On a warm summer evening, an innocent dinner date was about to turn into a life-changing event because, as we all know, what seems like it’s going to be one thing – can sometimes turn out to be quite another. And that was never more true than on this particular occasion.
Looking around the busy dining room, Amanda Connor was pleased to see a full house. She had taken a financial leap of faith when she opened her family restaurant eleven years ago, but, thankfully, business had been good from the beginning. However, it was not easy going up against the powerful chains and all their franchises, but with hard work and an unrelenting commitment to satisfying her customers, she had succeeded beyond all her expectations. Her establishment was now a beloved part of the community and folks were willing to drive out of their way to enjoy good food and great service delivered in a comfortable atmosphere.
As she surveyed the crowd, she saw quite a few of her regulars. Sharon and her sister, Paul and his wife Jeanette, and her favorite customer, Dan Tomlinson were among those that had stopped by. She particularly appreciated it when Dan made the effort to come in. Since his stroke five years ago, he’d dealt with many physical challenges, including learning how to walk again, but now with the aid of a quad cane, his mobility had improved dramatically.
Happily, there were also many new faces tonight. Most restaurants lived or died by word of mouth, and Amanda’s was no exception. That’s why she did everything in her power to show her appreciation to those who were dining with her for the first time as well as those who returned often.
The current waiting time for a table was only fifteen minutes, and the people in line didn’t seem to mind. As she made small talk with them, Amanda looked over and smiled when she saw a young man in his mid-twenties, dressed in slacks and a sportscoat, open the door for a woman who appeared to be about the same age. The lady was wearing a lovely dress and someone had gone to great effort to fix her hair which gave Amanda the impression that the woman considered this to be a special night.
The restaurant owner continued to discreetly watch as the man took his companion’s hand and the couple walked into the room. It was obvious that they were on a date, and the gentleman looked quite anxious. After he gave his name to Diane, the hostess, they took their place in line behind several others waiting to be seated.
In an instant, Amanda decided to do something she rarely did anymore. She went to Diane and told her that she would serve the couple herself. The hostess understood. She knew that her employer had a nine-year-old grandson with a developmental disability. Because both of these individuals had Down syndrome, she understood they were each living with an intellectual challenge.
When the couple’s table was ready, Amanda grabbed their menus and asked them to follow her. As they walked through the large dining room, almost every head turned and watched. The young couple were focused on each other and didn’t seem to notice – but Amanda did.
A handful of customers seemed to be taken by surprise, and a few shot looks of disapproval in their direction, but most of the diners seemed accepting of two people doing something that everyone enjoys. However, the owner did not care what anyone else thought. To her, the opinions of others made little difference. She was honored that the man and woman had chosen her restaurant, and she intended to ensure that they had a pleasant time.
She gave them a moment to settle in at their table and then she said, “Good evening. My name is Amanda, and I’ll be serving you tonight.”
The young man immediately spoke up. “Hi! This is Emily and I’m Joshua.” Then in a confidential tone of voice, he said, “My dad said you always introduce the lady first.”
Amanda smiled. “Thank you for dining with us. Have either of you been here before?”
Both shook their heads no. Amanda handed each of them a menu. “Well, we have a large selection to choose from, so I think you will be able to find something you’ll enjoy. Let’s start by getting your drinks.” She turned to Emily. “What would you like?”
Emily thought about it carefully. “Iced tea. Sweet, please.”
“All right. And what about you, Sir?”
“I’ll have a Coke.”
“Thank you. I’ll be right back with those drinks.” Amanda headed to the kitchen area.
Joshua pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and looked at Emily with raw fear in his eyes. He had wanted to take her out for several months, and when he got enough courage to ask her, he was amazed that she said yes. But now that the evening was here, he was scared to death. In fact, he had not been this frightened since he was waiting to go into surgery to have his appendix removed. He was hoping this evening would be more fun.
Because she couldn’t help noticing, Emily said, “You look kind of nervous.”
Joshua tried to bluff. “Nah, I’m fine.” There was a brief period of awkward silence as he desperately tried to think of something to say. Suddenly he blurted out, “Have you had your appendix removed?”
Emily was surprised by the question. “No.”
Feeling foolish, he groaned, “It doesn’t matter.” There was another long pause while Joshua tried to come up with a topic to talk about. “I remember the first time I saw you at work. You had just gotten the job.”
“That’s right. I’d been there for three days. When we were introduced, I thought to myself, WOW! That boy is cute.”
