He didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.
~Clarence Budington Kelland
We grew up viewing the documentation of our parents' love. Every year, on their anniversary, a white twin bed sheet pinned to brocade drapes served as our improvised movie screen. We sat mesmerized by the sight of their 1947 wedding. Live. On film.
I loved seeing Dad's thick wavy black hair and strong athletic build. Mom was more beautiful than Cinderella or Snow White, possessing the aura of a princess. They filled the screen with glamour, excitement and fairy-tale magic.
And then there was that look. The expression on Dad's face as he beheld his bride taught me to search a man's eyes for that same glowing reflection of devotion, awe and pride.
The images on our homemade screen reinforced in our minds the daily affection they demonstrated for us. The secret winks Dad sent Mom's way were intended to fly over our heads, but of course we always caught them, and they brought a sense of security. I identified his conspiratorial wink as a sign of their complete solidarity. They were an inseparable twosome moving through life as one.
So I began a quest for the real-life personification of the images I viewed on a plain bed sheet. My dream man was crystal clear in my mind. I wanted to find a husband to love me the way my dad loved my mom. I would recognize him by the look in his eye.
Of course, it is one thing to know what you are looking for; it is quite another to find it. But miracles do happen.
Like my parents, we met at a party. Bob spotted me -- as the romantic cliché goes -- across a crowded room, and asked his friend to introduce us. Frank dutifully steered me over. As soon as I saw him, my gaze locked with his. I was unaware of how gorgeous he was; I was far too distracted by his eyes boring into mine.
This look belonged to me.
If it was the look in his eyes that rocked me, it was learning about him and getting to know the depth of his character that steadied my feet. He was solid, loyal, witty, compassionate and charming. He was my dream come true.
I wanted desperately to introduce Bob to my parents -- my role models for love. Unfortunately, by this time Dad was deeply immersed in his battle with Alzheimer's and was, for the most part, nonverbal. Locked away in his private world, he seldom even made eye contact.
But I needed him, in whatever limited capacity he could command, to meet and get to know Bob. I sought his approval for the biggest decision of my life. I knew Bob was the right man for me but I yearned for Dad's recognition, too.
The first time I introduced them, Dad cursed. His hand was caught between the edge of the kitchen table and the arm of his chair. It's funny how profanities survive in an otherwise frozen mind. I had hoped for a more tender meeting.
As we sat at the table, we watched for any sign of acknowledgement from Dad. He, however, was far too busy inspecting the tablecloth to notice us -- absorbed, repeatedly rubbing his fingers along the stitched hem.
Bob said softly to me, "Honey, I think your dad may need his chin wiped clean."
I blotted Dad's chin with a soft cloth. His eyes lifted to rest briefly on mine and the gratitude in them squeezed my heart. In those precious fleeting seconds, I had my dad back. Then he cast his eyes downward and was gone again. I remember that moment precisely because the feeling was so overwhelming.
I was consumed with love and admiration for the indomitable, yet gentle, strength exuding from both sides of the table.
The second time Bob and I visited, we helped Mom put Dad to bed. As we lowered him down, he grabbed Bob's arm and in hushed, slurred words requested: "Come back." We were making progress.
The third time these two men of mine met, Dad sat in his usual silence. Not so usual was that Dad's eyes fixated on Bob with a calculated intensity. Then for the first time in longer than I could remember, my father spoke clearly and loudly.
"Marry her," he said to Bob. Bob was only too happy to comply.
My dad passed away shoshurtly after speaking those words. Yet even though he was physically absent, I snatched glimpses of him at our wedding. In my mind, he was there at my mother's side gazing at her with love-filled eyes. And when I observed my new husband across a ballroom overflowing with family and friends, Bob gave me that look I so dearly remembered, and softly sealed it with a secret wink.
Cover image via Pressmaster I Shutterstock
This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dads & Daughters: Stories about the Special Relationship between Fathers and Daughters © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.