Nobody gets left behind
When my daughter Isabel was around three years old (and we were living in the U.K.), we took a family day trip to Brighton beach. Brighton is an historic seaside resort on the south coast of England. I have now come to realize that British people have such a low expectation of finding warmth and sunshine that a visit to a beach in deepest, darkest winter is a perfectly natural and reasonable excursion. So, warmly wrapped in practically all the clothes we owned, we breathed in the icy sea breezes and courageously attempted to build sandcastles with the beach gravel and rocks that passed for sand.
The chilly day came to an end and it was time to trudge back to the car, except that Isabel was having none of it. Through her tears she explained that, somewhere on the vast beach, she had lost a pink mitten (it turned out to be the one for the right hand) and that we could not possibly leave until it was reunited with the left. And so, in the dimming light and plummeting temperatures, we searched until it was clear that there would be no happy mitten reunion. Isabel was outraged that we might even suggest abandonment. I came up with some story that perhaps a family of mice had found her lost mitten and had chosen to make a winter home in its wooly interior. This did not impress her. She resolutely planted herself on the beach, arms tightly by her side, fists clenched, and refused to move.
After a few more decreasingly gracious attempts to cajole her toward the warmth of the car, I picked her up, put her on my shoulder and marched. She did that thing that 3-year-olds do so well and went as a stiff as a board and wailed with every step I took. And she weighed a ton. I could not believe how heavy this small child had become. I had to take a break at one point. I set the still stiff and yelling tot down on her feet, only to hear a kind of dull, ceramic clinking sound. As I hoisted this human plank of a child back onto my shoulder the same clinking sound could be heard. It turned out that she had secreted twice her body weight in pebbles and rocks within every pocket she possessed, including the hood of her coat. According to Isabel, each rock that she had stashed in her winter jacket was in need of a family and had been selected for adoption.
So why am I sharing this story? Well, unbelievably, this small child, with her heart for the lost and her family of pet rocks, is now big enough to go to college in a few weeks’ time. The house is littered with Amazon Prime packages (each one containing something absolutely essential for the college experience, I’m told) and I have the joy of somehow squeezing all of these into the car when we drive her to campus to begin her freshman year.
I have done this before. I am well-practiced in this kind of heartache and grief. When I made the same trip a few years back to drop off her older sister, it was (if I recall correctly) a young man called Tad who popped his head into her new dorm room as I wrestled with assembling some sort of shelving unit and announced lunch. When I said I was hungry, he clearly told me that his invitation was not for me but for my daughter, and that this was the moment when we must make our farewell. Seventeen years of raising a child, years of band-aiding bruised knees, encouraging the consumption of broccoli and falling asleep as I read bedtime stories, and it is some guy called Tad (sporting a bandanna, no less!) who tells me my job is done and my time is up?!
Brighton was many years ago now, but there is a kind of motif in this story that has stuck with Isabel. For her, nobody ever gets left behind! We all are born with a certain package: we are who we are, where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. It is too easy to get stuck inside that person. Isabel, however, has never had that problem. If empathy is the ability to crawl inside another person’s skin to see and feel the world through his or her eyes, experiencing the world as if you were that person, then Isabel has always inhabited this definition.
So how will I fare at the college drop-off this time? Not much better. It all seems very hard and truthfully, I am not at all emotionally ready for this. My job as her father is surely not yet done! I would gladly go back to Brighton beach and pick up and name every pebble along its eight miles of gravel and rock until we find that lost mitten. But I can’t. My job is to pack the car with all the many essentials and wait for this year’s Tad to enter the dorm room and declare me redundant. But I can rely upon Isabel’s strength of character and the fortitude I first observed in a small, wee child on a beach on the south coast. I can be assured that even if we dare not speak it, she will innately know how much I love her and how much I am going to miss her and how hugely proud I am of her. My job is to take any last remaining rocks from her pockets so that she can fly just as high as God made her to fly. I will take comfort knowing that while the seasons change, and fathering may look a little different going forward, being Dad is for life. Whilst I may be out of sight, she won’t leave me behind.
The Rev. Drew Williams is the senior pastor of Trinity Church.