Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if Dad hadn’t gone to Iraq. If he had stayed home, played ball with me every day, cooked us dinner, and tucked me into bed every night with a kiss on my forehead. But that wasn’t what happened. Dad did go to Iraq, and I still wish selfishly that he hadn’t been so courageous and willing to fight. I couldn’t change fate, no matter what I wanted. Everything that happened changed me, for better and for worse. And the whole time, I kept hearing my father’s words, “You will have an impact on the world Ky. It may not seem like it, but you will. I am about to do that, to help people, and I want you to remember this. Believe, dream, inspire Ky, and people will always be grateful.”
“Hey Ky, wanna come play football with me at my house?” Tyler asked, walking in front of me excitedly. “Sure, but if you want, we can play in my backyard. My dad can set us up some…” My voice trailed off and I stared at the ground, fighting off the tears. Tyler pushed his red hair out of his face and put a hand on my shoulder, gently. Dad had been gone for three days and I still forgot he wasn’t at home. “It’s alright Ky. I have two leftover Sprites in the fridge. I mean, if you want them.” I smiled, hefting my heavy backpack back onto my shoulder. “Ok fine, but I have to go tell my mom first.” We walked down the sidewalk from school, heading for our neighborhood. Tyler’s house was directly beside mine. At the end of my driveway, Tyler ruffled my black hair and waved, “See you in a few minutes, buddy boy!” I ran up to my front steps, swung open the door and called, “Mom, I’m going over to Tyler’s!” I waited for an answer and heard a soft whimper, “Ky, come here.” I kicked off my shoes and headed up the stairs, smiling at the pictures of my dad, lean and strong, kissing me on the forehead as a baby or throwing me up in the air. My mom, small and beautiful, laughed in every picture. I leaped up the last step and looked around. “Mom?” I called. “Ky.” I followed the voice until I found my mother. She sat crying on the sofa and patted to the seat cushion beside her. I uncertainly slid down beside her. “Ky…” her voice shook, and a crumpled letter laid on her lap. I picked it up and scanned the page. Suddenly, I dropped it, staring in shock at the white piece of paper on the floor. “Ky…your father’s dead. He stepped on a mine and got—they didn’t find him until yesterday.” I felt like my heart stopped beating. I couldn’t breathe. The devastation and pain roared down onto me. But I didn’t move. I couldn’t. Tears sparkled down my face in a river, but I made no sound. Mom gingerly swept me into her arms and wept into my hair. But I couldn’t think of anything. Just those four words had broken my life. “Ky, your father’s dead.”
For the next week, I walked down the halls like a loner, crying at unexpected times, and ignoring people’s remarks about how sorry they were. Tyler came up to me many times and said “Sorry about your dad, Ky. I mean, if my dad-“
“Stop Tyler, please. I can’t listen to people say that.” Eventually Tyler stopped and avoided me. I was utterly alone. I didn’t know why I was acting like such a jerk, but I did it anyways. Mom was locked up in her own little world too. And the only thing to remind me of what my dad said before he left to war was the piece of paper he had left me. ‘Believe, dream, and inspire Ky, and people will always be grateful.’ I knew I couldn’t do it. That was until I met the 4th grader. I was sitting alone at recess, when this high pitched voice screamed, “Hey 5th grade boy!” I figured it was another sympathetic kid, so I kept writing in the dew on the picnic tables. Then a little, tiny fourth grader ran up to me and tossed her red hair. She had blue eyes and stood tall to face me. “Hey, I’m Cammy. I know you. You’re the one whose daddy got blown up.” I stared at her. Obviously she wasn’t here to sympathize. “My dad got blown up too, so stop being a baby and listen to me.” I turned completely to face her. “I know how to do speeches and stuff, so you can set up the fundraiser.” What was she talking about? Cammy sighed and rapped my head. “We’re going to do an awareness money raising thing, right? So that other daddies and mommies don’t have to starve and stuff? They can have cheeseburgers, Dorito’s-”
“Wait, you’re saying…I don’t even know you!” Cammy threw up her hands. “You do now! Don’t you want to help other kids’ parents?” I did, but I still felt selfish. “You know, I’m working through my own problems and I need some space, so shoo.” Cammy planted her feet stubbornly and glared at me. “You want to, I can tell. Stop being a jerk!” I spun around. “Fine.” She huffed. She stomped away. “Wait, Cammy!” I called after her. She stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Where do we start?” I asked, and she pumped her fist in the air.
