I remember the conversation but I don’t recall a specific instance of it. That’s because it happened so frequently, throughout my childhood. Sometimes, it was as I was being tucked in. Other times in the car. Whenever I was alone with my parents and things were quiet, it seemed like the subject was inevitably going to come up. It started something like this:
“Craig, do you have any idea how much we love you?” they’d ask.
“I guess” would be my typical response.
“We do. We’d do anything to protect you. I’d lay down my life for you. If a bullet were coming at you, I’d jump in the path to keep you from harm.”
If not the most probable, this hypothetical bullet was apparently the most dramatic scenario they could muster…because it was ALWAYS the fictional way they’d demonstrate their love. It must have made an impact because I believed them. Wholeheartedly. It made me feel safe. It made me feel important. It made me feel loved. It made me feel the way that every child should, but so seldom do. Still, I could never imagine doing that for anyone else.
When Cailyn was born, I remember feeling awe. I remember being overwhelmed with fear and the weight of responsibility. I even remember wondering if her head was going to be shaped like a cone for the rest of her life. What I don’t remember was an immediate and overcoming feeling of unconditional love. That first night, as Cailyn repeatedly interrupted my sleep, I laid there and battled the guilt of these emotions. The next morning, while I played with her, I noticed that she didn’t cry as much with me as with others. I’d walk her around and sing softly to her and I swear I saw her smile. I learned that some sounds got her attention a little more and she cried less when I rocked her a certain way. I recall picking her up from her crib, putting her over my shoulder and patting her back. Suddenly, her back went rigid and her head flew back…she was choking.
The nurse, who happened to be in the room, told me not to panic. She walked over and stuck her finger in Cailyn’s little mouth to try and clear the obstruction. After a few, never-ending seconds, she looked over at me and said to hit the red button. I immediately felt the impact of the moment and how this little girl needed me so badly; That I understood her more than anyone else in the world and she needed me to be her hero and that I just wanted her to stop hurting. In my adrenaline-induced stupor, I couldn’t even find the button. I slid out to the hallway and yelled.
“Help! Someone help! My daughter is choking!”
If love didn’t happen instantly, it grew quickly and was in full force shortly thereafter, as I learned the intricacies of her personality. She was “daddy’s girl” in every sense of the phrase. She laughed for me, she fell asleep for me, she LOVED the way I played and wrestled with her and she completely trusted me. I can’t count the number of times people watched, in awe of the way I’d launch her up in the air only to catch her coming down. She’d laugh hysterically, almost begging me to keep going with her smile. “Wow, she REALLY trusts you.” the onlookers marveled.
…and so she should. Daddy loved her and with that love, grew to hate anything or anyone that would do her harm. I knew that I’d never let anything bad befall her. I ran at and frightened a little boy at a playground, who hit her. I despised people driving too fast down the road, because they put her in danger. I avoided people with aggressive children, because I couldn’t stand to watch her get hurt…intentional or otherwise. There is no question I’d take a bullet for her.
Protection, however, becomes infinitely harder when the person you love and are trying to protect hurts their self. So often, I’ve stood helpless, watching Cailyn suffer. She bangs her head against the wall and floor, she hits her face and chin, she pokes her finger into her eyes, she bites her own arm, and scratches are her back, legs and stomach. A few weeks back, I was called to her classroom at church, because she was hitting her head and elbows against the wall. I took her to the car and drove around town to calm Cailyn down. I looked back and saw the bruises on her forehead and couldn’t help but be overwhelmed my helplessness. I tried pointlessly bargaining with God, offering everything I own to find the source of her pain, which was apparently so intense that she tries to numb it through more pain. I told Him that I’d gladly give my own life to take this obstacle of Autism from her. It’s a bullet I couldn’t take for her.
This afternoon, on Valentines Day, we had to take Cailyn’s iPad away because she’s been obsessive with it and won’t be social. Her intense reaction to not having it, only confirmed that we had to stick to this and not give in. She screamed and beat her head. When I made her sit in time out, she began scratching her stomach. She picked up a toy and jabbed it into her face and started kicking her feet against the hard tile floor. When she started banging her head and wailing at the top of her lungs, I could no longer compartmentalize my love for her and my hate for things that would hurt her…I just wanted it to stop.
I picked Cailyn up and (surprisingly) calmly walked her to the couch. I sat down and restrained her completely. I made sure she couldn’t hit or scratch or kick. She then resorted to pressing her chin against my face and then banging her head against mine. I looked at my wife, defeated, but simultaneously determined to break my daughter’s will. Amber looked back at me with an equally hopeless stare…one possible solely from the one other person in the world that has lived our life. We wanted to stop each other’s pain just as much as Cailyn’s. Finally, minutes later, her violence stopped. As I let her down, my baby girl, my heart…my Valentine turned and looked at me. It wasn’t a look of trust or safety…it was one of anguish. Although I had done everything I could to protect her, it was emotionally painful to her. I had become the source of her harm…and I then hated myself for it.
I sat there, staring blankly for the following few minutes, but my mind moving at breakneck speeds. Finally, I dismissed myself and walked to my bedroom closet. I sat in the corner, with my head in my hands and cried in a way that people only cry when they’re completely alone. I began heaving and leaned over, into the wall, when the door to the closet cracked open.
“Daddy?” Dalton, my three year old son cautiously asked, peeking inside. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s sissy.” I respond, trying to compose myself. “She hurts herself and I can’t protect her.”
“Oh…” Dalton stands for a moment, obviously deep in thought. “I can’t fix that problem.”
“I can’t fix it either, buddy. No one can fix it.”
“I have an idea.” Dalton says, and he bends down, grabs my hand and lowers his head.
“Bless mommy, bless daddy, bless sissy, and bless me. Help sissy not have Autism again and help her talk good forever and ever…amen.”
He sealed his prayer with a hug as his dad, three decades older, bawled in his arms.
After I had to restrain her, Cailyn wanted to be alone. She went to her room and told everyone coming close to “Go away.” I went to the store to pick up some groceries and came back home, still completely entrenched in guilt. I walked into the door, took off my shoes and coat, and went straight to her room. I was expecting the look of hurt and pain, but was instead met with a smile.
“DADDYYYYYY.” Cailyn growled with a smile and her eyes wide. “Piano. Want piano pees.”
For the next hour, I danced with her, I tickled her, and I threw her around, as she smiled. She jumped around and asked for more, begging me to squeeze her and falling off her bed, into my arms. A peace came over me, as I had a comforting epiphany. I didn’t feel safe because my parents said they would take a bullet for me and I never felt loved because they said it, even though they always did. As much as teenagers will throw words around, love isn’t communicated in words. Despite our smut-peddling entertainment industries attempts to try to sell it, love isn’t proven in moments of passion.
Love is the practice of placing someone else’s needs before your own so consistently that it becomes habit. Love is an empathy that hurts you more than the person experiencing the pain firsthand. Love is taking a moment to pick up a hanger from the floor when you’re running late for work, because you don’t want your wife to have another inconvenience in her day. Love is willing to take an iPad away and let your daughter (and yourself) hate you for a moment…for her long term well-being. Love is established through a lifetime of selfless action and results in a trust that isn’t shaken because of a single moment. It’s a language of it’s own and, in those moments, my daughter’s eyes told me that love’s translation surpasses Autism.