Joshua’s face instantly flushed bright crimson.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
He put his head down. “No one has ever said I was cute before.”
Emily was hoping he would say the same thing about her, so she waited. But when there was only silence, she worked up her nerve and asked, “Do you think I’m cute?”
“No?” Her shoulders slumped in disappointment.
Joshua sighed. “I think you’re beautiful. It’s wonderful to look at you. I’m glad I wore my glasses tonight.”
Emily felt relieved. “That is sweet. Thank you.” It was by far the best compliment she’d ever gotten, and it made her feel good to think that someone thought she was pretty. “Well, we better decide what food we want to order.”
They opened their menus and began to look them over.
Softly, Joshua said, “The other day a person made fun of me because he said I was different, but I don’t feel different. I just feel like everybody else.”
“Why did he say you were different?”
“Because sometimes I have trouble reading big words.”
“That’s okay. So do I. That doesn’t make us different.”
Feeling intimidated, Joshua admitted, “I was hoping the menus would have pictures – but it’s just words.”
Amanda overheard him as she walked up with their drinks. “If you have any questions about what to order, I’d be happy to help you both select something.” She said it in such a nice way that Joshua didn’t feel embarrassed.
Emily asked, “Do you have any salads?”
Amanda nodded. “Yes, we do. If you like chicken, we have a delicious garden salad that is served with grilled chicken strips. It’s made with romaine lettuce, and it has avocados, bell peppers, red onions, cherry tomatoes, three types of cheese, and we top it off with a special house dressing.”
Emily was trying to watch her weight, so she thought a salad would be a healthy choice. “Oh! That sounds good. I’ll have that.”
Amanda turned to Joshua. “And what about you, Sir? Are you hungry for anything in particular?”
“I’m starving!” Joshua gushed. “Everything sounds good.”
Amanda laughed. “I’m glad to hear that. We’ll see if we can fill you up.”
But before she could make any suggestions, Joshua asked, “Do you have hamburgers?”
“We sure do. You can get it fixed any way you want, including our largest double bacon cheeseburger.”
When it came to sandwiches, Joshua firmly believed that bigger was better. “Can I get it with french fries?”
“Okay, I’ll have that.”
Amanda took their menus. “I will go put in your orders.”
Emily looked up at their waitress and said politely, “Thank you. You’re a nice person.”
Her forthrightness touched Amanda because it reminded her of the same honesty that her grandson was quick to share. “You are very welcome. I hope you both have a lovely evening.”
After Amanda left, Joshua said, “You probably won’t believe it, but this is the first time I’ve ever gone on a date.”
Emily wasn’t surprised. “I can tell…… But that’s okay. You’ll get used to it.”
He had his doubts, but he hoped she was right. “Have you been on a lot of dates?”
“Not that many. I’ve just gone out a couple of times with different guys.”
Now he felt even more insecure. “Those guys were very lucky.”
“Well, they weren’t as nice as you are.”
That was just what Joshua needed to hear to prop up his confidence. Surprisingly, Emily seemed easy to talk to. He was beginning to feel a little more comfortable, and as he relaxed, he asked her the first question that popped into his head. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No. It’s just me and my mom. What about you?”
“I have one brother, he is older, and one sister who is younger – and my mom and dad.”
Joshua was hungry, and it was hard to think about anything besides food, so he asked, “Do you like pizza?”
“Yes, even though it’s fattening. It’ll make your butt get bigger.”
“Not if you don’t eat more than seven slices.” And with great authority, he added, “I think pepperoni is the best.”
“Yeah, pepperoni is good, and so is Canadian bacon.”
His dad had told him to be sure to compliment his date, so, because he desperately wanted to make a good impression, he sweetly said, “I think your butt is just regular size.”
“Thank you. That’s good to know. I just don’t want it to get any bigger, that’s why I decided to get a salad.”
“Are bacon cheeseburgers fattening?” Joshua wasn’t sure.
“Probably, but I wouldn’t worry about it tonight.” Emily decided to talk about something besides food and what it can do to the size of your backside. “Do you like movies or TV best?”
Joshua thought about it. “I like TV best because it’s free and because I can’t drive. It’s hard to get to a movie theater.”
“Would you like to learn to drive?”
“I sure would. But my dad said…… let me think…… he said ‘If I was on wheels, I’d be a menace to society’. I’m not sure, but I don’t think that’s a good thing. Usually, I just take the bus everywhere. I know most of the drivers, and they’re nice to me.”
