Kristi Buttles
24 min readAug 25, 2021


A Girl, Her Dad, and Love That Wouldn’t Quit

Photo cred: Alice Edgar, on the night I met my dad

I was twelve years old the very first time I met my biological father. The only time he was mentioned in our home was once, when going through old photographs, I found a black and white school photo of him as a young boy. I asked my mom, “Who is this?” She replied, “Your dad.” All I knew was his name written on the back of this photo. I was a child myself, so seeing someone who looked about my age as my father was surreal. He wasn’t mentioned again. Fast forward many years to twelve years old, and my mom asked if I want to meet him. This question changed the direction of my life in ways I never imagined.

I was curious and wanted to meet him. Standing in front of my mirror that historic night, I stared at my adolescent self, wondering if I had picked the right outfit and feeling self-conscious about my unruly hair. I wondered if he would like me; if we would have anything in common; and if, after meeting him, would I ever see him again? Those big questions laid heavy on my heart as I practiced smiling through my nerves in the mirror.

My dad was a truck driver and had a run a little less than two hours from our home, so Mom drove my sister and me on the long stretch of highway to meet him — on a school night. I thought it was awesome to get to stay out that late with school the next day; then I second-guessed my outfit.

The night we met was more fun than I expected. He was funny and approachable. He let us crawl all over his truck. The cab looked like a cool fort where I’d love to hang out. I even got to talk on the CB radio. I thought, “None of my classmates are doing this tonight. How cool!” Then again, most of them had dads of some kind who lived at home with them.

We had recently gone through a divorce. I say we because the day my stepfather left us was the best day of my life. Alone, I stood on the driveway and watched him load his stuff in his Oldsmobile, back out, and drive away. I watched until he drove out of sight to make sure he wasn’t coming back, then released a deep sigh of relief that I had held in for the seven years he lived with us. That night was the first night I felt safe sleeping in my own home. Divorce doesn’t affect only the people on the marriage license, not by a long shot.

After my stepfather left, I had no use for another one. I’m glad my biological father didn’t try to be a father to me. If he had, I would have shut him down immediately. Instead, he was this cool guy who wanted to be my friend. That was something I could get behind and welcomed him into my heart. The trusting little girl in me wanted to instantly love him, but I didn’t know him.

We had so much in common it was weird! The nature vs. nurture argument has always interested me because although he was not present for a single second of my upbringing, we were like lost twins reunited. We had the same sense of humor, the same mannerisms, and a strong connection. We were lost, kindred spirits who had found each other.

We were also very different from each other. He was a country guy, and I was a city girl. He owned an extensive gun collection, and I was afraid of guns. He drove a truck. I dreamed of a Ford Cobra. He loved camping and went often with his family. My only experience with camping was a trip with my mom, stepfather, sister, and me where everything that could go wrong did, and once was enough for all of us. He had larger dogs who could hold their own. I had one small dog who couldn’t survive an hour without us. He liked spicy, and I liked sweet. There were definitely differences in our lifestyles, but we shared the things that matter most.

And I finally had a dad to talk about at school and with my friends without embarrassment. I knew who he was, what he did for a living, the state he lived in, and that he wanted me in his life. That was enough, for a while.

With a ten-hour drive between us, and him always on truck runs and my school, I didn’t get to see him much. Okay, hardly ever. My sister and I spent two weeks with him and his amazing wife and wonderful stepchildren (then teenagers who were the absolute coolest people in the world to me, and still are) the summer after we met, and it was great! They welcomed us and we had a wonderful time. We even got to go on a truck run with him to states I’d never been to. The trip was for me what going to Disney World is to others, all fun and games, until it wasn’t fun anymore.

He thought it would be fun to take us to a natural attraction that required a very long elevator ride down into what felt like Middle-earth. He didn’t know I was terrified of elevators. T.E.R.R.I.F.I.E.D. This fear was huge for me and anyone who knew me knew this about me.

However, I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I stepped into that metal box and hated every second of the eternal voyage. Exploring the caverns only reminded me how far down we were and there was only one, lone elevator to bring me to Earth’s surface again. Not only was that experience not fun, but it also broke my heart because I realized at thirteen years old, my dad didn’t know me. He didn’t know my history. I didn’t know his.

