can’t explain, that if I did, it would be the last time I would see my dad. I shrieked as if my reason for living was going to be driving away in that car.

My uncle pulled me off my dad and held me as my dad got in the car and started it with a terrible roar. I cried and called out to my dad as I watched him drive away.

My best Christmas turned out to be my worst.

I do not know any details. My mom has kept quiet about nearly everything concerning my dad, to spare me, she says. All I knew then or now is that my dad is serving a life sentence for a crime having to do with drugs. Drugs have plagued him throughout his adult life.

The cards from my dad started arriving in our mailbox immediately. I threw each one of them away.

The cards from my dad started arriving in our mailbox immediately. I threw each one of them away. I was so hurt, I couldn’t go through the process of reading his thoughts—letting him close, and thereby having to feel it all again. So I didn’t even think about it. I just threw them away, card after card, week after week. My grandma tried to intervene. She told me that on the Christmas morning that he left, he didn’t have a car and walked through the snow all the way from Carson City to Lake Tahoe to be with me.
“Your daddy loves you,” she said.
“If he loved me, he’d be here,” I curtly said back.

I began to lie to my friends and make up stories about where he was. I was trying to push him as far away as I could. His memory. His image. His influence. He didn’t matter to me anymore. Of course, it was all a lie. When I got a Christmas gift from him through the Angel Tree program, I kept it and held on to it like the gift was him.

Ten years passed and I joined the Navy as a nurse. Stationed in San Diego, I was eager to plug into a church after receiving Christ a few years before. I had heard of the Rock Church and came for a visit on a brisk fall morning. That was the day of the ministry fair, where all the ministries have booths to elicit interest from the church to participate. One of the last ones I came to brandished prison bars as a part of its display. It was the prison ministry and I felt immediately drawn to it. I couldn’t really make sense of why I suddenly found myself standing at the booth, talking with the ministry leader. I chalked it up to having a soft heart for all the families who had gone through so many of the things that I had.

After joining, I eagerly attended the meetings and the outreaches to families. But somehow I found myself staying in the background. I guess I still felt I had something to hide.

On my first Sunday at Donovan State Prison, we were in the chapel with the inmates and it was planned that I was to give my testimony. I had a testimony in mind, one that would address my experience with the Angel Tree program as well as safely navigate around my shameful story about a little girl whose dad didn’t love her enough to be around for her life. But as I took to the microphone, there in front of the inmates, I found my secret escaping, like a prisoner longing to be free. I told them everything, including the fact that I hadn’t talked to him in 10 years.

When I was finished, a man raised his hand and asked if he could say something. “OK,” I replied. The man, Kenny, began to walk toward me, tears in his eyes. “You remind me so much of my daughter,” he said as he showed me a picture of her. “Even though I’m in here, we have a wonderful, loving relationship.”
I looked in his soft eyes, his face flush with emotion.
“Young lady,” he said, clear and deliberate, “it’s time to go see your father.”

His words took me by the lapels and shook me hard. I cried without restraint. I immediately felt like my dad...was suddenly close enough to touch.

His words took me by the lapels and shook me hard. I cried without restraint. I immediately felt like my dad, the man who I loved more than anyone and the one who caused me the most pain, was suddenly close enough to touch. I was completely overcome. Three weeks later, I made the trip to Soledad prison were my dad was an inmate. When I got there they ushered me to the room where we would meet. I was shaking uncontrollably.

Ten minutes later a large man walked the length of the room, through the hordes of others there to see inmates and went up to the security guard to ask where I was. He didn’t recognize me. The security guard pointed to my table and my dad turned and saw me sitting there. I kept it together just until he sat down and touched my hand. That’s when I broke open like a dam.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I love you, Andriece. None of this was your fault. It was me. It was all me.”

There was so much I wanted to say to him. I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you. I miss you. But all of that would have to wait. I was unable to say a word amid my unrelenting emotional spill.

In time, my dad began to tell me all the different things he fondly remembered about our lives together and we spent the rest of our time together reminiscing and talking about our mutual faith in Christ Jesus. However, I was so taken with my dad and so struck by his resurrection in my heart, that I never really gained control. The dad that was dead to me so many years ago was alive again.

When our time was up, we hugged and said we loved each other and that we looked forward to the next day when I would be back to see him again. I cried so hard that when he left, the other people in the room came around to console me. I must have been a site to see. But I really didn’t care what I looked like. I had never been so happy in my life.

I think back to God’s nudge for me to join the ministry. I thought I was there to minister to others. Although I believe I’m making a difference, they didn’t need me. I needed them.

The cards from my dad keep coming and I answer them immediately. And of course I keep each and every one. I read them again and again and store them in a box I keep near my bed. In some way, the box is my dad.

Now that Christmas is almost here, I can’t wait. Dad won’t be with me, but in a way he will. Finally, my best Christmas ever.