After Ginny and I were born, Daddy gave himself completely over to loving us, “his girls.” Daddy is a tough disciplinarian for sure, but we were never too old to be close. Even still, we sit close on the couch, his hand on the back of our heads. We hug each other hello and goodbye. Sometimes, we hold hands on the front porch swing.
Ginny and I used to tease Daddy about being overprotective. We didn’t understand why he would spend time thinking through the worst that could happen in any given scenario. We’ve decided it is likely a healthy combination of both genetics and the thirty-two years he spent as a probation officer.
When I was about five years old, we were in an Albany pharmacy to pick up a prescription. Daddy had told me to stay within eyesight. I didn’t. I wanted to look at the Hallmark card display. The next thing I knew, Daddy’s hand was over my mouth and he was pulling me toward the exit. I didn’t fight or try to scream, because I knew what was happening. He’d snuck up behind me to teach me a lesson, but he didn’t know I’d seen his wedding band on his left ring finger as it came toward my face. I’d know that hand anywhere. I wasn’t afraid at all. I knew exactly what he was trying to do. I also knew that I was in big trouble.
When he took his hand off my mouth and turned me around to face him, that’s when I got scared. There was absolute terror in his eyes. He said, “That’s how fast it can happen, Elizabeth. Don’t you ever get away from me like that again. Do you understand?” I knew I never wanted him to be afraid like that, so I vowed I’d always stick close.
When Ginny and I were still in school, Mama and Daddy would take us to most of the home football games. We weren’t allowed to play with some of the other children who were “turned loose” to run around the small, fenced football stadium with large grassy fields on either side. The rule was that we were to either sit with our parents or sit in their line of sight. Once we settled in our seats, we were not to leave those seats without checking in and letting one of them know where we were going.
My freshman year of high school, I was sitting with friends in the student section. Daddy had taken to wearing a red stocking hat to the football games in colder weather so that we could “keep up with him” more easily. I don’t know how he lost sight of me, for I was following all his rules, but he did.
He was walking toward the student section in that bright red stocking hat using his super-loud, outside only, reserved for emergencies voice, “ELIZABETH SANDERS? ELIZABETH SANDERS?” My friends heard it at the same time I did and urgently chattered at me, “Oh my gosh! That’s your Dad. Stand up!! Stand up, Elizabeth!!” I shot out of the student’s section and ran down the bleachers to meet him in the grassy area in front of the track yelling, “I’m here! I’m right here!” When he saw me, his shoulders relaxed and he nonchalantly smiled, “Oh. There you are. I couldn’t find you from my seat.”
My sophomore year, I joined the cheerleading squad because I figured it was a guarantee to go to the football games, and Daddy would never lose track of me if I were cheering in front of the bleachers. Any humiliation I felt as the only cheerleader in the history of our school who couldn’t do a cartwheel paled in comparison to the one time he “lost sight” of me the year before.
Dating certainly wasn’t easy. Right before my very first date with my high school crush, Dad took me outside with my date in tow and did a “quick” lesson on how to change a tire. “It’s important you know these things, Elizabeth.” I answered, “I know, Daddy, but RIGHT NOW?” My 11 o’clock curfew was explained away with a favorite quote repeated from his aunt, “You’ve got to get home and give the thieves a chance.” It’s an absolute miracle anyone dated me at all.
At nineteen and home from college for the summer, I briefly dated a local guy whose family Daddy didn’t know. When the poor guy came to pick me up, he and I talked to Mama in the living room while I heard Daddy leave the house through the back door. After I got home that night, at a much earlier curfew than ever before, I asked what he had been up to. “I got his license plate number and the make and model of his car. Just in case.” We didn’t date for very long. Clearly.
The night of our wedding rehearsal everything was going as planned. Mr. Walter, our Presbyterian minister, dressed in a blue hibiscus print Hawaiian-styled button-down shirt, stood at the front of the church going over what would happen when. “And then, I’ll say to you Kent, ‘Who gives this woman and you’ll answer ‘Her mother and I.’ ” Daddy interrupted, “Oh, I’m not saying that.”
The entire rehearsal came to a screeching halt. Everybody got quiet. Face flushed, I whispered, “Daddy, what are you talking about?” Jamie looked at me with huge eyes. Daddy whispered to me, “Maybe we need to talk privately for a minute?” and then to everyone else he said in a very authoritative voice, “Let’s take a quick break.”
I walked behind him whisper-screeching into the fellowship hall. “What in the world is wrong? Why won’t you say it? Don’t you think we could’ve talked about this before NOW?” I demanded. We stepped inside the fellowship hall and he closed the folding doors behind us, “Elizabeth,” he explained, “I didn’t really think about it before now. You were never mine to give. God loaned you to me. I cannot stand in this church and ‘give’ you away. If I do that, and something happens in the course of this marriage and you need me, I wouldn’t be able to save you, because I had made a vow. I will give my blessing, but I cannot and will not give you away.” The next afternoon, he gave his and Mama’s “blessing to this union.”
After seven years of marriage, Jamie and I were thrilled to announce to all four parents and our sisters that I was expecting Jack. Our folks were overjoyed. I remember squealing and laughter and lots of hugs, but Daddy stayed still. He hugged me but had tears in his eyes and I could tell something wasn’t quite right. When I asked him about it privately, he said, “Pregnancy is a dangerous thing, Elizabeth. I am happy for you and Jamie, but I will be glad when this is over and you are safe. “
Years later after we had moved back to Georgia, I had to have outpatient gallbladder surgery, a simple procedure. Jamie planned to take me to the outpatient surgical unit, where I would have the surgery and be home within a few hours. We had it completely under control. Mama asked if I needed her to come with me, and I told her that I would be fine. I’d be home in a few hours.
