On Drawing A Line In The Sand
There will be unequivocal moments in everyone’s life when they must make a decision that will dramatically affect their existence moving forward. Sometimes these choices are made hastily, based solely on emotion. Be wary of those, they only succeed half the time.
The Bible speaks quite strongly on the nature of the new relationship between husband and wife, that the bond between man and woman becomes the primary one, and that of the family fades a bit into the background.
I had to make one of those decisions before I married Phyllis, and the choice forever altered my relationship with my own family. Phyllis and I had only been together for a year when her father unexpectedly passed away in 1972. I was 22 and as raw, with as many rough edges as a young man of that age could possess.
My upbringing and relationship with my own family was bitter, divisive, and disheartening. I had extremely narcissistic parents who were attempting to mold me in their own image. Since I was not yet on my own and making enough money to care for myself, I had to absorb the imaginary gut punches as best I could.
Then there came a day when everything changed. If you knew me back then, you knew my love for Phyllis was the primary motivating force in my life. The evening she phoned me to let me know about her father, I had to draw one of those lines in the sand. I had only done this once before, when I had to convince my mother that her plan for me becoming a doctor was not going to happen. It took a full two years for her to acknowledge this, during which time I impatiently waited to move on to what was next (Syracuse University).
I could feel the mournful sadness in Phyllis’ voice, and if I could have reached out through the phone line to touch her, to comfort her, I surely would have. When I got off the phone and explained to my mom what had happened her response was: “Who is he to you?” The hairs on my neck stood up and I wanted to fly into a rage. I did not. I remained calm. I have no idea how I was able to do that.
I had only met Phyllis’ dad twice, but they were humbling experiences. There are times in everyone’s life when we find ourselves in the presence of someone so good, so unassuming, so caring, and so non-demanding, that we immediately try to refashion ourselves in their image. I am not exaggerating when I say this happened to me with every single member of Phyllis’ family I met.
When people you respect don’t talk a lot, you listen very carefully because each word is important. This was how he appeared to me, and I knew at once I could become a better person the more time I spent with him.
Those two occasions when I had the opportunity to be with him solidified a vision inside myself that I hoped one day I could mature to.
After I got finished trying fruitlessly to explain to my mother what Phyllis and her family meant to me (she didn’t care at all), I went upstairs to pack. I only had one suit -- it was totally inappropriate for a funeral, but I packed it anyway.
It was a somber, four-hour drive to Yonkers, NY. As one would expect, the greetings were wrapped in a cloak of sadness. It was my first funeral, and it would take years for the gravity of the event to sink into the recesses of my brain where compassion should be. While losing my grandfather the next year would devastate me, I witnessed how this loss ravaged her and her family.
I did the best I could to be compassionate. I had grown up in a home where kindness and empathy were absent. I was genuinely on my own here.
Returning home, everything had changed. The line had been crossed, and I could feel the cold and barren wall between me and my mother. It only got worse from here on, as I had reinforced my commitment to Phyllis and her family, something that would take me four more years to formalize when I asked for her hand in marriage.
I truly felt that her father was there, watching over my shoulder and smiling as I got down on one knee to propose.
Happiest day of my life.