There was never a time that I could ever remember that Officer Michael Jaworski wasn’t in my life. When I was nine years old, he taught me to shoot a pellet gun, and gave me my first BB gun. With the patience of a saint, he showed me how to nuzzle the butt of the gun into my shoulder, and he was the one to take the gun away from me when I accidentally pointed the barrel at the neighbours cat. It was him who took the training wheels off my bike and ran alongside me on the roads of the suburb where I lived, yelling after me to keep steady and peddle harder. I struggled with reading and Mike found books that he thought I would love and read them with me.
Mike carved out time out of his weekend or after a long shift to take me to the park and push me on the swings and surprised me with a trip to Disney world for my 13th birthday. I was an outgoing kid and every new adventure I took, whether it was art shows, recitals or my slam poetry phase, Mike was always there, and he was my biggest fan at every turn.
I asked him one day a long time ago, as he drove us to the movie theater why my parents didn’t take me to the movies.
“Mommy and daddy are busy tonight, besides, don’t you like going to the movies with me? It’s one of my favourite things to do.”
The truth of the matter is I loved it dearly and cherished my time with Mike. He was so much more to me than just a friend. After many years of reflection on my childhood, Mike was there to fill the void that an estranged relationship with my parents left. I was adopted, and although my parents loved me in the ways they knew how to there was always some sort of disconnect that I attributed to them not being my real parents. And while my parents put a roof over my head, always had food on the table and bought me clothes, it was Mike who took me to the mall and helped me pick out back-to-school clothes and then spoiled me with food-court French fries.
I preferred the company of Mike to my parents anyway. David McHale was family law attorney at Rathbone & Associates and my mother, Michelle was the regional manager of a large company that sold equipment to veterinary clinics. Both required long hours, and my mother travelled most weeks. So when I was suspended from school in grade 4 after tackling a boy to the ground and force-feeding him dirt when he told me I couldn’t play field hockey, Mike came to pick me up and undoubtedly convinced the school and the boy’s family not to take any further legal action.
There was a time where I thought I was in love with Mike. I would never have told him, but being a dopey teenager, he seemed to have picked up on it. But Mike had the ability to approach every awkward situation with diplomacy, a skill he picked up from the police force, and let me down gently with as much dignity as the situation would allow. He was a gentle soul with tired, drooping eyes that have seen a great many terrible things for such a young man. Despite that, I have seldom seen him without a grin that dimpled his left cheek and brought a spark to his eye.
My life had been blessed with Mike, but I never knew why. I thought I was walking a fine line if I questioned it, and so I accepted this gift for what it was; I had someone who loved me unconditionally and showed me I had worth and deserved the love I received, a concept that I struggled with. At any rate, when I finally found the nerve to ask him, he brushed it off.
Similarly, I can remember asking him other personal questions to which he evaded in the same fashion. It was a time where I didn’t quite understand the value of another’s privacy.
“Mommy and daddy are married, and they tell me they love each other very much,” I would regurgitate, “why don’t you get married? Don’t you love anybody?”
“Mommy and daddy do love each other, you’re right. But I haven’t found the right person to love yet,” he replied, brushing my bangs out of my eyes.
“Have you even tried?”
He grinned with a chuckle. He thought about it for a second and opened his mouth to retort.
“Well, you love me, right? Do we have to get married?” I blurted out.
At the time, I didn’t like the thought of getting married to anyone, but I guess if it had to be anyone, Mike wouldn’t be so bad.
“No, no sweetie, I love you in an entirely different way. There’re types of love, you see, and well,” he paused, watching me carefully, “you’ll understand when you’re a bit older. But for now, all you needs to know is you’re the apple of my eye, my number 1 girl.”
He learned down and kissed my forehead.
I told Mike first when I was accepted to the university of my choice. The laugh lines and dimples that I loved so much had become deeper. His eyes drooped further into never ending tiredness as grey specks poked through his dark stubble and streaked his earthy hair. Mike was proud of me, of course and wrapped his arms around me so tightly that I found it hard to breath.
“Aren’t you excited?” he asked with a fading smile when he saw that I wasn’t reciprocating his joy.
I feigned a smile, “of course I am.”