I could see the discouragement on his face, though he tried to hide it. He tried to give us a fun experience. He tried to fix the elevator issue once I told him. He tried to hide his sadness. He was trying and that meant a lot to me. But the overriding sadness that we were still virtual strangers is the only souvenir I brought home.

The blissful phase of meeting and getting to know him ended as I became a teenager and I wanted more.

As my world expanded with time, growth, and experience, my expectations also grew — and so did my anger. I stayed hugely disappointed over a lack of time together and our connection waned. I started dating, and those guys filled some of my dad’s gap, but my heart always felt the hurt.

Time doesn’t always heal all wounds. Sometimes, time rots them, and they fester into something bitter and diseased. My heart hardened toward him, and with every holiday or birthday I raised my bar of expectations higher and higher and, looking back on things, it was unrealistically high because I wanted justification for my anger and disappointment. All those roads led back to me wanting to love him, but my stepfather and an abusive ex-boyfriend showed me not all people are trustworthy, and trust is the first step toward love.

I was sixteen when my mom died from a short bout with cancer, and by then I was in total survival mode. I remember the day he came to say goodbye to her. Her treatments had stopped, and hospice was keeping her as comfortable as possible. Mom, my sister, and I lived at my grandparents’ home so they could care for her. He knocked on the door, I answered. It was first time I had seen him in a long time, since before cancer entered our lives.

Sometimes seeing someone, or simply hearing their voice, evokes enough strength for the heart to crack open its emotional door. I remember looking at him with so much anger that day. In my mind, I screamed questions like, “Where have you been?” “You mean you knew she was sick and now that she’s dying, you’re here?” “Why haven’t you been here for me — in any possible way — before today?” But I didn’t have enough strength or desire to ask those questions. Instead, I let him in and led him to the back bedroom where Mom was resting. They spent quite a while talking, then he left. I couldn’t get any words out of my mouth, so I simply said goodbye and let him out.

I look back on that day and wish it could’ve been different. I don’t judge or blame my dad for how things played out. After all, I still barely knew him. And at sixteen, emotions are often untethered, driven by circumstance, and fueled by the moment. Add Mom dying and losing everything I owned — including my home and dog — I was barely able to keep up my classwork, so I didn’t fail my junior year of high school. Suffice it to say, none of us were at our best in this worst-case scenario.

The next two years I finished high school, started college, and got engaged at nineteen. In some ways, I was mature beyond my years given everything I’d lived through, but in other ways, I was immature and desperate for someone to help me wade through the weeds of crossing over from child to adult. The anger toward my dad had become an inferno of hate toward him even though it was all rooted in deeply wanting to love him. It’s like they say, hurt people hurt people. The best way I knew how to hurt him was to not invite him to our wedding. That is a regret I carry to this day.

My teenage mind saw things as he wasn’t there for me in the bad times, so he doesn’t deserve to be there in the good times.

On the day of our wedding, I stood in the foyer of the church in my wedding gown, listening for the musical queue, waiting for the doors to open, and I would begin my processional walk into the rest of my life. I truly thought I might have a heart attack. I was incredibly grateful my granddad was there to walk me down the aisle, as he had been the only constant father figure I’d ever known. My grandmother sat where my mom should have been, and I was so thankful she was there. She was my second mother and an absolute saint. Still, I wanted my mom and dad there more than anything in the world. Their absences nearly broke me.

Our wedding day was one of the most joyful days of my life. It was also one of my saddest and I masked it with the same smile I’d been practicing for so long in the mirror.

Movies like Father of the Bride only rubbed salt in my wounds. I wanted what that movie as my life. I wanted to love my dad, but a hardened, callused, and bruised heart feels nothing.

Our first son was born six years later, and we were in our second home with two college degrees under our belts. A sudden company acquisition led us to a move out of state. Anger toward my dad simmered to a dull roar as I was preoccupied with the new role of motherhood. Whatever defined our relationship had exhausted me.

Mostly, I was sad. Sad that we didn’t have the relationship I had hoped we would have by now. We spoke on the phone sometimes, and I would bluntly ask him questions that were a bit unfiltered; okay, maybe a lot unfiltered. I suppose that’s a gift of autism (which I didn’t know I had at the time). He apologized a lot and often, but it wasn’t good enough for me because I didn’t know what I was looking for in him. My heart was deeply unsettled.