Emily said, “I like TV, but movies are good.”
“What kind of movies do you like?”
“All kinds, I guess. But I really like the ones where the boy falls in love with the girl and they kiss at the end.”
Her answer made Joshua blush again.
Although she was afraid of what he might say, Emily, asked shyly, “Have you ever kissed a girl?”
Joshua wanted to be honest. “No, not in real life – but I’ve kissed you in my dreams.”
Now it was Emily’s turn to blush. “Do you really dream about me?”
“Yes! …… But what about you? Have you ever kissed a boy?”
“Nope, I haven’t. I don’t know if I’d be good at it since I haven’t had any practice.”
Joshua was sure he knew the answer. “I don’t think it’s something you gotta learn. I think it just happens – like in those movies.” Then he added reassuringly, “Don’t worry, if you weren’t any good at kissing, I would be nice and not tell you.”
Unfortunately, Emily did not find that to be reassuring at all, so she changed the topic back to entertainment. “I have my own TV at home so I get to watch the movies I want on HBO – but my mom doesn’t like for me to look at the R-rated ones. She says they have too many bad words in them. But I hear those same words sometimes when I ride the bus.”
Joshua had his own experience with that type of language. “I try not to say bad words, but sometimes it just happens. Last weekend, I was helping my dad build a wooden bench for our backyard, and I missed the nail with the hammer and smashed my thumb. It made me say every bad word I could think of, and I said them really loud! My dad said I even made up some new bad words.” To emphasize the point, Joshua held up his left hand and stuck his thumb up, so Emily could get a clear view of how green and purple it was. “I told my dad I was sorry for saying them, and he said it would be best if my mom just didn’t know about it, so we didn’t tell her what I said.”
“I hope it didn’t hurt too much – but you promise you won’t say any of those words tonight, right?”
“Good.” Hoping to move the conversation along, Emily asked, “Do you have any pets?”
“We have a dog named Max. We rescued him from a shelter so he really loves us for saving him.”
“What kind of dog is Max?”
“The friendly kind.” Just thinking about him made Joshua smile.
Emily had a pet too. “We have a cat, but she just showed up one day and decided to stay.”
“What’s her name?”
“Queenie – because she is the queen of the house.”
“We had a cat once,” Joshua said. “His name was Sam. One time he accidentally got in the dryer, and we didn’t know it, so he went for a ride.”
“Oh my gosh! Was he hurt?”
“Nah. He wasn’t in there long, but he did come out warm and fluffy. My mom said a cat has nine lives, but my dad said Sam was on life number ten.”
Emily asked, “But you don’t have Sam anymore?”
“No. It was sad. He got old.”
“It’s awful when you lose a pet. They’re like a friend.”
Joshua felt the same way. “Yeah. They don’t live as long as we do, so they keep dying, and we have to keep living without them. Sometimes it’s hard to do…… but Max is great! He follows me everywhere. He even sleeps on my bed and snores.”
“My mom likes for our cat to sleep in the front room, but every morning when I wake up, there’s Queenie sharing my bed. I don’t mind though. I like the way she purrs because that means she’s happy. I guess she fell in love with us, and that’s why she decided to stay. But I hope she never gets in the dryer.”
Listening to Emily was fun. Usually, Joshua couldn’t talk to girls without feeling awkward, but something about her put him at ease. “Do you like music?”
“Yes. I have a lot of CDs.”
Proudly, Joshua said, “I love to sing, and usually Max howls right along with me. I think he just likes the sound of my voice. Mostly, I sing in the choir at church, but they make me stand in the back row because they say I’m too loud. I just can’t help it. I love to sing so much, and I want to make sure everyone can hear me. Maybe you could come and listen to us sometime.”
“I would like that!” Emily took it as a good sign that he would want to see her again.
Wanting to find out more about her, Joshua asked, “Are you a good singer?”
“Not really. I sing along with my CDs, but my mom always asks me to shut my door.”
Over the next few minutes, the conversation drifted effortlessly from one topic to another without either of them realizing that someone else was listening intently as they talked.
Dan Tomlinson was sitting close by, and although the noise in the room prevented him from catching every word, he was able to get the gist of what they were saying. After eavesdropping on them for a while he’d decided to talk to Amanda about the man and woman – but he would wait until the time was right.
