My daughter is an intelligent, funny, beautiful young lady who soon turns seventeen. This summer as I saw her drive up in her car, walk in high heels, and make a phone call about her job, it reminded me again that sadly I was no longer looking at a little girl. I’d been reminded of that before and she knew what I was thinking when she saw my face. Where did that tiny kid go I used to carry in my arms?
“Will you always think of me as a five year old kid!” she asked as she rolled her eyes.
“Yes Baby Doll.” I answered, calling her the name I’ve called her since the days I carried her in my arms.
Even as that five year old kid she was outgoing, curious, and questioning. Like every child with every parent, she often asked questions that forced me, I felt, to come up with the tiniest of white lies in order to shield her from the harsher realities of life for as long as I thought I could. How dare anything ruin her happy, innocent world? I couldn’t stand the thought of her sweet little head being contaminated by some of life’s negatives.
For instance, the time she softly asked why the cute raccoon was lying on the side of the road that summer day, I naturally told her he was just taking a nap. I rolled the window up quickly before she asked about the odor. And who could fault me for telling her that our goldfish was simply learning to float on his back the day she saw him belly up in the tank? I turned her music box on so she wouldn’t hear the toilet flush him away. Then, of course, there was the day we watched a program on television about Africa and before I could grab the remote she saw a crocodile drag a gazelle into the river. “Everybody likes to play wrestle their friends in the water, Baby Doll.” I said as I hurriedly switched to cartoons.
I just couldn’t stand her innocent little mind being tainted by such things and I found myself constantly on guard for additional realities I might need to protectively water down before she took in. I was off my game the day the chicken truck pulled up beside me at a red light.
Just a few miles past where we lived at the time were chicken “factories” and periodically trucks with loads of live chickens traveled down a major road near our house. Several times in the past I had done illegal U-turns just to avoid them if I had my daughter in the car. I couldn’t imagine what I would say if she ever asked me about those trucks with stacks and stacks of pitiful live chickens, obviously miserable, being hauled off to their deaths. I was always mindful when I used that road. Except that day.
Only she and I were in the car at the time and I hadn’t even noticed it was a chicken truck as it pulled up and stopped beside me at the red light. I could see the truck cab, but trucks of all sorts used that road, so nothing in particular was triggered until I reached over to change the radio station. That’s when I saw, through the windshield, a huge white feather float slowly down to land on the hood of my car. I sat bolt upright.
“The chickens!” I said to myself.
As I leaned over, almost afraid to confirm what sort of truck it was, I noticed my daughter in the back seat looking intently through her window. Just feet away from her dear, chubby little face were hundreds of terrified white chickens crammed into tiny metal cages. Feathers floated everywhere. My daughter stared at the birds. I can still see her red cheeks and wide eyes as she scanned the many cages full of chickens.
I whirled around to face the front, said nothing, and prayed for a green light. It remained agonizingly red. I thought maybe she wouldn’t ask me anything. I thought wrong.
“Daddy?” she asked, in that sweet little girl voice.
This was it, I realized. Please let me think of a good one.
“Yes?” I answered, willing the light to turn green. It would not.
“Is that what chicken nuggets look like before we eat them?” she asked, and through the rear view mirror I saw her lean forward to get a better look at the birds.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. In fact, I had no idea she even knew chicken nuggets came from chickens. She apparently hadn’t paid attention the day I told her they were made by nugget elves.
Well, she was five after all. I guessed it was time she start processing some of those harsh realities of life. I could think of nothing to say to avoid this one. She was staring face to beak at a truckload of misery and there was no way I could save her. I nearly teared up as I resigned myself to the ruination of her innocence.
“Yes, Baby Doll.” I finally answered, in the saddest of tones. “That’s what chicken nuggets look like before we eat them.” I held on to the steering wheel, stared at the stubborn red light, and waited for her to scream, cry, and wail from the pain of that awful truth.
“Mmmm!” she said with a huge grin. “I love chicken meat!”
The light turned green.
She asked to go to McDonald’s.
Stuart M. Perkins