There was a war between wanting him in my life and not. I wanted to love him, and I didn’t. I wanted peace between us, and he was ready and willing, but I wasn’t. I was a frustrated twenty-something, and all I knew was I never wanted this kind of tension with my kids, which was especially real now that I had a child of my own.

I stepped away from us in the name of parenting, but really that busyness was an excuse to hide from him, myself, and whatever it was that we had. Much time passed. Holidays came and went. Milestones came and went. Everyday moments came and went with absence and silence on my part.

However, motherhood grew me up fast. It changed my perspective and taught me there really are two sides to everything. Yes, I learned this by being married, but in this situation, it was apples-to-apples, child-to-parent, and parent-to-child. Some of the hard edges around my heart began to soften, but trust, or a lack thereof, was still the enormous elephant in the room.

Before the internet, people were only searchable by phone books. As I sat in our son’s nursery, I watched my 16-month-old sleep. The room was quiet as I rocked in the glider and gazed at the childlike Noah’s ark wallpaper. My thoughts were empty as I simply listened to my little guy breathe.

The Lord spoke to me out of nowhere and said, “If you don’t tell your dad where you’re moving, then them not knowing how to contact you will be on you. You can’t blame them if you don’t tell them.”

I have heard the Lord speak a few times in my life and there is no voice like his. I was overwhelmed with conviction. After all, my dad and his wife had only been kind and nice to us. And I absolutely wanted them in my children’s lives even if I didn’t know how or where they fit into mine.

We invited them to our newly built home (which we were getting ready to sell with the upcoming job move) and to meet our son for the first time. I found comfort in using my role as a mother as a boundary between how close I would let my dad and I get. I was a married woman with a child and that drew a hard line in the sand for me to let him know I was not a little girl anymore wanting a daddy. But honestly, I still wanted that with every fiber of my being.

My dad was never an unsafe place for me. He was quite the opposite in fact. He was a protector of those he loved and what he believed. But he was never going to push his way into someone’s life. He told me once that either someone wants him, or they don’t. If they don’t, he would have to find a way to deal with it, but he won’t force the issue. I wanted the fierce protector in him to fight for us, but to him, that meant doing so at the risk of fighting with me and he would not do it.

We may differ on his perspective, but I respect it and had to accept he wasn’t going to go to the mat for me if it meant going to the mat with me, so I had to change my expectations of what I defined as fighting for a relationship and how he defined it. That was hard for me to do, and I didn’t accept this about him for a long time.

But just like he didn’t know about my elevator issue, I didn’t know his history, his broken heart, and his life experiences that shaped his actions and reactions. A strong man like my dad, both in stature and spirit, could force his way — but because of his soft heart that’s exactly why he never would.

My little family grew by two more children, and I watched them love on their granddaddy. He was the best floor wrestler and preferred a seat at the kids' table over the adults. He was a big kid in the pool, throwing them in the air, making fake farting sounds with his armpits. He was always making funny faces with our kids, causing them to giggle at the most inopportune times. He swooned over their arts and crafts, was always whispering jokes with them, and they shared giggles with him till their faces turned red or they spit out their food from laughter.

He loved Jesus most and a close second was his wife, kids, and his dogs. He was a man of many passions: motorcycles, his famous chicken & dumplings, his secret hot sauce, the 2nd Amendment, fairness and equality, his JEEP, camping, and church to name a few. However, children had a special place in his heart. I often watched with silent envy as my children got the funny, silly, giggly childhood with him that I didn’t.

We invited my dad and his wife to all our kids’ milestone events, and they crossed state lines for every single one. I appreciated that more than they knew, but I could never find the words to tell them. My pride, bruised trust from others, and callused stubbornness held their hands over my mouth, and I take responsibility for that.

Sometimes it felt like I was looking through a glass window at a moment I couldn’t be a part of as an adult. I longingly lived vicariously through my children and their relationship with my dad.

One day I accidentally said something without thinking. They had come, once again, and helped us move into our new home after moving with a new job. I remember exactly where I stood in our house when I looked at my dad and said, “You can be a grandfather to my kids, but not a father to me.” Graciously, he accepted those terms without a word and kept coming whenever we invited them, and we continued to visit them as often as we could.

