The atmosphere was already crackling with excitement in Maternity B.V.M.’s parish hall Dec. 13 as first grade students filed in to “Santa’s Secret Shop” to buy presents for their parents. But the tables were turned on one of the little ones when she realized the surprise in store for her.
Daijah Fordham, 6, was sitting on the floor with her classmates as the children’s seventh grade prayer partners filed into the hall to assist them with purchases, a buy-for-family program set up by the Northeast Philadelphia parish’s home and school association.
Daijah paid little attention to the line until the last person filed in: Her father, Army Sgt. Clifton Fordham, fresh from a year’s tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Still clad in camo, Fordham stood in the doorway with his wife LeNae and waited for their presence to be noticed. After the heartbeat or two that it took to register, Daijah shot up and raced to her father’s arms. And she wouldn’t let go, not for photographers or teachers or classmates who clapped and cheered and shared Daijah’s joy.
Onlookers shared watery eyes and broad smiles knowing that the secret they kept for weeks was finally out. Daijah, who spent the past year talking about her dad and hoping he’d be coming home soon, got her biggest Christmas wish.
“What will you do now?” someone called out to Sgt. Fordham.
“Whatever my little girl wants to do,” he responded.
Shortly before the reunion, Fordham and his wife waited anxiously in an empty classroom, reflecting on the past year. For dad, it was a year of challenges, patrolling in areas where some Afghans welcomed the U.S. presence and others showed hostility. Danger was a constant, he said.
For LeNae, life went on. She faced many difficulties but overcame them, she said.
“Sometimes you wanted to fall apart but you knew you had to be strong,” she said. “So you were.”
Currently stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., Clifton will continue his full-time business studies at DeVry University. But not before doing some Christmas shopping, he said.
Half an hour after the big reunion, with Daijah still clinging to her father — she consistently hid her face when confronted with a camera lens — first-grade teacher Diane Jennings talked about the effect on Daijah.
“Her constant refrain was, ‘I hope my daddy comes home soon,’” Jennings said. “Still, I think she was blown away today when she saw him.”
School principal Mary Zawisza sat in her office, surrounded by folders and papers and Christmas decorations. She reflected on what she called the impact on children whose fathers go away to war.
“It does affect them, they do think about it all the time. That’s why it’s always good to see a member of our parish come home to safety,” Zawisza said.
Sgt. Fordham’s own feelings mirror what Zawisza says. But it’s not just because he gets to see his family and resume a normal life, he said.
“It’s just a relief to be among people you can trust. You don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen. In Afghanistan, you just never know.
“Now I’m back in a place where I don’t have to constantly look over my shoulder,” he said.