June 15, 2008

Broken Lives Feel a Father’s Loving Touch

By Winston Townsend, The Miami Herald

Jun. 15--It's 5 a.m. When the phone rings at that hour, it's never good.

This time, it's as bad as it gets.

Daddy, George is dead!

My daughter, Stephanie, mother of three small girls and pregnant with a fourth, has just found her husband lifeless in their bed in Ashburn, Va. He was 41, born the year before my wife, Robin, and I were married. He died of sleep apnea.

Daddy, I need you here now!

Over the next seven hours, I get a flight, pack fast and land at Dulles International Airport. Somehow, I feel as if I'm on the outside looking at an event that just must not be real.

But it is.

On the plane, I take some time to work out a game plan. When we arrive, I understand my role: Try, somehow, to make this family whole again.

This is the kind of work fathers do. They repair what's broken. They make safe homes for children in an unpredictable, dangerous world. These responsibilities are now mine, again, at 62, 20 years after Stephanie left home.

I remember my mama once telling me that God never hands you more than you can handle. I hope she was right.

On that morning, Feb. 17, 2006, six lives were about to change in ways none of us could have imagined. Courtney, 7, Ryley, 3, and Sydney, 1, would grow up without the daddy they loved. Oakley would never even know him.

Stephanie is now a 40-year-old widow. Robin and I, empty nesters for two decades -- with all the flexibility and tranquility that implies -- are about to roll back the calendar to a time of bedtime stories, PTA meetings and endless laundry.


The memorial service goes well, if those things ever go well. There's a large portrait of George wearing a hockey jersey -- he coached a youth-league team -- and a montage of family pictures that a neighbor assembled.

After the service, everyone returns to the house to share food and memories. In a quiet moment, I see Ryley looking at the pictures of her daddy, kneeling and putting her hand on his chest in the big picture.

That's when I finally lose it.

But we quickly start planning for our new lives: Robin retires from her job performing mammogram examinations at Homestead Hospital. She'll help Stephanie and the girls move to our five-acre grove in the Redland when school ends. Our avocados, mangoes, lychees and limes are soon going to have little girls enjoying them.

I begin remodeling our house.

My plan is to carve out some temporary storage, to handle the influx until we can build an addition. I'm creating closets wherever there's space. I'm building backyard playground equipment -- things I never thought would be in our yard.

But then, I didn't imagine child car seats in my pickup either, or that I'd be helping to settle my young son-in-law's estate.

Moving day in mid-July: Who knew that they make moving vans that huge? The driver says it's the biggest load ever in his truck, and that monster is 53 feet long.

We somehow manage to stow everything and start the process of meshing as a family. I'm now not only a proud granddaddy, but the father figure to these beautiful children -- not to mention homework tutor and driver (to school, field trips, class parties, soccer, church).

At times I'm convinced that my life will never again be made up of complete sentences.

Overprotective? I worry about the girls' safety to a point that Robin and Stephanie think I'm nuts. I have to learn that life will hand them some scrapes and bruises and they will recover.

They've already survived the greatest hurt of all.


The girls have changed me in ways I didn't anticipate. I grew up attending church but somehow got away from it. They attend school at Saint John's Episcopal in Homestead, which has drawn me closer to the church. That, in turn, has brought me comfort, and helped me move forward. (Ryley, the observant one, says I look like a bald monk when I put on an alb and help at the altar during Sunday services.)

School nights: I come home to hugs. They call me Papa or Papa Poo or, if they've had a Spanish lesson that day, Papi. They can call me whatever they want; my heart melts when they wrap their arms around me.

Bath time: Things can go from calm to hurricane vortex and back again in two minutes. Try explaining to three soaked and shrieking little girls that the palmetto bug really won't hurt you.

Spring break: Disney World. Where else? Mouse ears in quadruplicate, please.

Oct. 24, 2006: The most emotional day for me -- for the whole family -- since George died. Stephanie is in labor. I'm downtown when the word comes, and I need to pick up Courtney from school and get to Baptist Hospital ASAP.

Oakley enters the world about the same time Courtney and I enter the room. For a moment, I think I'm going to faint, but I don't tell anybody. I can't cry -- tough men don't do that, right? Later, I step away for a few minutes alone, and let it go.

It's a cocktail of tears: happy tears because I'm living this beautiful event; sad that the person who created this baby isn't here to share in the joy of her arrival.

It's easy to tell that these four girls are sisters.

Courtney is very much the big sister. I see her as the troop leader.

Ryley is a charmer. The other day, I was getting after her for doing something she shouldn't have and she interrupted, saying, "Papa . . . I need a hug." The scolding stopped right there.

Sydney is the girly girl, the one who just has to wear heels when they play dress-up.

And Oakley is flowering before our eyes. Every day is a new surprise for me watching her grow.

Each day brings a new adventure, and I have to work hard at keeping things in perspective -- remembering that children don't deal from the same playbook we do. Robin and Stephanie are pros at the perspective thing; I'm working on it.

Maybe it's a guy thing. I have always been able to fix most problems -- not always to everyone's satisfaction, but I try. When Stephanie has a tough day, she says she wants her life back. Those days, it's rough being a daddy. I can't fix that.


Each day, I pray for the wisdom to strike the right balance of love, hope, faith, fun and discipline for these girls. Some days, the mountain seems too high to climb, but somehow we get to the top. Then we head for the next one.

In between, there are valleys where my girls bloom and grow.

The other day, Courtney, Ryley and Sydney, wearing sun hats and toting water bottles in their wagon, headed toward the grove where the lychees are ripening and the little avocados hang, bright and green.

Courtney called it a field trip on "their" property to see how many different fruits they could identify.

"Their" property. They feel ownership and a sense of belonging. I smile.

You don't try to do right by your kids because there's a big payoff somewhere down the line. But just in case fate decides I'm entitled to one, this is what I'd ask: Let me stick around long enough to see these little girls grow to adulthood. Let me walk each of them down the aisle.


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