Years later, after he died, someone close to him told me how deeply I hurt him with that one sentence. I broke his heart and knowing I did that broke mine as well. It’s one of the meanest things I’ve ever said to someone because I knew how much it would hurt him … and at the time I didn’t care.

No matter how many years passed or how old we got, there was still a little girl inside me who wanted to love her daddy and wanted to tell him so. But I chose to let the busyness of life, and once again, my pride, get in the way.

On one visit, however, something extraordinary happened. They came to town to see our daughter and her cousin’s first dance recital at their ripe ages of five. I was thirty-three years old. The night before the recital, my husband and kids went to bed, but my dad, his wife, and I stayed up and talked. We are all Christians, and I knew I wasn’t a great example of one where he was concerned. I knew I wanted peace with him. I was ready to finally trust him. I chose to let my impenetrable guard down and be truly honest with him. We stayed up until 4 a.m. We talked, cried, apologized, and prayed together. We started completely over. A re-entry of sorts to what we called us. I laid my emotional weapons down and opened my heart to his love.

The peace that comes from genuine reconciliation is life-changing. It doesn’t mean everything will be perfect from then on, feelings will never get hurt, or negative emotions will never surface. But we both acknowledged that after so many years of trying this on our own, we couldn’t do it in our own power. We are just too human with human frailties and failures. We kept getting in our own way. That night, we asked God to be the tie that binds, our mediator, our common ground.

I woke up the next morning with a heart that was beginning to heal. I chose to no longer cling to the disappointments of the past and woke with a new perspective to embrace our present and future.

I stopped comparing everything he was doing in the present with what he didn’t do in the past.

I stopped using our time together now to rehash things we couldn’t change from the past.

I stopped seeing my current self as a victim and saw myself as a grown daughter who was deeply loved.

I erased the mental and emotional scorecard I kept on him.

I chose to forgive him.

I chose to forgive myself.

I chose a new start with him.

He chose the same and we began a new normal together.

Our phone calls and time together after that night were much more meaningful. I was proud to introduce him to my friends. I wanted to be a part of his world and him to be a part of mine.

For my 40th birthday, all I wanted was for him to take my family to the shooting range and show us how to shoot. I asked him to show me how to make his phenomenal chicken and dumplings. He not only showed me, but he also wrote down his recipe which I still have today in his own penciled handwriting, though I can’t bring myself to make them without him. My family went camping with him and his wife. They were expert camping veterans, and we were novices, and I wanted to learn all I could from them. Our kids had a blast, we all did.

He confided to me that for years, when he would see little girls at the mall or the park, he’d say to his wife, “The girls would be about this age now.” He said some would even look like how he imagined us to look and how it broke his heart.

My mom and dad’s divorce happened when my sister was three and I was one year old. Unfortunately, I was so young I don’t remember him at all. It was healing to hear that he never forgot about us.

It’s crazy what can happen when we give God time and space to work. He heals, redeems, and makes something new, wasting none of our broken pieces.

One visit, we just finished a meal on the back porch when he told us he had kidney cancer, but they were going to be able to treat it. I felt numb and blocked out the rest of what he said. My mom died from breast cancer that metastasized, then my beloved granddad died of lung cancer seven years later, so I tended to tune out the topic of cancer for my own emotional survival.

I heard my dad say he had cancer and it could be fixed. I also heard him say that in two or three years it typically comes back in the lungs, especially for truck drivers. I refused to accept that part.

On another short visit, the next morning while everyone was still sleeping, I was sweeping the back patio when he came to me. He asked me if I would take a walk with him. To this day, all I can understand about why I said no was that I let the stupid busyness of hosting occupy my time. I wanted things to be just so before serving up a big, hot breakfast for everyone. I politely declined his offer and continued to sweep. He went on that walk, alone. I will never know what he wanted to talk about that morning. I will never have that conversation and it is something that haunts me to this day. The little girl in me wanted a daddy who gave her his whole attention and there he was, offering that to me, and I didn’t take it.

To be completely honest, I hid behind the busyness of breakfast prep because I feared the very thing I wanted that was now within my grasp. A gift I wanted my entire life, and I was afraid to open it. So, I didn’t. It is my biggest regret with my dad. And it’s one of the things I’m going to ask him when I see him in heaven, “Hey Dad, what were you going to tell me on that walk?” Maybe I’ll ask it, or maybe by then, it will be irrelevant. “I don’t know,” I sigh with somber, longing to know.