Back at the young couple’s table, an in-depth conversation was underway about whether it would be more fun to be able to fly or to be invisible. Joshua was making a convincing argument for being able to fly when he looked up and spotted Amanda heading toward them carrying a large tray with their meals. Unable to contain his excitement, he exclaimed, “The food is here!”
Other diners couldn’t help but be amused by Joshua’s unabashed enthusiasm. The genuine happiness of the young couple was contagious, and because their reactions were real, it impressed those sitting near them – none more so than Dan.
As Amanda placed their dinners in front of them she wished that everybody found as much pleasure in eating out as these two did. “All right, here we go. I think you’re all set.”
“Thank you.” Emily looked at her dinner. She had never seen such a big salad. “This looks so good.”
Amanda smiled warmly. “I hope you enjoy your meals. I’ll be back in a little while to check on you.”
Unable to wait, Joshua pounced on his bacon cheeseburger, while Emily began to nibble at her salad.
After a couple of bites, Joshua couldn’t resist teasing her. Giggling, he said, “Better watch out. With all that chicken, you might find some feathers.”
“Oh, gross!” Emily wondered why boys always said things like that. However, she had to admit to herself it was kind of funny. Immature, but funny.
“Sorry. Just kidding.”
As they ate their meals they continued to get to know each other. They discovered they had quite a bit in common and shared many similar interests. Trying to follow the advice his father had given him, Joshua kept looking for ways to say something nice to Emily.
“I’ve never seen your hair like that. It looks really fancy.”
She didn’t know if that meant it was good or bad. “Do you like it?”
“Sure do. I got a haircut this morning, but mine always looks the same…… I’ve been thinking about maybe growing a mustache.”
“You would look a lot different with one.”
“I don’t know if it would be a good one or not. I have to shave a little bit, but not too much. You’re lucky, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Emily shrugged. “At least not now, but my grandma has a small mustache. My grandpa told her she should braid it, and she told him he could sleep on the couch. Maybe someday I’ll be stuck with one too.”
Joshua tried to picture her with a hairy lip, but he couldn’t. So he focused on his french fries. They were really good. Extra crispy.
Emily had heard her mom say that her grandmother’s mustache had something to do with hormone pills, but she didn’t think that was an appropriate conversation for a dinner date. She didn’t believe you should talk about hormones until you knew someone really well. Maybe someday she could discuss them with Joshua – but not tonight. Besides her mother had told her that boys didn’t really understand hormones, seeing as how they had so much trouble controlling their own. Overall, Emily considered it to be a tricky subject – whether you had facial hair or not. Safer to talk about everyday things like dead pets.
In between bites, Joshua asked, “How is the salad?”
“It’s really good. I don’t know what the dressing is, but it tastes great.” She watched him take a big bite of his sandwich. “It looks like you’re enjoying your cheeseburger.”
“Yep! Bacon is good on anything.”
“Hard to argue with that.” As Emily watched Joshua attack his dinner, she couldn’t help but be amazed at how different boys were from girls. She was pretty sure that Joshua had never once in his life worried about how big his butt was, or what his hair looked like, or what his hormones were doing, or if he would eventually sprout a mustache against his will. Things that frequently concern girls.
A short time later, Amanda brought them fresh drinks. “How does everything taste?”
Through a mouthful of his cheeseburger, Joshua said, “Great! Best burger ever.”
Emily said, “The salad is wonderful. What’s the dressing called?”
“It’s a special honey mustard. We make it ourselves each day with our own recipe.”
“It’s really good and so is the chicken.” For a moment Emily had the fleeting fear that Joshua would mention the feathers, but, thankfully, he didn’t.
“I’m glad you like it. If you need anything at all just let me know.”
As she watched her walk away, Emily said, “I really like Amanda.”
“She is a good waitress. She should get her own restaurant someday.”
“Yeah, I would definitely eat there.”
“You said you didn’t have any brothers or sisters.” Joshua couldn’t imagine what that was like. “Weren’t you lonely when you were a little kid?”
“No, not really. It’s just the way it was, so I didn’t think much about it. Did you get along with your brother and sister when you were growing up?”
“Sometimes, but not always. Even though we loved each other, we would drive my mom crazy. At least that’s what she always said.”
“My mom and I are best friends. I guess because we were all we had.”
“It’s the same way with me and my dad. We’re always doing things together, and we talk a lot. He gave me advice about how to go on a date with you.”
