The Second Line

by Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Originally Published: 

When I was in college, I was assaulted, and subconsciously turned to food. I quickly developed a full-fledged eating disorder.

My mother discovered my secret when I was home for the summer, and what followed when I got back to school that fall was a series of hour-long sessions with a counselor specializing in eating disorders. Dr. Lee was a tough, ex-military man with a soft heart who coached me through my challenges. I was starting to feel as though I was getting control of my life again when he said the words that sent fear into my heart: “It’s time to bring your family in.”

I don’t remember how we got to Dr. Lee’s office, or walking into the room, but I remember the rest clearly. Their faces at that moment will forever be etched in my memory: Mom, looking worried and pale; Dad, stoic and quiet; and my sister, bewildered and scared. As the conversation progressed, Dr. Lee asked me to diagram my relationships with each member of my family. One line equaled weak. Two lines equaled strong.

The first lines I drew were from my name to my mom’s. There was no question in my mind about that one, and I confidently drew two lines.

Next up: my sister. That was easy, too. We fought like alley cats when we were younger, but once we were both in high school at the same time, we became the best of friends. I again drew two lines.

When it came to drawing the lines from me to my dad, I hesitated. Tears sprang to my eyes. I drew one shaky line and put the pencil down, looking at my feet

My dad looked up at me, waiting. “Why did you draw just one line?” Dr. Lee asked. The silence in the room stretched and pulled, filling all of our ears with a roar. “Because I never feel like I am good enough for him,” I blurted. Instantly, it felt wrong, and I wanted to stuff the words back in my mouth.

I blamed him for my confused, conflicted, messed-up teenage head. I could not see what was right in front of me: a father who was always present, who quietly took care of my family, and loved my sister and I more than he loved himself. At that moment, I was incapable of seeing the truth.

After the session, my dad’s assignment was to write me a letter to tell me how he felt about me. Days later, I received in the mail a small stack of notepad paper from the hotel where my parents had stayed when they came down for the therapy session.

Looking back, I can only imagine the effort it took for my father, a man of very few words, to write this note to me. It said everything I had wanted to hear, including that he realized the importance of telling me how he feels. He vowed to work harder to show me how much he loved me.

Someday, he wrote, we can draw the second line.

I still have that note, tucked away in a special place in my closet.

Even though it was not his fault, not even a little bit, my dad took the blame for our relationship on his shoulders without protest. He did what he has always done: Supported me quietly, lovingly, and completely.

Years later, when my marriage fell apart, it was my dad who sat down with me and helped me figure out how to set a budget so that I didn’t have to file bankruptcy. It was my dad who offered to come to Atlanta and pick me up and bring me home. It was through my experiences with my dad that I learned how to recognize love, and when I met my second husband, I was ready to see with my head and my heart and not just my eyes and ears.

See, the problem wasn’t that my dad didn’t tell me how he felt. The problem was that I expected the words to make me feel loved when in fact it was all the ways he showed me he loved me that I had to learn to see.

And this is what I will teach my son:

Love is someone who replaces your soap when it’s getting too small to use.

Love is someone who fills the gas tank in your car so you don’t have to do it.

Love is someone who doesn’t tear you down, but celebrates your successes.

Love is someone who takes your side and fights for you.

Love is someone who says, “I believe in you. We can do this together.”

Love means that the words “I love you” are just the beginning.

Apparently, I was a slow learner, but I finally understood: My dad’s brand of true, sincere, solid, quiet love means more than all of the “I love yous” in the world.

Dad, I hope you know that I drew the second line a long time ago.

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