Indeed, a couple of years later cancer returned to his lungs. As he grew sicker, we made several weekend trips to see them dodging work and school schedules. Our family also took our first mission trip to Africa during that time. I asked my dad if it would be okay to tell our story to the folks there. There were neighboring conflicts where we were serving and the leadership of our team felt my dad’s and my story of forgiveness would be beneficial for them to hear.

My dad’s answer was, “Yes! If it glorifies the Lord and helps them, share away.” I spoke to the local folks at a service, and God moved mightily in their hearts. Surprisingly, I was then asked to share our testimony with the leaders of the community. I was so nervous as we were guests in their town. But I went with my dad’s blessing … to be a blessing with all we’ve been through together. I was so excited to return to the States and share photos with him and tell him how well our story of forgiveness through the Lord was received.

Not long after, we were in the middle of a master bathroom remodel when we got the urgent call to come to the hospital. “If you want to see him, now is the time to come,” my stepsister said. We literally dropped everything, gave the contractor a key to the house, threw clothes in a bag, scooped up the kids, and began the five-hour drive in our minivan.

When we arrived at the hospital, he was awake but no longer able to speak. His circumstance reminded me so much of my mom’s, except she chose to stay home. My heart broke all over again. In our past visits, he was still cracking jokes with the kids and being his jovial self. This time was different. He laid in the hospital bed, attached to so many tubes, chest heaving. His Navy tattoo on his arm peeked out from beneath the hospital gown. His wife, someone we dearly love, wasn’t wearing her usual smile. The air was stale, the mood was serious. The only thing reminiscent of his former self was his crystal blue eyes staring helplessly at us. His wife scurried around the room, throwing trash away and helping him with sips of water. I gazed around the room and saw so many familiar cancer items: mouth swabs, ice chips, etc. Our children’s drawings they made him were taped to the wall where he could see them. The room felt overwhelmingly small with all the medical equipment.

We stayed overnight in the hotel across the street and came back the next day. I couldn’t sleep that night. I wanted to tell him how much he meant to me; how thankful I was for him; how grateful I was for his friendship and reconciliation.

Mostly, I wanted to tell him those three words everyone longs to hear. Those words caught in my throat, and I choked on them. Three words I could never, not once, bring myself to tell my dad. Those three words rang in my ears deafeningly loud but could not be spoken. I tossed and turned all night and watched the clock until we could get up and see him again.

We fed the kids a quick breakfast at the hotel, then scurried across the street. It was as if time stood still from the day before, except he had declined even more. The kids were becoming anxious and upset and we all agreed, his wife included, that they didn’t need to be there any longer. It was too hard for them at their tender ages to watch their larger-than-life granddaddy die. It was time to say the last goodbye.

Everyone hugged him and, through lots of tears, told him they loved him. Everyone but me.

After a stagnant pause, I asked if everyone could give us the room and they quickly left. I quietly walked to his bedside and pulled up a chair.

Sitting down, I placed my hand on his, careful to avoid the I.V. With my other hand I gently stroked his arm. He, a high school football player, Navy veteran, truck-driving, motorcycle-riding, adventure-seeking, dog-loving, protector, big kid-of-a-man laid completely still. We looked at one another in silence, his lack of words not by choice, and me, well, I felt dumbstruck.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to my mom. She passed away in the middle of the night. This time, I had the opportunity, and I wasn’t going to let it pass, too.

Tears welled up in my eyes and I said, stroking his arm, “I’m sorry I can’t fix this.” A huge lump swelled in my throat. The back of my neck itched with prickly heat. My palms were sweating buckets and nausea churned in my gut. There was not a single sound in the room sans his heart rate monitor. Stale sunlight trickled in through the window, overcome by the harsh fluorescent lights overhead. The backs of my thighs slipped with nervous sweat on the pleather chair cushion, my heart pounded in my chest. I can’t remember a time I’ve felt more vulnerable.

I swallowed hard, hearing the spit swish in my ears. My hands shook. I couldn’t wait for another second…

For the first time in my entire life, I looked into his eyes and softly said, “I love you.”