Curious, Emily asked, “What kind of advice?”
“Well, he said I should be courteous and act like a gentleman. You know like holding the door open for you and stuff like that. And he said I should treat you with respect. But I didn’t need to hear that because I would’ve done that even without his advice. He just said I should be on my best behavior.”
“I would love to have a dad who could give me advice,” Emily said wistfully.
“I’m sure glad I have my dad. I don’t know what I’d do without him…… Hey if you want some of my french fries go ahead and take ’em.”
“No thanks. This is a really big salad, and I’m getting full.”
Joshua was feeling the same way. With one last bite, he finished off his double bacon cheeseburger and then quickly put away the rest of his fries.
Amanda was chatting with some other customers when she saw that the couple had finished their meals. The owner walked over to their table and asked Joshua, “Did you get full?”
He grinned. “Yes! If I wasn’t in a restaurant, I think I would belch.”
“But he promised not to because he’s on his best behavior.” Emily quickly added.
Amanda laughed and said, “I hope you both saved room for dessert.”
Joshua’s eyes got big. “Do you have something with lots of chocolate?”
“Yes, we do.” She reached over to the back of the table and pulled out the dessert menu which unlike the regular menu featured colorful photos. Spreading it out so they could see it, she pointed to the mouthwatering picture of the choice with the most chocolate.
Without hesitation, they both picked that one, and Amanda headed off to get two of them.
Joshua rubbed his hands together. “Oh boy, this is going to be good!”
Emily’s reaction was somewhat different. Instantly regretting that she had weakened and ordered dessert, she had to face the fact that eating out was not the way to stay on her diet. “So much for my regular size butt…… Of course, this is a special occasion.”
“That right.” Joshua tried to encourage her. “If it’s going to make your butt get bigger anyway, you might as well enjoy the dessert instead of worrying about it.”
She thought about that and realized that she worried too much about everything and Joshua didn’t seem to worry about anything. Maybe that made them a good match. They kind of balanced each other out. Emily was glad they had gotten together. “Thank you for inviting me to dinner.”
Her date was pleased that she seemed to be having a good time. “You’re welcome. If you’ve had fun, I hope we can go out again.”
“That would be nice.”
Soon the desserts arrived and they dug in. The chocolate was warm and gooey, prompting Emily to remark, “This would be a lot messier to eat if you had your mustache.”
“Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that.” Joshua shoveled in a huge mouthful of the creamy dessert. After a few moments, he said, “I think I like chocolate too much to grow a mustache.”
Emily was glad to hear it. Secretly, she thought he would look hideous with one. “You’re making a good decision. I like the way you look right now.”
Her thoughtful comment was lost on him as he savored the sugary sweetness of his dessert. “Chocolate is so great!”
A few minutes later Amanda came back into the dining room, and Dan waved his hand to get her attention.
Daniel James Tomlinson had been one of her first customers when the restaurant opened, and over the years they had become more than acquaintances, they now considered each other to be a good friend. Amanda had lost her husband thirteen years ago, and she believed that a certain attraction had gradually developed between her and Dan. She certainly felt it, and she suspected he did too. But she had not always felt that way about him.
Before his health crisis, he was not someone you wanted to be around. His general disposition was belligerent and hateful. To her, he seemed self-centered and egotistical. Each time he came in, he complained about everything regarding his meals, and Amanda wondered why he kept coming back. She certainly wished he wouldn’t.
However, after Dan had his stroke, his personality and outlooked completely changed. As he worked through his physical issues, he began to see life and those around him in a different way. It seemed that the more difficult his situation became the more empathy he had for others. That was a quality he’d been sorely lacking.
Sadly, Amanda believed him to be a lonely person because he always dined alone, didn’t wear a wedding ring, and never spoke about a family. But no matter what his personal life was like, he had changed dramatically into a kind and thoughtful person, and they had grown closer over the years. Consequently, she thought nothing of it when he motioned her over.
“Everything all right tonight, Dan?”
“Of course. The food is always delicious.” He cleared his throat and then nodding towards Joshua and Emily’s table, he said, “I would like to anonymously pay for that couple’s meal.”
Amanda was surprised. “That’s very kind of you.” She studied his face and could see from his expression that something was bothering him. “I know it’s none of my business, but I can’t help being curious. Is there a particular reason why you want to do that?”
