So, when my youngest sat on Santa's lap long enough to repeat her life story and share her endless list of perceived injustices in the world, an internal alarm went off. When he removed his glasses to wipe his eyes, my heart sank.
I had dealt with her questions and wishes for two months and still had a hard time controlling my sorrow; she had blindsided this poor man and his emotions. Santa looked around his elves and caught my eye. I shrugged, shallow, but the best I had to offer at the time. He hugged her close, kissed the top of her head, and sent her back to me.
"Did you see him kiss me?" She sounded relieved, maybe excited. "I told him I want him to bring my dad back, and he kissed me."
"What else did you tell him?" I hoped for a list of toys and a new conversation. "You were up there a long time."
She turned her eyes away. "I just told him about my dad so he'll find the right one." Her light, confident tone assured me she still believed a man in red could deliver anything she wanted. This would surely be the last year. I wished she could have wanted something possible.
As we walked through the mall, I asked more specific questions. What had she told Santa about her dad? Did she ask for anything else?
"I told him my dad had a beard and played guitar, and he liked Chucky Cheese. And he's dead."
"Santa can't bring your dad back," I said. "Nobody can. But maybe he could bring you a guitar." I waited out her labored sigh and defiant repositioning. "Did you ask for a guitar?"
"No way. He'd bring a toy one, like he did with the piano."
"Maybe not. You're older now."
"Santa only brings toy stuff. I want a real guitar."
I suggested we shop awhile before leaving and switched directions when her eyes lit up. "Choose a store. Anything except pets."
"Toys," she said, but changed her mind as we neared the organ music. "Can we go in the music store and look at microphones?"
"Look," I said, grateful for the microphone clue. "No touching and don't ask for anything because I don't have money for a microphone tonight."
Three frazzled clerks juggled impatient customers in the crowded store. My instinct said escape as I squeezed between the pre-teen male torturing a display drum set and a couple, obviously his parents, arguing over the length of time the noisemakers would hold his interest. By the time I cleared myself from the area and my head of the banging, my daughter had made her way to the other side of the store.
When I caught up with her, she had bypassed microphones and found a three-quarter acoustic hanging on the wall above the electric guitars. She stared, eyes glazed and lip pulled between her teeth, ignoring my presence, if it even registered with her. I stepped back to allow a frazzled employee through.
He started past her, stopped, and caught her eye. "Want me to get that for you?"
She shot me a glare. "I can't touch anything."
Without waiting for my response, he climbed a stepladder and handed the guitar down to her. "Okay, Mom?" He asked.
Saying no would have been like letting the air out of her arm floaties or denying the child another breath. She held the instrument and stared as though it might disappear if she looked away.
"Try it out," the defrazzling clerk urged.
She sat cross-legged on the floor and strummed, gently at first. As she grew comfortable and retreated into her own world, she warmed up her voice and let go. "Daddy's Hands," she sang, and played louder, her voice on key even if her chords weren't. Her song lured a gathering of customers to our corner of the store.
Still oblivious to everything around her, she stopped playing, traced the row of butterflies circling the sound hole, and said the magic words. "It was meant to be. I love butterflies."
"She wants it, Mom," the unfrazzled clerk said.
She climbed to her feet and handed the guitar back to him. "My mom doesn't have enough money."
I believe I heard gasps from the crowd and for a minute thought some of them were reaching for their wallets. "You can go back and tell Santa," I said. The clerk supported that idea, but she sighed and explained the problem with Santa and toy instruments.
"Maybe you can hold it?" I asked. "And we can tell Santa to come here and see what she wants?"
The too-freaking-excited-to-contain-himself clerk led the crowd in a series of cheers. "I'll take it down there myself and show it to him, after the store closes," he said. "And make sure he sees this exact guitar."
I pulled out my checkbook. "If you're sure, I guess we need to buy a strap and some guitar picks, so she'll be prepared."
"Positive. Santa's my buddy," the clerk said, walking behind the counter. He processed the transaction--with a twinkle in his eye--and handed the receipt to me.
My daughter received the butterfly guitar on Christmas that year. I got the real Santa.