When I was seven years old, a particularly fierce thunderstorm swept through town one night. One of those southern summer storms that shakes the walls of the house and the nerves of its occupants – especially the little ones. Sensing my palpable fear, my dad quietly took my hand and asked me to come watch the storm with him. I shelved my trepidation and accompanied him to the sun porch on the side of our house that had floor to ceiling windows.
As the storm put on a magnificent display, I sat on my father’s lap and listened to him quietly talk about calculating the distance of the storm by counting the seconds between thunder and lightning, why light travels faster than sound, and the origins of electrical pulses in the sky. Every time I jumped at the sound of a thunder clap, he gently put his hand on my forearm and immediately my heart rate slowed down. When the storm finally ebbed, I realized that I was completely relaxed.
In the 30 years that followed, there were myriad moments when my father both literally and metaphorically put his hand on my the top of my arm to signify many things. To slow my anxiously beating heart. To reassure me when I doubted myself. To indicate that I could make a point without being harsh or derogatory. To stop me so I could catch my breath when I was perilously close to flying through a moment instead of living it. To tell me he was proud of me. To remind me that he loved me.
When he died suddenly and unexpectedly three weeks ago, one of the first coherent thoughts I had was a desperate aching to feel his hand on my forearm.
Several nights later, I was sitting outside at the table overlooking the river, in the same spot where my father sat every night. Everyone had gone to bed and for the first time since he died I had a moment where I was by myself. In that silence, I let myself feel the panic that had been attempting to creep in for days. What would I do – what would we do – without this monumental man who could always make everything better? I closed my eyes and quietly whispered into the night air “Oh Daddy…” And then, as clear as day, he was there next to me. With his hand on my arm. We sat like that for hours until the panic and the fear and the sadness had subsided.
And in the days that followed, I continued to feel his hand on my arm as I read every beautiful letter from friends and strangers detailing the quiet miracles he wrought in people’s lives. As we were blanketed with love and support and food. As 800 people flew across the country, left their family vacations, missed their child’s birthday, or just drove down the street to be with us for his memorial service. As we sat around the table and told stories that made us laugh until we were purple in the face and unable to breathe – just like he used to do.
When we tuck the boys into bed every night, we have a silly ritual that begins with someone saying “I love you more than ____.” Followed by a litany of one-upping each other by saying “I love you more than that.” Ever the pragmatist, Will cut to the chase a few weeks ago by starting off the whole process with “I love you more than that. The End.”
The night before my father died, Will paused and amended his statement to say “But love never ends.”
Every time I feel the panic starting to creep in my chest or the hole in my heart starts to gape open, I repeat those words. And I feel a hand on my arm.