Tuesday, October 04, 2005

10/4/05 Daddy's Girl

I wish I could show you a photo of me as a little girl. I was in the Girl Scouts, and we had a special day where our fathers came to the meeting with us. They took a photo of all of the fathers and daughters together. In the photo, I have a smug expression on my face. It wasn’t because I thought I was the best little Girl Scout, but it was because my daddy was there, and he was the best of all of them in my eyes. He was the smartest, most charming, strongest, and the funniest dad there.

The only thing that I knew he could not do was to sing on key, but I didn’t care. I only knew that when he sang to me, it seemed as if we were the only two people on earth. My heart melted when he looked into my eyes and sang.

I am his only daughter. I mirrored my mother on the outside and my father on the inside. My father and I liked the same kind of foods, had the same temperament, and took the same classes in school: journalism and drama. I can’t sing on key either!

When I married, I remember feeling the same way as I did all those years before when the photo of the little girls was taken. I was so proud to walk down the aisle with him. I couldn’t imagine anyone else giving me away to my new husband. When we danced at the wedding, I made sure I let him know how much I loved him. He died suddenly two days before Christmas 1999 of a massive heart attack. I will never stop missing him.

There is a song they play on the radio now that takes me back to my wedding day and that dance with him. It goes in part:

“……Never dreamed that he would be gone from me
If I could steal one final glance, one final step, one final dance with him
I'd play a song that would never, ever end
'Cause I'd love, love, love
To dance with my father again.”

Remember in Maura Murray’s story how I told you that sometimes observing the lives of the families we serve is like watching a movie about us, except that different people are playing the parts?

I am dancing with my father that one last time, and then the music stops. The “stage” darkens and when the lights come up again, the music starts to play. It is a different song now. The words as we listen, speak of the love for another, and sound like what I might sing about my father:

“You were my strength when I was weak
You were my voice when I couldn’t speak
You were my eyes when I couldn’t see
You saw the best there was in me
Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach
You gave me faith ’coz you believed
I’m everything I am
Because you loved me

I’m everything I am
Because you loved me”

We’re now in a different place and time. The wedding is that of Kathleen Zelaya Howarth, and she is dancing with her beloved father, George “Skip” Zelaya.

When she looks up at his face, she sees the most gentle, handsome, caring man she has ever known. She chose this song for their dance together, because it held so much truth to her. “I am who I am because I had my dads love,” she said. “I felt it - unconditional love.”

Skip disappeared on January 13th, 2005. Kathleen, his daughter, wishes she could go back in time: “I have always wanted to go back to that day because everyone I loved was under one roof and that was a miracle! I want to go back to have another dance with my dad. It wasn't the last dance I had with him, but one I would give anything to repeat.”

Skip was last seen at his home on the evening of the 13th. The next day, his car was found abandoned at a nearby shopping center. Kathleen, along with her three sisters, Elizabeth, Jennifer, and Susan, brother Michael, and uncle Sandy, are as perplexed today by his disappearance as they were on that day.

Skip is from Homosassa, FL. Some of you might immediately recognize it as the hometown of Jessica Lunsford. Everyone in America had the image of little Jessica in the pink hat forever in their minds, but who knew that this father of five had already been missing for more than a month right there in Jessica’s hometown? Kathleen and her siblings did not find out for two weeks that Skip was missing. They were told there was nothing they could do, but they flew to FL anyway, scheduling an appointment with investigators. That appointment was cancelled due to the Lunsford case.

Skip’s brother, Sandy, led the way with the search. Kathleen describes his valiant efforts: “It's very difficult for us kids since he went missing in Florida, and we are scattered throughout the Washington, DC area. My uncle, his brother, has done everything in his power to find him. He was at his computer for months on end, only to leave his home to put up posters.

He was emailing the detectives about inconsistencies and kept the family informed. He was the only one near dad who was searching for him - they live in the same town. He is the one who first contacted many of the known missing person’s organizations, and he sent letters to all local media and to the Attorney General.”

Media attention was hard to come by, especially with the flurry of coverage for Jessica. This is a prime example of what I ask in the media challenge.


Imagine the potential impact on Skip’s case, had local media at least shown his photo and basic information in a corner of the screen, mentioning him as also missing in the area.

Kathleen reiterates these frustrations: “The lack of media attention - I can't understand why they don't think he's important enough - he has a family and children who miss him so much it hurts. I remember, in the beginning, I had to remind myself to breathe - I would just stop.

What I really want is for somebody to take all the things that have happened and conclude for us what has happened. I want one of those detectives that I see on Cold Case Files or American Justice that have put their heart into finding the answer, to find the answer for us. I want somebody with authority to listen to what we say and care enough to find out why we are missing our daddy.”

Kathleen tells us what she’s missing out on: “What do I miss the most? Talking to him; picking up the phone and be able to hear his voice. I miss hearing the "Hey!" when I pick up the phone and the "I love you too, honey". And now, I've missed 7 nights of good-night kisses. I miss my time alone with him. I would spend a week with him two times a year - one in January when only I would go so that I had him all to myself. Then we would go on what we called our "Sister Trip" - it was always the best of times.”

Elizabeth describes that special time together:

“This is the time of year that we girls would do what we call "The Sister Trip", either to be there on his birthday (May 22) or for Father's Day in June. This trip has been going on for more than 8-9 years. I can't really remember it's been going on for so many years. The most significant moment of these trips (I believe the rest of my sister's feel the same way), and the best part of the whole trip is when (even though were adults) before he lies down to go to sleep, he kisses each and everyone of us goodnight and says, "I Love You". I will miss very much that moment this year!”

The past few weeks were difficult ones for Kathleen and her sisters. “September 25 will start the week the last time Susan, Elizabeth and I spent with him (and Oct. 2 the last time we saw his face, got a kiss and a hug) - Hurricane Jeanne, yes, we went down knowing this hurricane was coming. My husband was furious with me and didn't want me to go, but nothing was going to stop me from seeing my daddy, not even a hurricane, from spending that week with him. Little did I know it would be the last. The hurricane arrived the next day! And not only did dad protect us, he hooked up the generator and we had electricity! I'm a huge NASCAR fan and dad made sure I saw the race.”

On top of this painful marker of time, the girls’ mother must move from the home where they all last lived with their father. Skip’s children plan on going back and being together there one last time.

“October 2, 2004, marked one year since we last saw our dads face, hugged and kissed him good-bye - little did we know it was going to be a final good-bye,” Kathleen recalled. “ I just know that to see his face again is my only desire.”

With the hope she carries close to her heart, Kathleen knows it is possible she will see her father again. This time, a new song will be heard:

“You're my love you're my angel
You're the girl of my dreams
I'd like to thank you for waiting patiently
Daddy's home your daddy's home to stay.”

Kathleen is waiting patiently, but she’s also working hard to bring attention to Skip’s case. She has helped with getting a billboard put up, having T-shirts and ribbon tributes made, plus necklaces with prayer cards, and she has placed her father on several websites.

To read more about Kathleen and her family’s quest to get him back home, please visit Skip’s website at http://www.findgeorgeskipzelaya.com/


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