When Jamie and I got to the surgical unit at 5:30am for pre-op, Daddy was sitting in the waiting room reading a book. “Don’t be angry with me,” he said to Jamie, “I just can’t stay home if she is going to have general anesthesia. What if she needed me?” Mama confessed later that he had been up pacing for hours before he left. He didn’t want to intrude, but he could not stay home. She said he finally determined that forgiveness was easier than permission and he left their house well before 5:00am.
When Colin was born by planned C-section, the whole family waited in the maternity lobby. I was wheeled back to recovery alone, while Jamie tagged along as Colin made a grand entrance in his incubator on his way to the nursery. Jamie reported that everyone else cooed and smiled and pressed close to see our new little one, but not Daddy. He watched for me to be rolled down the hall.
Once Colin was settled in the nursery, Jamie came to the room and asked, “Can your Daddy come in and see you? He can’t sit still.” Of course, I agreed. Within just a few minutes, Daddy walked in without comment, put his hands on either side of my face and whispered, his voice choked with tears, “I just wanted to put my hands on you. Are you alright?” I said, “Of course. Are you?” He nodded, brushed my cheek with the back of his hand, turned and walked out the door.
Ginny gets her own doses, too.
It was a little after 1:00am when Ginny was startled out of deep sleep by the BAM-BAM-BAM of someone beating on the window above the headboard of her bed. She sat bolt-upright and as she did, heard her cell phone vibrating. It was Mama, “Gin?! Oh, I’m so glad you answered. Are you alright?” Ginny stammered that she was fine at the same time trying to find her glasses. Mama continued, “You called the house an hour ago. When I answered, there was no one there. It sounded garbled and strange, and I couldn’t get you to answer. I thought something had happened,” Mama continued.
Still groggy, Ginny reassured Mama and looked out her window in time to see Daddy dressed in blue jeans and an untucked green Polo shirt high-stepping, knees to chest, over the shrubbery planted in front of her window. It was Christmastime and Ginny said all she could think about was Dr. Seuss’ Grinch: skinny-legs, knobby-knees pulled up to his chest, the only difference was Daddy’s shock of white hair.
Ginny disarmed her house alarm and tried to quiet her guard dogs as Daddy waited at her backdoor. He stepped in the doorway, put both hands on either side of her face and said calmly, “Well, good. I’m glad you’re alright. I’m going home.”
Ginny, asleep with her cellphone in bed, had accidentally dialed Mama and Daddy’s house phone. She was sleeping so well, in fact, she never heard the 23 missed calls from Mama. So, Daddy had driven from Elmodel to Ginny’s house, a distance of about 32 miles, speeding the whole way.
“Try going back to sleep after all that,” Ginny told me, exhausted the next morning, even after her third cup of coffee.
My children are included in this, too. When Colin was born, his circumcision was to be done in the doctor’s office just a few days after he was born. Daddy asked if he could tag along. Since Jamie couldn’t go because of a work commitment, I happily agreed. “Do you mind if I ask the doctor if I can stay with him during the procedure?” he asked as we settled in. I figured the doctor could handle telling him no more easily than I could, so I told him it was fine with me if the doctor said yes.
Colin’s doctor wasn’t thrilled. He told Daddy he could stay, but if he fainted, he would be on his own because his responsibility was to Colin. Daddy shook his head and assured the doctor with confidence, “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m not going to faint.”
I left Colin with Daddy, the doctor, and the nurse and walked down the hall, unable to stay and watch. All was quiet for a long time. Then, I heard Colin’s distinctive, shrill cry and quickly all was quiet again. The doctor came out and told me everything had gone beautifully; I could go in.
When I peeked around the door, there was Daddy cradling Colin who was wrapped in his soft blue blanket. Colin had his pacifier in his mouth, peaceful and dry-eyed. “He was so brave,” Daddy whispered to me as he rubbed Colin’s tiny little back through the blanket. Later, when I asked why he stayed Daddy explained, “I didn’t want him to face that alone. He needed to know I was close if he needed me.” I felt like a fool and was ashamed of myself. Lesson learned.
We talk frivolously about love: love for family, love for a football team, love for chocolate. But it’s rare people talk about love without limitation, love without condition, love that lasts forever. In order to really, truly love, one must put their own fears aside. That is incredibly hard to do. We live in a world where vows are often broken. Parents put quid pro quo contingencies on their love for their children. Lies are told. Deals are made. Safety nets guard lots of hearts. Sometimes love feels far away, an unattainable.
To love like Daddy loves us, there must be equal parts vulnerability and selflessness. There is no room for restraint or hesitation. That sounds a little scary, but Daddy makes his love seem easy.
At forty-three, a wife and mother of two boys, you’d think I would have love all figured out. Without question, I love Colin and Jack, but I often doubt they can realize how much. It’s in that silence left in the car after they shut the door and begin that walk away from me and into school, or in the quiet of their sleep when I tiptoe into their rooms illuminated only by the hallway light to look at their profiles that I wonder if they know how deep, abiding and eternal my love is for them. Do they feel it in their marrow? Do they know all the way to their toes? Can they reach out and touch it?
All I can do for my boys is model behavior: listen to them, protect them, teach them, hold them and tell them every, single day three words that seem so inadequate and yet, are so incredibly important, “I love you.”