I Loved Her First

Every Christmas, my family split up gift giving into three categories: creative gifts, big gifts and stocking gifts. One year, my dad had been assigned me for “creative gift” and my brother for “big gift”. We opened the big gifts first and Mark unwrapped an enormous flat screen TV.  I then opened my creative gift from him and it was a homemade shadow box with a miniature snowman, Christmas tree and the words “I loved her first”. It was a lyric from this country song about a dad giving his daughter away at the alter that reliably made my dad ball his eyes out within the first few words. I chastised him relentlessly about that gift. I thought it was so absurd because 1. I wasn’t getting married. 2. I wasn’t in a relationship. 3. A shadow box?! The joke went on for years about how his gift for me was so ridiculous and how his gift for Mark was so extravagant.

My dad passed away this past October of an ugly form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. Today is Valentine’s day and I can’t call him. So instead, I am clutching on to those words. I am holding them as a reminder that even though I can’t touch him, my dad loved me first. He was the first man to look me in the eyes and tell me I was the most beautiful, wonderful, and capable girl in the whole world. He was the first man to celebrate my shortcomings and emphasize that being weird was so much cooler than being a cheerleader. He was the first man to laugh at my jokes and make me feel like the funniest person in the room. He was the first man to hold my hand. He was the first man to ask me to dance. He was my very first love. I miss him so painfully much. I wish I could dance with him or hug him or have him remind me that I am his girl. But I can’t do that and it makes my heart hurt. It makes my eyes wet. It sucks.

But amidst the pain, what I gratefully can do is close my eyes and feel him inside of me. Hear him telling me those things. Look at that dumb shadow box and listen to that dumb song and remind myself of his unending love. He loves me today more than ever. And if I focus hard enough, I can really feel him. And I can feel lucky that I still have that love. Feel lucky that that kind of love doesn’t go away with a body. It stays with me, I’m built from it. I’m made up of that kind of mighty love. The biggest gift my dad gave me was the truth behind those words. He gave me a lifetime of adoration. He gave me the love he told me I deserved.  He wouldn’t let me get away with settling for anything less than that.

I once thought I was in love with a boy who treated my heart like garbage and I still remember my dad calling me and quoting Abraham Lincoln saying

"... Whatever woman may cast her lot with mine, should any ever do so, it is my intention to do all in my power to make her happy and contented, and there is nothing I can imagine that would make me more unhappy than to fail in this effort."

He told me to not waste my time on anyone who fell short of that. And he shouldn’t have even had to tell me that because that is exactly how he loved me. He did everything in his power to make me happy: he dedicated his life to raising me, he drove me around the block before my birthday parties so I could wait to enter until the guests arrived, he helped me move five times in two years, he talked me down from panic attacks, he never told me no, he prepared me for every job interview, he stayed up past midnight when he had to wake up at 6:00 for work to play a backgammon tournament with me, he slowed down while running so I could keep up with him, he always made time for me, he always supported me, he always believed in me, he always loved me.

Today feels impossible because I just want to do those things with him again. I want to feel those things first-hand again. I want more time. But I feel so lucky for what I do have because I think that is more than most people ever get. It’s more than I deserved.  And I still have it. And it guided me to find my boyfriend who treats me that same way. Who holds me and supports me and stays up for me and prioritizes me and believes in me and loves me the way my dad did. That’s my dad still here with me. That’s a continuation of his love. And I’m so lucky to have that. I’m lucky to have grown up with that kind of love and to feel worthy of it and to find it again. I feel loved today. I feel sad and nostalgic and heartbroken but I feel incredibly lucky and immensely loved.