His eyes spoke for him as they welled with tears while his body laid motionless. I said it to bring final peace, once and for all, between us so he knew — he really, deeply, truly knew — all was well. What I didn’t know at the time was how healing those three words would be to me for years to come.

My family began the quiet journey back home and he passed away the next morning.

He is in glory, but I am still here living in a broken world as a broken soul trying her best. Meant for him, those words, “I love you,” turned out to be a gift to both of us.

Shortly after his death, we drove back to attend his memorial service. In the basement of their church, friends and family gathered to share stories about him. I had the honor and privilege of meeting my two older half-brothers for the very first time. One of them looks just like him! They both carry his legacy of strength and love. It was an instant friendship between us, though it felt like I’ve known them for a lifetime. I also met their mom, my dad’s first wife. She is a beautiful soul and was extremely warm and welcoming. I laughed to myself that regarding my dad’s three wives (my mom included) he had great taste!

Speaking of taste, the last bottles of his home-grown hot sauce were given to all the guests. We kept ours for a long time not wanting to use the last of it. After the service, all the family headed to his favorite place, a local Mexican restaurant. There, we ate chips & salsa and spicy food in his honor. We told stories about him, and everyone had a great time.

At one point, I found myself sitting at a table with his first and third wife (Mom was his second wife). I saw myself as her proxy. All of us are Christians and I say that to make a point. We were laughing and sharing, and I thought, “This shouldn’t be happening. His current wife, his ex-wife, and the daughter of his other ex-wife should not, by human standards, be sitting here having a wonderful time talking about him with kind fondness. It’s not normal. It’s not how the world typically works. We should not be bonding and enjoying each other and our memories of our guy.

But God. Isn’t that how it always starts when God enters the scene? But God’s grace, forgiveness, kindness, even his sense of humor, and most of all his love … never fails. He never fails. I gained new friends that day in the family I had never met with his first family. Friends I treasure to this day and love as much as I do his third family and my own. We are all family in Christ.

His legacy lives on through memories and storytelling, photographs, and videos. For me, his legacy of unconditional love is what I hold the closest. It’s what I try my best to model to my children, now adults. My dad and I had so much in common, our love of animals and the outdoors, sitting at the kids' table, and yes, even our sense of humor to name a few.

My life looks very different now. We bought an RV and a JEEP to tow behind and have already logged 20,000 miles of camping. Our fur baby comes with us and loves our adventures, and I’ve become a decent pistol shot.

The other day, I was leaving my sister’s home, and as I hiked myself up into our Wrangler she said, “You look like our dad now.” I laughed because I knew exactly what she meant and she wasn’t wrong. He was not perfect, nor am I by any stretch. But it’s an honor to begin to reflect the things about our dad that made him so loved by so many.

Beyond the outward similarities, I hope to continue his legacy of love, laughter, silliness, hard work, a voice for the vulnerable, a generous hand, and a genuine heart for this world.

I can’t get on board with the hot sauce or the spicy food, but I can choose to model his patience, sensitivity, and kindness to others.

He told me a thousand times over the years he loved me and accepted that I could never say it back. The moment I said it to him, in our final goodbye, was the passing of the baton from him to me — to love wholeheartedly, unconditionally, and never stop. In my dad’s big shoes, I run our race to love all who God puts in my path. A race he ran to his last breath, and one I will run until mine.

We had eight great years. My choices were to have had him in my life for the whole time on a mediocre level at best filled with passive-aggressive anger, score keeping, a hemorrhaging heart of emotions, and a room packed full of silent elephants, or to have us for only eight years of true, reconciled, honest years. Years we laughed till we cried, hugged hard, shared highs and lows, and lived with childlike security knowing that if I called, he would always answer. Always. I’m so glad we chose the latter through an intentional moment to forgive and rebuild us.

Honestly, it took our whole journey to get us here. It took the night we met, the seasons of closeness and distance — both physically and emotionally — words spoken and unspoken, hearts broken and hearts mended to fully understand and appreciate the reset we gave each other. Anything less would have left ghosts in the room.

It’s my privilege now to take the lessons I learned, and the growth I gained, with my dad and apply them to word and deed to share with others the grace, kindness, patience, and most of all — unconditional love — that he shared with me. It is the greatest gift we give and the most important legacy we leave.