Love Without End, Amen

Dad and Me

When my sister and I each got married, in 1991 and 1994 respectively, our dad chose the same song for our Father-Daughter dances: George Strait’s “Love Without End, Amen.” It’s a song that he would often sing to us and it perfectly conveyed the bond that we shared with him.

Let me tell you a secret about a father’s love

A secret that my daddy said was just between us

He said, “Daddies don’t just love their children every now and then

It’s a love without end, amen.”

A few days before I got married, I remember Dad standing in front of our living room window, silently staring out at the yard. I stopped in my tracks, seeing him deep in thought, and something told me to take a picture of that moment in my mind. It hit me hard that this would be one of the last times that we would be together in a room like this, just a daddy and his little girl. He turned to look at me and I saw something in his eyes that made me realize he was feeling the same thing. I went to him, put my arms around him and sobbed into his shoulder for a very long time. I missed him so much already.

My dad died this month. It was sudden and unexpected and the loss is so deep and cavernous that it’s difficult to believe we will ever reach the bottom of it. The days since he passed, as my sister so eloquently puts it, have been filled with heartbreaking lows and breathtaking highs. There are many signs that he is close by, comforting us and still walking beside us in a very real way.

In our grief, the love of our close-knit family has been a continual source of strength. When we are all together, we feel Dad with us and it’s impossible not to remember that he was the one who first taught us love and is still teaching us about love from the Other Side. Only in this case, it is a lesson we aren’t quite ready to be taught – how love grows stronger even when one of us is physically absent from our day to day lives.

My mom recently found a letter I’d written to Dad in 1994. I guess he’d been saving it all these years. Part of it reads:

 “I can’t imagine what our family would have been like without you. Our home certainly wouldn’t have been filled with as much laughter and love without such a special man at the centre of it all.

I (have) a difficult time listening to women talking about their fathers in the past tense. I, too, can hardly imagine surviving without knowing you are so nearby. Even now, when we have to go our separate ways, like when I had to catch a bus to return to work after we met for lunch, I still feel a sense of loss. I guess that’s why I felt the need to call you later that same afternoon.

I wish, sometimes, that I would have stayed little forever and we could spend all the time together that we wanted to.”

It’s impossible to sum up what a wonderful father and grandfather we had in Dad. As my sister so aptly says, “We really won the parent lottery with Mom and Dad.” Dad was our hero, our mentor, our compass and our biggest fan. And, just when we thought the love he gave so freely couldn’t get much bigger or better, his enormous capacity to love grew exponentially when he became a grandpa.

So many memories and stories have flooded into and through us this month that it’s difficult to mention only one without adding in at least four or five more. Yet the one that has come up most frequently is a real example of the man our dad was.

After retiring from full-time work, Dad landed his dream job volunteering as a high school football coach. He loved to encourage young talent and nurture the love of the game in others. Every year at training camp, when he was given a group of offensive line or defensive line recruits to work with, he would ask them, “What’s my job?”

Naturally, they’d answer: “coach us” or “teach us how to play football” or “develop plays for us.”

But inevitably, he’d say: “No. My job is to love you. And do you know what your job is?”

Realizing how off-base they were with their initial responses, most players would keep quiet at this point.

“Your job is to love one another and to love yourself,” he’d tell them.

Love was the first thing he taught these young men and it was the main rule he insisted that they live and play by. Now imagine what it was like having this remarkable man as your father and you get an idea of the legacy of love he has left our family.

I miss you so much, Dad, but I love you even more. I am so grateful to have been born into a family that always told one another how much we loved and were loved in return.  Whenever I feel my heart starting to ache with sadness, you still put your arms around me and I am instantly surrounded by your love. And you remind me in your own way that it’s a love without end, amen.

Photographic Memory

photo album

For more than a year, I avoided looking through our family photo albums. I’d just closed the book on a 20-year relationship and had zero interest in reopening old wounds by cracking the pages of an album filled with distant happier times.

Truth be told, I’d wrestled with tossing out the albums altogether or taking the scissors to some select photos, but I quickly came to my senses (you’ll thank me later, kids). I could not rob my children or future grandchildren of continuity in their life story. No matter what happened between their mom and dad, they should always be able to access visual evidence that they were loved and cherished by both of their parents.

Feeling particularly courageous and charitable one afternoon, I decided to take down the old albums from the top of my closet and divvy up a portion of their contents for my ex. He did not request them, but I figured he deserved to have a few mementos from the kids’ early years. Besides, I was no longer comfortable being the family’s lone historian, the keeper of nostalgia, the guardian of joyful memories now tainted by disappointment.

Without allowing myself to linger wistfully on any one image, I made a pile of pictures that I thought my ex would appreciate. Methodically, I chose photos from his timeline – college, with friends and relatives, as well as those taken with the kids from the day they were born up until memories went digital. I skipped over any photos that I was included in, editing myself out of his history as if I’d never been part of it.

It was surprisingly easy to emotionally detach myself from the photos and sort them without reminiscing. I think that was because they had lost their sentimentality.

neuralizerOur abrupt divorce rendered me with acute amnesia, wiping out two decades of good marriage memories from my cerebral cortex as if they’d been erased by the Men in Black’s neuralyzer. Once you reach a point where you don’t know what feelings were genuine and which acts of love were authentic, you question if anything you ever experienced in your marriage was real, including if happy memories were actually happy or merely illusion.

That’s the thing about photos: they are only illusions. While they capture a moment in time, they aren’t actual accounts of what was likely happening when the shutter clicked. The image is distorted by deeper meaning, colored by nostalgia, as what we remember is not always the same as what we actually witnessed. That is a good thing to remember when you are trying to distance yourself from the past.

Revisiting the early chapters of courtship and marriage did make me wonder why I chose this person for a mate in the first place. If I could rewind my life, knowing what I know now, would I have zigged instead of zagged? I shook off the notion. There are no do-overs, at least not in this lifetime. Imagining what could’ve been is a worthless exercise, and there is no point in living with regret.

Before I put away the photos away, I took one long last look at the kids splashing at the beach, playing dress up, getting silly in the backyard and otherwise hamming it up for the camera. I allowed myself to stop and gaze, to clearly see them, hear them and feel them. It was a relief to know that those memories were still well preserved in me; they had not disappeared but were only shelved while my heart focused on the healing it needed to do.

Once upon a time, those old photo albums were intended as commemorative storybooks. Now they serve as proof that our kids were always surrounded by love and laughter and that, yes, we really did have some good days worth remembering. I sure am glad I kept a record of it.