Dan trusted Amanda and respected her opinion, but he was torn over whether he should talk about the one subject he never discussed under any circumstances. He was afraid that opening up about something so disgraceful would make Amanda lose whatever feelings she had for him – and he couldn’t blame her. As he struggled with the ever-present guilt concerning his secret, she waited patiently.
Slowly he looked around the dining room and wondered if anyone else had made the same mistake he had. It was doubtful – but then most people would never suspect him of being so cruel and heartless either. He turned his attention back to Amanda. Studying her face, he knew she was a compassionate and caring person, so he decided it was worth taking a chance. Speaking so softly she could barely hear him, Dan said, “She doesn’t know it – but that young woman is my daughter.”
Amanda could not suppress her shock. “She is your daughter?”
“Yes. Her name is Emily Marie. She’s twenty-five years old, and……” His voice began to falter. “That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen her.”
Amanda had noticed that each time she interacted with the young couple, Dan had watched with great interest. However, it didn’t strike her as unusual because she had brought her grandson to the restaurant many times, and the two of them seemed to naturally hit it off.
Still, she was stunned by her friend’s admission. “We’ve known each other for more than ten years, and I never knew you had children.”
“I was too ashamed to tell you.” Slowly, an all too familiar sadness was beginning to settle over Dan making him feel weary. “She’s my only child – but God knows she doesn’t deserve to have me as a father.”
Completely confused, Amanda said, “Of course, I will honor your request to pay for their meal, but I want you to know that if this is something you want to talk about, I will be a friend and listen without passing any kind of judgment.”
“I appreciate that, but there is no way you could keep from judging me harshly…… However, I will think about it. Because of your experiences with your grandson, you might be the only person who would listen to something so reprehensible.”
“Yes, please consider my offer. You might feel better if you talk about it with someone.”
Amanda left the room for a few minutes, and when she returned, she went straight to the young couple to give them the good news.
“I have a surprise for you!”
Emily asked, “What is that?”
“Both of your dinners tonight, including drinks and desserts are free.”
Joshua could hardly believe it. He’d been saving his money to be able to afford to eat here. “They’re free? Why?”
Without looking in Dan’s direction, Amanda said, “Someone else paid the bill for you. They just wanted to do something nice.”
To Emily, it seemed too good to be true. “Who was it?”
“It doesn’t matter. They did it secretly. They just wanted you to have a nice dinner and not have to worry about the cost.”
“Whoo-hoo! That is great!” Joshua had never expected this night to go so well.
Amanda couldn’t help but chuckle. “It has been a pleasure having you with us tonight, and I certainly hope you both will come back to see us.”
Always polite, Emily said. “Thank you, Amanda. We’ve had a wonderful time.”
“Yes.” Joshua chimed in. “Thanks for everything.”
“You are welcome!”
A few minutes later Joshua and Emily headed out. Dan watched as the happy couple left the restaurant holding hands the same way they came in. But when the door closed behind them, he was overwhelmed with sorrow and an indescribable sense of remorse. Heartbroken, Dan knew he would never see his daughter again, and he struggled to hide the emotion that was flooding his soul.
Amanda also watched the couple leave, and when she turned back to Dan she saw the agony on his face. Convinced he would feel better if he could confide in someone, she walked over to his table. “Please come with me to my office so we can talk. There will be no pressure, just two friends sitting together.”
Dan thought for a second before agreeing. “Okay.”
“Good. Let’s go.”
He followed her across the dining room, down a short hall, and into her office. Amanda sat down in a chair behind her desk and pointed to several chairs against the wall. “Please pull up one of those and make yourself comfortable.”
Dan sat with his head down wondering how he could ever talk about such a terrible thing. When he was ready, he looked up at Amanda with intense emotional pain etched on his face and said, “I never thought this night would happen. I didn’t think I would ever see her again. Over the years I was able to keep track of her through photos and videos, but I never dreamed……” His voice trailed off.
“She looked beautiful all dressed up, and she seems like a very sweet person.”
“Her mother did a fantastic job raising her. She certainly had no help from me.”
Amanda realized that the best thing she could do was to listen and ask questions without interjecting her thoughts or opinions. She sensed, correctly, that after so many years of hiding this part of his life, he just wanted to unburden himself.
Dan wasn’t sure how to start such a personal conversation, so he simply made a brutal confession. “I made the worst decision a human being can make. I walked away from my own child.”
“What were the circumstances that caused that to happen?”
