A man once lived alone with his daughter in a penthouse apartment on the top floor of an exclusive building in the city. He was a fire chief and worked long hours. His little girl was taken care of mostly by a nanny the father had hired.
The little girl was involved in horse back riding, ballet, and piano. She longed for her father to be there to watch her when she performed, but every time at the last minute an emergency would come up and he would have to leave. He never once stayed through to see her, though he continually said “I promise I’ll be there next time.”
This went on for two years. “I promise I’ll be there next time.” But it was always the nanny who took her picture, bought her ice cream for a job well done, celebrated birthdays, drove her home and tucked her into her bed at night.
One day when the father was at the station, a fire was called in from his neighborhood. He raced out with his engine company. His stomach flipped when he saw it was his building on fire. He tried the home phone, but no one answered. He knew if his daughter was upstairs she had to get out before the fire spread. The ladder would never reach the top of the building.
Suddenly, three floors below his apartment an explosion sounded and the windows busted out as the fire raged out of control.
He looked toward his apartment, and saw a window open. He yelled to the men to help him start the ladder climbing toward the top of the building. If his daughter was in there, he had to reach her.
The ladder climber higher and higher. It stopped three feet from the bottom of the window. The father climbed a little higher and let the upper portion of his body lean over the top of the ladder as he looked in the window. He was now only a foot and a half away. He reached his ax forward and ripped out the screen.
There, clutching the doll her nanny had bought for her last birthday, was his daughter. She smiled when she saw him. He smiled back, relieved she was alright. “Daddy’s gonna get you down, Princess. All you have to do is jump into my arms. I’ll catch you. I promise.”
The girl looked from the room to her father. Then she looked at the gap between the window and his arms. It was a long way down.
By this time the fire had spread up to their apartment. The father could see it in the hallway behind his daughter. “You have to jump to daddy now. I will catch you, I promise. Please. Jump now!” He tried to keep his voice even, but he was terrified for her safety.
The little girl stood unsure. He had promised so many things in the past and never done them. What if he dropped her? What if he missed? She was too scared to try. She did not trust him. She was rooted to her place in the inferno. She clutched her doll tighter and slowly shook her head no, refusing to jump.
As tears rolled down the father’s cheeks, and imploring words strained from his throat, he watched the flames get closer to his daughter. The harder he tried to persuade her to come to him, the farther she retreated toward the flames.
Eventually they overtook her and the men on the ground had to lower the ladder to keep him from trying to jump into the building. Another fireman had joined him on the ladder, and held him so he wouldn’t let himself fall.
“She wouldn’t jump. She wouldn’t jump. Why wouldn’t she jump?” he repeated to himself over and over. Once on the ground, he collapsed into a heap. Images filled his mind of the times he had to leave her, promising to be there next time. Places he promised to take her that they never went. Birthdays celebrated without him. He was overcome with grief as he realized she didn’t jump because she didn’t trust him: he’d never once kept his promises.