It was the smell that triggered the memory. The odor enveloped my senses, propelling me into an emotional time warp. Forgotten scenes replayed the episode like discovering a misplaced picture album in the back of the hall closet. For a brief moment, my mind willingly wandered through the memory.
It happened at the strangest of places: a roadside rest stop north of Columbus, Ohio . I was on my way to speak at a conference, stopping for a quick break. Preoccupied with the upcoming conference, I pulled open the heavy brown metal doors to the rest stop lobby and was greeted by the overpowering odor of chlorine, like you get from an indoor pool.
I don’t know why it was there, but the pungent aroma reached past my conscious thoughts and unlocked the massive brass and wooden trunk of forgotten memories. My mind’s recorder rewound to just the right spot and pressed play.
In a split second I was transported to an event four years earlier in Wisconsin . My two daughters and I were at the pool of the hotel where I always stayed during our visits. Hilary, my oldest daughter, had just gone back to the room to clean up before dinner. My youngest daughter Alison and I were in the pool goofing around, working on our synchronized swimming routines: turn, twist, dive, leap, gasp, cough, and so forth.
Caught up in the performance, Alison executed a backward underwater somersault too close to the bottom and struck her head on the pool floor. Panic stricken, I grabbed her and helped her regain her footing. Holding her head, tears beginning to flow, I pulled her close, hoping to ease her pain. She was eleven-almost twelve if you asked her – but it was like holding my little girl when she was three. We stood there, alone in the middle of the pool, tightly hugging each other. I said something to try to comfort her as her tears began to subside, but she said nothing.
That’s when it happened. Even though she had stopped crying, she didn’t let go, and neither did I. Time stood still.
We had reached out to each other because she was hurt, but we held on because this was something that we both had missed over the years living so far apart. No words were spoken. Our communication was beyond any words – a father’s soul to a daughter’s heart, both starving for this moment that neither thought would come, yet both hoping against hope. It was the hug that changed my life.
If you have never been separated from your children for long periods of time, you may not understand, though I’m sure you share a deep love for your children. However, if you’re one of the thousands of fathers who are separated, divorced or incarcerated, you know exactly what I’m saying.
We long for the opportunity to patch a scraped knee, sooth a hurting spirit, or chase away the monsters under the bed. These little, yet significant moments pass us by as our children seem to grow up much faster when we’re apart. We would like to be there at that moment when our children need us, perhaps just once when they’re hurt from a bicycle fall or sad because of a classmate’s unkind remark – just once. But for most of us, those moments pass us by.
Sure, we have our visits, and if our children get hurt we comfort them, but visits aren’t real day-to-day life. They’re condensed time capsules, crammed with an abundance of activities, trying to make up for lost time. Just when the visit begins to slow to a normal pace, it’s time to take them home. All that fills the silence after the good-byes is the sad sensation that so many things were left undone or unsaid. You pledge to do them during the next visit, but by then she has grown so much that you need to find your bearings and get over the initial discomfort, and your visit time flies.
So now you understand why I say this was the hug that changed my life. For in that instant, an emerging young lady once again became “Daddy’s little girl,” a struggling father became a dad, both souls received a glorious answer to our desperate prayers.
Thank God for memories. They dearly hold what we hold dear, waiting to be relived again and again, arriving when we least expect them, triggered by a song, a familiar sight, or perhaps even a smell.
Randell Turner is the director of the Fathers Workshop, an organization that works to encourage and support fathers throughout Pennsylvania.