Cammy and I worked for more than a month. Turns out she’s a computer whiz and she made a website that helps inform people about all the families whose dads or moms go away to war for sometimes more than a year. I set up posters about our website and how you can help military families. I got to know her a lot better, and we became good friends. Tyler still avoided me, and wouldn’t come to the door when I went to his house. I felt terrible. One day at school, I caught up with him at recess and walked beside him. “Hey dude, I’m sorry.” I said quietly. Tyler kept silent and walked faster towards the blacktop. I raced to keep up. “Tyler, really, you need to listen to me. I was messed up, man, I couldn’t think straight!” Tyler spun around, his fists balled. “Oh, and then you go and make friends with a puny girl. Is that how it goes?” I was taken aback. “No, we’re working on—“
“You just started ignoring me! I didn’t know why, until some random kid told me that your dad got hurt. Some great friend you are!” He stormed off, and I was left standing in the grass, my white sneakers coated in mud and dew, looking as crummy as I felt. Geez, I didn’t even think about what Tyler would think about my brand new friendship and silent treatment. I knew I’d never be able to take it back. Thinking about my dad’s last words to me, “Believe, dream and inspire Ky, and people will always be grateful.”
“Yeah, well, I tried that and see where that got me?” I murmured up at the clear blue sky. Tears stinging my eyes, I sought a shady corner and cried the rest of recess, leaning my back against the cold brick school.
Cammy called at least five times that night, but I didn’t feel like answering. Mom raised her eyebrows to see me silent at dinner. “Hey honey, what’s wrong?” she asked softly, leaning across the table. I spooned a bit of mac ‘n’ cheese into my mouth and didn’t say anything. She looked terrible these days, her hair all rowdy and messy and she always had black rings under her eyes. I always felt bad whenever she tried to smile. Mom sat back and sighed, “Your girlfriend called today.” She thought that would get me talking, but I bit my lip and remained silent. “Is this about your father?” I looked up at her weary eyes and held back the tears. “Everything is about him Mom. Why did this happen to us?” I said loudly, setting down my cup with a bang. Mom covered her mouth. “Excuse me a moment, Ky. I’m really tired, sweetie.” Then she just got up and left. After a moment I dumped my half eaten dinner in the trash and laid in bed, staring at the ceiling before calling Cammy.
A whole other month passed. I was a nobody. Sat alone at lunch, played at recess alone, and rode my bike alone, up and down the streets. Kids called me cry baby, wiener, butt face. And Tyler watched it all happen. Expressionless. Cammy and I talked about our plans on the phone, and were prepared to do our big speeches on Open House night, Monday. On Sunday night I recited my speech over and over again in my room, a nervous wreck. Our plan was to stand up, say them fast, and get it over with. Cammy was really excited. One day I asked her how her dad had died. For the first time since I’d met her, she’d been silent. Then she’d said, “In the war, some enemies invaded their camp. Shot him in the head. Quick and painless the way they described it.” I didn’t ask any more questions. I fell asleep Sunday night at 11:00 and because my alarm clock didn’t go off, woke up at 7:30. Quickly getting dressed, eating breakfast and brushing my teeth, I ran down the sidewalk to school. When I got inside, I looked down and realized I was wearing two kinds of shoes. Wow. Smooth move, Ky. Be ready for some kind of teasing today. And I got it, for sure. The guys made up a new one. Tar hair. That one kind of stung cause I have my thick black hair from my dad. By the time Open House started, I was so nervous my hands were shaking real bad. Cammy went first. My mom hadn’t shown up, but hers did. A fair haired lady with tons of freckles blew her kisses. Cammy gave her speech about her dad and how we needed to raise money for our troops overseas. She sure created some tears in the crowd and didn’t look scared at all. My turn. I walked up onto the stage and clenched my teeth. “Hi, I’m Ky. Well, um, I guess I just have to say…” I launched into my speech and the crowd watched intently. At the end I suddenly said, “Well, my dad died in the war too and before he left he told me I should always believe, dream, and inspire, and people will always be grateful. And, I love my dad a lot, and will always follow his advice.” I saw a head pop in the door. Mom. I swallowed. Her eyes were filled with tears and she was smiling. I continued. “My dad was amazing and brave, so please also follow my dad’s advice. He—well, yeah, I love him.” Tears streamed down my face, and I saw Tyler grinning and applauding wildly. “Good job.” Whispered Cammy. I got down, and Mom hugged me. “I love you Ky.” She said, her hands stroking my hair. “I love you too, Mom. I love you too.”
Yeah, that’s my story. And if you ever need good advice, just remember my dad’s. Believe, dream, and inspire, and people will always be grateful.