He saw through it and he always did. He leaned against the kitchen counter, resting his hip on the edge and crossing his arms.
“I want to make my mom and dad proud, they both went to university. They want me to go into business.”
“And what do you want?” he said quietly.
“I—well—I don’t see any other options, where else would I go but university? Mom and dad want me to—”
“No!” he grabbed me by the shoulders and peered directly into my eyes, “what do you want to do?”
“I—don’t know, I wanted to take a welding course and go to trade school, but mom and dad told me I’m too smart for trade school, they told me that trade school is for—”
“Enough,” Mike growled, I will never forget the bitterness in his normally calm blue eyes, “you told your parents you want to go to trade school?”
“They told you they wouldn’t pay for school if you didn’t go for business, didn’t they?”
“Well, I mean, they—”
“If you want to go to trade school, we’re going get you into trade school. Actually dear, one of my good high school friends owns a small welding company. Maybe we can start there, I’ll give him a call and see.”
“They won’t let me, Mike,” I could feel the pain of emotion building up behind my eyes.
“Listen, dear, I don’t want you to choose a path in life that you don’t like or were forced to go on. That’s not fair to you, you should be happy with your own choice, not forced to live with someone else choosing for you, even if it’s your parents. If you’re parents aren’t going to be proud of the decision you make, then you knows for damn sure I will be.”
Mike still had his hands on my shoulders but as he spoke, he brought me into a hug. I felt a world’s weight of my shoulders. I hated the idea of going to university and spending four or more years sitting behind a desk just to sit behind another desk. I wanted something I could build with my hands.
Because of my decision, my parents and I had a falling out. How could you do this to us? How could you even think that something so blue-collar could be better than a CEO? As Mike predicted, they refused to fund such an absurd career path for a lady even though it was far less expensive for me to take welding courses at the local community college. I said I would pay for my own college, but it wasn’t about the money. They didn’t care, and our grievances with each other were irremediable and so I moved out. While I was going to move out into my own place, Mike insisted that I saved the money and come live with him. The way I saw it, I was never going to be good enough for them because I’m not theirs.
On the day of my 18th birthday, I packed my car with moving boxes and Mike strapped my mattress, box spring and bed frame down with ratchet straps in the back of his Ford. It was a weekday, so my parents weren’t home. I didn’t tell them I was leaving, but I left a note. In the time since I applied for community college courses in the trades, my mom and dad had been resentful and saw my choice as a personal attack on them.
After everything we’ve done for you. My existence was suddenly a burden to them to which I owed them for. It began feeling like I was their property, and they were disappointed in their purchase for not working out the way they anticipated. While I was grateful for them, leaving felt like escaping a prison I didn’t really know I was in.
Mike insisted that I bring my own furniture so I could feel more at home in his house. After I had settled in, Mike came to the door and leaned up against the threshold with his arms crossed and a grin on his face. He was holding a piece of paper under his arm.
“Here,” he held out the paper. I took it, realizing it was a cheque.
“Tuition and books,” he said
I looked at the cheque. It was made out to me and it was a lot of money. Mike could see the surprise on my face and chuckled as my eyes widened.
“Mike, this is way more than what tuition costs!”
“I know, but you’re gonna needs your own equipment, especially since Mark is leaving a position open for you at his company after your finished with your courses.
“Mike…” I was speechless.
“You’re gonna be the best welder this city has ever seen. Maybe you could fix my boat trailer, some of the bars are rusting out…” he continued on about the repairs his boat trailer needed but I stopped listening.
“This is way too much, I can’t—I’ve never even seen this much money before in my life, Mike you have to take it back”
“I kinda figured you’d say that, but that money is for you. I put that money away for you” he came into my room and sat on my bed and gestured for me to sit as well. I sat.
“I started a savings account for when I had a kid, I wanted to be able to pay for their school.”
“I’m not your kid."
“I never wanted my own kids,” he grinned.
“Then why—”I said, feeling my voice strain.
“Because you are my kid.”
“But I’m not!” my voice rose as I felt myself getting frustrated.
Mike seemed a little hurt. His brows furrowed as he held his hands together on his lap, picking at a hang nail. He had a bad habit of chewing his nails down to the skin.