“My wife took a test during her pregnancy, and it was positive for Down syndrome. I knew nothing about the disorder – and I made no effort to learn. I just focused on the fact that children with that diagnosis have intellectual challenges, and I was afraid her needs would alter our lives – actually, I thought she would ruin our lives…… It’s hard now to comprehend how I could have been so closed-minded.”
“But your wife saw things differently.”
“That’s right. Down syndrome did not matter to her. She wanted her baby no matter what. But I couldn’t accept that we were not going to have the child I thought we would. The child I wanted. We immediately started fighting about whether or not she should get an abortion. I wanted the pregnancy terminated as quickly as possible – but, thank God, she refused.”
Dan looked down at his left hand where his wedding ring should be. “I can’t begin to imagine what I put my wife through. This was supposed to be the happiest moment of her life, but I took away all of her joy about becoming a mother.”
Amanda was shocked by what she was hearing, but she did not indicate what she was thinking.
“My wife begged me to stay through the pregnancy. She was convinced that once I held my daughter in my arms, I would fall in love with her.”
“Did you stay?”
“Yes. But all I could think about were the things I believed our little girl would never accomplish. As the due date got closer, I began to pressure my wife to put the baby up for adoption – but, of course, she wouldn’t hear of it. Before long she realized my attitude was not going to change and that drove us apart to the point where we couldn’t reconcile. A few weeks after Emily was born, I did the unthinkable. I chose to leave my wife and daughter.”
“How old were you then?”
“I was twenty-one and my wife was twenty. We’d been married six months when she got pregnant. We were too young to settle down and start a family, but we both thought that’s what we wanted. However, I can’t blame what I did on my age. I was old enough to know that I had a responsibility to my wife and child…… I mean, what kind of man does a thing like that?”
“You made a decision that you’ve had to live with. It happens to many people. You aren’t alone.”
Dan took a deep breath and said, “Because she had Down syndrome, all I could think about were the problems Emily would have and the limitations she would be forced to deal with. But I wasn’t being fair because I never gave her a chance. I just assumed the worst in every circumstance, so my mind was closed to any kind of hope. All my expectations were negative.” Shaking his head in disgust, he said, “There’s no other way to explain it than to admit that I was being totally selfish.”
While that might have been true back then, Amanda knew that he was a different man now. The agonizing pain and sense of loss he felt proved that he was not the same person anymore.
Dan had never spoken to anyone about his daughter, but now that he’d opened up, he felt compelled to express his sorrow over his actions. “I did not want my daughter to be born. Think about that. I didn’t even want her to have a chance to live, and all because I thought she would be different, that she wouldn’t be normal. I was so selfish that I was willing to deprive her of the right to even exist. And when her mother refused to get an abortion or consider adoption, I decided I was not going to live my life being burdened by a child with a disability…… My God, I was so wrong. So completely and utterly wrong.”
Amanda couldn’t help but think about her grandson. He was living with many challenges, but his family never thought of him as a burden. He was their greatest joy.
“It’s pathetic that I was so blind that it took a hemorrhagic stroke to open my eyes to what it’s like to live with challenges. I quickly learned how frustrating it can be to struggle to do the things that come so easily to others. And for the first time, I truly appreciated what my daughter had faced during her life. She had to be strong and courageous. She had to have perseverance and determination. Once I knew what it’s like to live with a disability, I understood just how incredibly amazing my daughter is, and it makes me so proud of her.”
Amanda was glad she could be here for him, and she wanted to see if she could help. “Certainly you can’t undo the past, but the future is not set in stone…… Perhaps you could make an effort to connect with her now. Just reach out and let her know that you care.”
Dan shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s too late for me. Besides, she turned out perfect without my help. I would just be interfering in what appears to be a very happy life.”
“Well, you never know about these things. I don’t want to generalize, and it’s certainly not fair to compare people, but one thing I’ve learned about my grandson is that he is very forgiving. Maybe Emily would be the same way.”
While that could be true, Dan knew there was another problem. “Emily might be able to forgive me – but I will never be able to forgive myself. The way I walked out on my child haunts me every day. And it always will…… I’m sure she would not want to have anything to do with me.”
Amanda didn’t want to come on too strong, but she needed to make an important point. “I appreciate what you’re saying, but please consider this. You admitted that twenty-five years ago you underestimated your daughter – it would appear that maybe you’re making the same mistake again.”
