My father kept his heroes alive for me as long as he could. He told me
later that he hadn't meant to do it, but that the way I'd listened had
made him do it. He told me about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Che
Guevara. They were alive in his stories. I was very little and I hadn't
started elementary school yet. All I knew was what he told me, and how
happy he was when he spoke about them. I couldn't wait till I was older
and could be as happy about them as he was.
I started kindergarten when I was five. At the beginning of each month,
our teacher, Ms. Meyer, would have one student come to the front of the
class and mark the important dates on the calendar as she read them. In
January it was my turn. She gave me a sticker and announced that
January 20th was Martin Luther King Day.
Before I even put on the sticker, I said, "Is he coming to our school?"
"No, Nina," Ms. Meyer said. "He isn't alive anymore."
I stood with the sticker and didn't do anything. I looked at the class.
Nobody was surprised that he wasn't alive anymore. People died, but I
didn't know Martin Luther King had died.
When I came home that afternoon, I kept waiting for my father to come
home from work. I was going to be mad at him. Ms. Meyer had used the
nice voice she used with kids in our class who didn't know something
they should know. I'd heard her use it with other kids but I'd never
heard her use it with me. It felt good to be mad at my father. He had
told me a story, but he hadn't told me the whole story. I didn't know
why he had done that. I didn't like the thought that he only wanted me
to hear the part of the story that was alive.
When my father came home, I didn't hug him like I usually did.
"Martin Luther King is dead!" I said.
"Nina!" my mother said.
"Yes," my father said. He looked very sad. "He is."
It was hard to be mad at my father when he looked so sad, but I had
been waiting for a long time.
"Ms. Meyer told me!" I said.
"Nina, that's not the way to say hello to your father!" my mother said.
My father took a deep breath and went and sat down. He put his head in
his hands. "I'm sorry," he said. "You're right. He's dead. I'm sorry."
He stayed sitting there with his head in his hands longer than I could
stay mad at him, and longer than my mother could stay mad at me for not
running and saying hello to him and hugging him the way I usually did.
Siamak Vossoughi's collection of stories,
BETTER THAN WAR, won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.
Detail of photo on main page courtesy
of Romaine Fontaine.
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