Twenty-three years ago this week, I was celebrating my 19th wedding anniversary with my sweetheart. We had decided to return to our honeymoon destination of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, about 450 miles away from where we lived. My father had been dealing with the effects of metastatic melanoma for three years and was quickly declining. The decision to take this trip had been difficult, but we kept in contact by phone each day. We returned home the day before Father’s Day to find him sleeping restlessly in his hospital bed at home. A dear friend, who was a nurse, had been by my mother’s side over the last couple of days. I remember wondering what to get my daddy to express my love on what we knew would be his last Father’s Day with us. I chose a garden stake that shimmered in the sunlight to place outside his bedroom window. It glistened in the sunshine and I hoped it would bring him some kind of peace. In my mind’s eye, I can still see it.

We had been spending nights at my parent’s home for several weeks, each sibling taking a turn. Every night we feared it would be his last. Hospice had been a part of our daily lives for a few weeks and the nurse warned us it would be soon. That night we all stayed and took turns at his side. As I lay awake and listened to the silence these words came to my mind:

My daddy had been my hero. He taught me the meanings of integrity and dignity. He was always true to his beliefs and maintained his dignity until the very end. My father passed away the following day shortly after twelve noon at the age of seventy-five. He, along with my mother, had shown me what unconditional love was. I watched as my older siblings made choices contrary to what was taught in our home. Yet, time and time again, they were welcomed back with open arms. They demonstrated unconditional love not only through word but by deed. Their example taught me how important it is to love under all circumstances. I have tried as a parent to let my children know that my door is always open. 

Not all children are as fortunate as I was. I recently visited with a friend who has not been as lucky as I was. (I will call her Mary.) She has two fathers in her life, but neither of them has shown her the kind of love I received. Her parents were divorced shortly after her birth and her mother remarried when she was just 3 months old. Her stepfather adopted her (out of obligation) at the age of four. She had an older brother, who she was very close to. The two of them remained close until his death a few years ago. Their mother was loving and kind, but often showed what felt like too much love. She ruled the roost and had total control over the family. Her adoptive father never treated her as one of his own. Although they were never physically abused, there was a lot of fighting in their home. They never had children together. 

During her childhood, Mary pined for her birth father. Occasionally he would visit, but she was never treated as one of his children. Mary longed to be claimed by someone. Her birth father remarried and had children. Her stepmother was not kind to her. When the other children played games or had parties, she would lock Mary in a bedroom alone until the fun was over. Mary once gave her stepmother a bouquet of tulips in hopes of connecting to her in some way. Her daughter asked why she did that after being treated so cruelly by her. Her response was that it wasn’t so much about how it made her stepmother feel, but how it reflected the kind of person she wanted to be. When Mary was in her late teens, she found peace at her local church. She would attend alone but was often invited to sit with a family. She would find solace in the hymns and look forward to returning each week to this family who claimed her. 

Even though she never felt loved by her adopted father, she was always fiercely loyal to him. He provided for the physical and financial needs of her and her brother. She was the one who demonstrated unconditional love toward him while expecting nothing in return. She also continues to love her biological father despite him not showing love to her. His extended family treats her as an outsider and she is not considered part of their family. However, Mary feels the need to seek out her biological family history and feel a part of it. 

Mary helped raise her brother’s son. He was adopted by her mother and adoptive father. He never left their home. He had three younger siblings, one of which went on to be adopted by another family. He remained faithful to Mary and continued to protect her at family gatherings.

When I asked how she feels about what has happened to her, she says she feels resentment. She had no say in the situation. She  would often ask herself, “What’s wrong with me?” and “How can I earn their love?” Love isn’t something you should have to earn. It should be given freely. There is a deep sense of loneliness when you are excluded from people who are supposed to be family and love you unconditionally.

“There is beauty and power that radiates from someone who has seen very dark days, yet chooses to be a light to others” (author unknown). This is the kind of person Mary is. As she works through her emotions as an adult and tries to find a sense of peace, she continues to reach out to extended family to feel like she is claimed by someone. She feels it is her mission to help others who may be having a hard life. She shows extreme empathy for those in need. Mary is a true example of unconditional love.

It is hard to explain the emotion you have when a newborn is placed in your arms. This feeling of euphoria is unconditional love. Whether biologically or through adoption, I will never forget that feeling. It is overwhelming and all-consuming to be given that responsibility. Even when that child was 2 ½ years old, those powerful emotions overcame my entire being. The love I felt for all of my children in those first moments has never changed. I hope they all know of the unending, unconditional love I have for each of them.