“I’ve been with you since the beginning. I watched you grow. You are the only daughter I will ever have, and the best thing to ever come into my life,” he said in a near whisper.
“Why though?” I asked remorsefully.
“Your parents kept me from telling you things that were really important for you to know”
“What?” I felt my heart drop into my stomach.
“Hold on a sec, I have something I want to show you,” he said standing up from my bed and leaving the room. He came back only a few seconds later, which was enough time for my mind to jump to several terrible conclusions. I felt panic rising in my throat as the muscles tightened, causing my breathing to change.
Mike sat back down in his spot and handed me an old photo, worn and tattered with lines cutting through it from where it had been folded. The colours were dulled with sepia.
“What is this?” I asked. He pressed the photo into my hand. I brought it closer to my face to examine it.
The photo was of a young police officer leaning on an old crown vic cruiser cradling a bunch of clothing in his arms. The police officer was wearing sunglasses and although I couldn’t see his eyes, I could tell from the lazy way he leaned that is was Mike.
“It’s an old photo of you,” I said, my eyes still on the photo. Something very peculiar I noticed was that the bunch of clothing that he was holding was very similar to a blanket I had in my childhood—a fleece Scooby-doo blanket, that, while hard to pick out in the photo, was undeniably the same blanket. Mike was looking down into the face of a newborn me, swaddled in a blue and green Scooby-doo blanket.
My eyes shot up to Mike who was watching me carefully.
“This—this is me,” I said in desperate shock. He nodded. I could feel tears begin to sting my eyes, “why are you showing this to me? What is this photo?”
“Eighteen years ago, I was called to a traffic collision in the east downtown area. Dispatch reported a three-car pile-up. The persons directly involved were a young couple and an elderly man. Paramedics pronounced both the young man and woman deceased at the scene and the old man was rushed to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries a couple days later,” Mike stated factually, like he was reporting to a superior officer and as if he has recited this case many times before.
“But why—I don’t understand.” But I did. It was my parents—my real parents to died in the car accident. The realization fell plainly on my face and Mike saw it
“They must have just been bringing you home,” Mike said quietly.
I was drowned in tears. I spent so many years in resenting my birth parents and struggling with the idea that my own parents didn’t want me. David and Michelle had lied, Mike had lied.
“You knew this entire time and you never thought to tell me?” I sobbed at him.
“Your parents—David and Michelle, I mean—they told me if I revealed this to you, they wouldn’t allow me to see you. I wanted to, but they threatened me with a restraining order. They can’t do anything now because you’re eighteen. I was always going to tell you…I couldn’t.”
I fell silent, I was numb, and my heart was pounding in my head. Mike spoke again, quietly with regret in his voice,
“I found you laying asleep in your car seat among the shambles of the car wreck. Not a single scratch on you. When I took you out of your seat, you woke up and started crying. I was able to rock you back to sleep, and a witness at the scene gave me that Scooby-do blanket to wrap you in.
“The paramedics took you to the hospital to be looked over and kept you until child services could find an emergency foster for you. I…I petitioned adopt you several times, but my application was always denied. I wasn’t fit, I was only twenty-three then. So I came by every day until you were adopted. They wouldn’t even let me choose who adopted you,” he chuckled sadly, picking at his hang-nail again.
I stood, allowing the photo and the cheque to fall to the floor. My face was wet with unrelenting tears. Mike stood as well.
“I’m so sorry, my sweet, sweet girl. I can’t ever forgive myself for—oof!”
I collapsed in Mike’s arms and sobbed messily into his chest. Accepting the embrace, he held me close an pushed my hair out of my face and hugged me tightly.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for everything.”
I felt tears that weren’t mine fall in among my hair and heard a light shudder come from Mike. I had never felt so much love than I did in that moment, and I finally felt wanted.
“Well,” Mike cleared his throat. We separated from our embrace and through his wet face, he grinned.
“I asked Mark to drop by for a couple beers, and I’m sure he’d be chuffed to talk your ear off about the trade. Hows abouts I light the BBQ and we grill up some nice steaks?”
I couldn’t help but give a toothy grin. I picked up the photo and cheque and set them on my dresser and followed Mike out the door.