The truth of her words hit him with tremendous force and left him momentarily speechless. Amanda was absolutely right. Once again, he was automatically assuming the worst without even giving Emily a chance.
His friend continued. “All I’m saying is that perhaps your daughter would surprise you with her response to being reunited. I know it’s a risk, and it would be devastating if she rejects you, but if you don’t at least try you’ll never know what beautiful memories you could’ve made.”
Grim-faced, Dan said, “One thing is for sure. I’ve lost twenty-five years with Emily that I can never get back.”
Amanda gently countered, “That’s true. But the question is, do you want to live the rest of your life without her.”
ONE MONTH LATER
The rain had fallen steadily throughout the day, and that kept the crowd at the restaurant down. Although the showers finally let up late in the afternoon, there were still not that many folks who wanted to venture out. Currently, the dining room was only half full, and most of the diners were frequent customers who lived in the area.
Amanda understood. People rarely thought about how much the weather affected businesses that depended on foot traffic, but she could hardly blame people for choosing to stay home on a soggy evening. That’s why she was taken by surprise when she entered the large dining area and saw something that stopped her in her tracks and made her heart soar.
While unconsciously holding her breath, she watched as the door opened, and Dan Tomlinson, with the support of his cane, slowly walked in with his beautiful daughter by his side.
It only took a moment for Emily to spot her, and she immediately rushed to the restaurant owner with her smiling dad trying to keep up.
“Amanda! Amanda! This is my dad!” The volume of her voice attracted the attention of the other customers, who quickly realized they were witnessing a heartwarming moment.
Amanda took hold of Emily’s hands and said, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here!” Then she looked at Dan and realized that she’d never seen a happier face. Ever the good host, she said, “Let’s sit down together and talk. I want to hear all about this!”
They made themselves comfortable at a table in the corner a good distance from the other diners. Dan grinned at the woman who had helped him understand that there was still hope that he could have a relationship with his daughter. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you, Amanda. Because of your willingness to listen to me and your thoughtful encouragement, I found the resolve to get in touch with Emily, and now we have a new life together.”
Emily was overjoyed. “Amanda, did you know it was Dad that paid for our meals when we ate here that night?”
“Yes, I knew. But at that time, he wanted it to be a secret.”
Dan looked admiringly at his daughter and then back at Amanda. “I explained to Emily that when she was born, I made the biggest mistake of my life, I tried to make it clear how sorry I was, and that I would give anything if I could go back in time and be there for her as she was growing up – and I promised that I’d do everything I possibly could to make it up to her. Thankfully, as you predicted, my daughter is very forgiving, and she’s going to allow me to be a part of her life from now on.”
Emily briefly rested her head against her father’s shoulder. “Everyone makes mistakes. So I told my dad I forgive him, and I’m not mad or upset. I just want us to be together forever.”
Amanda was touched by the honest outpouring of emotion. “I’m so happy for both of you.”
Emily said, “My dad has even met my boyfriend, and they really like each other!”
Dan agreed. “Joshua is a fine young man.”
Then with a mischievous look, Emily winked at Amanda and said, “My dad wants to ask you a question.”
Amanda turned to Dan. “He does?”
But before Dan could react, Emily said, “Yes! He wants to ask you out on a date!”
Amanda smiled at the now embarrassed father. “Is that true, Dan?”
He couldn’t help feeling sheepish. “Yes. I thought it might be nice if we went to dinner someplace where you could relax and enjoy a quiet meal yourself, instead of feeding everyone else.”
She was flattered by his offer. “That is very kind of you. I would –”
But before she could go any farther, Emily, bubbling with excitement, exclaimed, “Hey! I’ve got an idea. Me and Joshua could go with you. It would be like a double date!”
Amanda couldn’t help but laugh as Dan sighed knowing he’d already lost this decision. She looked at Emily and said, “That would be great fun. If it’s okay with Joshua’s parents, it’s okay with me.”
Emily turned to Dan. “Please say yes, Dad. Please!”
Dan looked into the face of the person who’d had the grace and compassion to forgive him. “I think it’s a great idea.”
Emily grabbed his hand. “Thank you! Thank you!”
“You’re welcome.” Dan was beaming. “I’m just thrilled we get to spend time together.”
“Me too!” Emily didn’t think she’d ever been so happy. “I never knew it could be so wonderful having a dad.”
And then, with complete innocence, she said something that touched her father in a way he would never forget. “We were apart for so long, but you finally came back because you found out you really do love me.”