I woke up into the dizzy excitement of deep knowing: today was the day I would get my Zorro sword. I already had my official Zorro hat and cape. I would never dare—never!—to wear them outside my bedroom. Someone might know. Know what, I wasn’t sure. But there were deep, wordless reasons to hide. However, inside the confines of my bedroom, at age nine, I would dash and jump, flip over imaginary stairwells, rescue the beautiful damsels in distress, rid early California of the bad men. Just like my hero, Senor Zorro, I was on the side of right and good. I would serve California honorably, and once my sword was in place, all the beautiful señoritas would love me. (I know, I know—somewhat phallic, but stay with me, please.)
My daddy promised. On Wednesdays, he would take our Shamrock green Colfax Market truck and go to the Banner Food Coop, to get the store’s weekly order. Being very close to the “wholesale block”, he would have the time get my sword. He always did what he said. My daddy, like Zorro, was a man of honor, but lacking in swashbuckling characteristics. He was too tired from working to swash-buckle. But even without swashbuckling, his love was the best thing I had.
That morning in school, John Jay Audubon #42, dragged even more than usual. Nothing in fourth grade was ever okay. I practiced hiding, keeping away from the teacher’s eye, so I wouldn’t get called on and stutter in front of everybody. Keeping my head low, I watched the arm of the oversized wall clock loudly tick its way toward noon. When the bell rang, I grabbed my bulky green sweater from inside my desk and bolted. My dad’s store was Just one block from my school. I galloped down the block. Stallions couldn’t get me there faster! Or could they?
Zooming by the crossing guard, a 7th grader proudly wearing her official guard belt over her blue duffle coat, I pounded down the block, the 300 block of Colfax Avenue. Imaging myself on my black horse, rearing up against the full moon; we were a sight to see, the two of us. Clomping down the pavement, my horse and I, we were at the store in mere moments. Once there, on the corner of Colfax and Linden Street, I leapt off my horse, took a breath, and flung open the familiar, oh, so familiar doors into my childhood, the place of my growing up. The store was as familiar to me as my breath.
But not today. Today everything was different. The air was different, the light had changed. My mother was shockingly not at the register, where she was a permanent fixture. I looked around. My dad wasn’t there either! The store without my parents? Everything tilted inside of me. My grandparents, Papa Max and Grandma Katie, somehow gruffly sheltered us—my older sister had arrived—without words, through the moment.
Now everything goes dark in my memory. In my mind’s eye, the next thing I see is my father in bed in my parents’ beige bedroom. My sister and I stand defeated at the foot of the bed, speechless. He is the same color as the sheet, white, white sheet tucked around his chin. He is sweaty. The blinds are drawn. I peek through them and see an ambulance—an ambulance!—pull up in front of our house. He is sick, my daddy is sick. Something terrible is going to happen.
And the scene goes dark, forever and permanently dark.
That noontime, standing in my parents’ bedroom, my dad in bed in the midday light, that day becomes a demarcation mark of my childhood. After this day, I am positive, as we all are in my family, surely my father is going to die. He is going to die, and I will be so alone without him. We all know it, my mom, my sister and me. Yet we never, ever speak it. We just live it. We live it through that sickness and the next, then the next and the next, after that. And any time I hear a siren, I know, I am positive, he is dead and I am alone. Year after year, grade school through high school, through college, and onward. The rallying factor, the silent mantra is: daddy is going to die; something awful is going to happen. Poor man, he lived endlessly into his death with fear and trepidation, day after day, chest pain after chest pain, anxiety attack after anxiety attack.
And the cosmic joke, you might ask? My father lived to be eighty-four years old. That would be about forty-four years after this, his first heart attack. The defining moment in my childhood, the day I did not get my Zorro sword, the day that everything changed and living became the fear of dying, the day that everything became dangerous, every chest pain, fatal, that was the day that Zorro faded away from my memory. He faded, my Zorro, into the dark of a California night, with the full moon burning brightly; the horseman known as Zorro left my heart, taking with him my courage and my hope.
It would be many a full moon until I again mounted my stallion and galloped forward in my life.
Dear Readers, did you have a defining childhood moment, after which everything changed? Did you think you knew what was going to happen, and then, everything changed? Please do send on your responses.
*theme song from Zorro, the television series