Written by Gene Cashman III
have been a dad now for all of eight months, but it wasn’t until a recent family trip that I felt my own personal connection to my daughter Keeny was cemented into place. This may sound odd, but let me explain. For a father, the first months can be challenging, especially if it’s a couple’s first child. Between not knowing exactly where to fit in and the newness of it all, the father can sort of blend into the background. Essentially, the new dad must be patient and very flexible to the mother and baby’s needs. However, as things progress and the baby moves from the pet rock phase into active awareness the father’s role begins to emerge from bench warming support staff to, at minimum, back-up quarterback. For me I began to step into my role as her dad, with my routine “date nights.” Typically for me, time with Keeny was, and still is, between feeding and bedtime each night. In all those early months I bathed clean up for my wife between the hours of 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM. Over a number of months we bonded somewhere between green peas, bath time and Good Night Moon. Sure, I noticed her attention and affection towards me during those special times and I knew I was head over heels in love with her. However, as previously mentioned, it wasn’t until our first real family trip together, when I had ten uninterrupted days with her, that I realized just how deep that mutual love had grown.
This epiphany began when we recently accepted an offer for a long weekend at a cottage on Hilton Head rented by some friends. While I will always have mixed emotions about Hilton Head’s impact on Bluffton, I was beyond excited at the prospect of a free weekend at the beach. I eagerly packed up the family for the drive over. The beach experience in the low country is every bit as unique as the river, sandbar and marsh creek adventures. We are typically more involved in the latter, but every so often venture into the suburban wilds of Hilton Head. I was particularly excited about this trip because it would be my daughter’s first taste of the surf and sand. Nothing forms a better memory than the waterfront in the summer and this trip would be no exception. Now, I have seen similar scenes at sandbars up and down the May River, but May River sandbars represent more of a local crowd. The sandbars are loud and proud with boats, grills, dogs, and a mix of hard working people from all walks of Bluffton and Savannah society. The beaches at Hilton Head offer a more national, if not international, spectacle. In either case, both offer wonderful variations of the same thing, interesting people enjoying the water. My little family and our friends loaded up umbrellas and coolers and headed to the sand. We looked forward to the people watching almost as much as the sunshine. We would not be disappointed either. As soon as we cleared the steps to the sand there were at least a half dozen displays of bathing suits that should never, ever be worn in public. We pressed through the flesh and found a somewhat secluded place to set up shop. Betsy and I were a little worried about how Keeny would take to the sun, sand and water. We had heard from friends how the sun’s glare or water sent the little ones into terrible meltdowns. Yet to our amazement, Keeny took to it all like a fish to water. I always knew my girl would love the low country.
Keeny sat up in her beach chair, her chubby legs pinched below the plastic checked seat pattern. Her green hat flapped in the wind and her hot pink sunglasses reflected the white crest in the occasional wave. She was queen of the beach and as evidenced by her magnanimous grin, knew it. She cooed louder than the seagulls scooping up the Cheez-It crackers she kept flicking in the sand. We marveled at her natural liking to the whole scene. I made it my priority to be the one keeping watch over her. For me this was such a treat. The time I was spending with her was the most continuous time since the week she was born. I was excited to take charge of both the exceptional and the mundane. I pulled her up into my lap and applied a little more 50 SPF sunscreen to her cheeks. Keeny looked up at me with her deep blue eyes and her coy smile, “da” she chirped while quickly moving her arms and legs back and forth with great excitement.
The afternoon was lazy. Betsy and our friends all sat arms and faces to the sun, deep in reclining chairs, legs half buried in the sand. Yet, I sat towel wrapped and huddled under an umbrella, by choice, as Keeny slept in my arms. There was no other place I wanted to be. I watched her sleep with love in my heart. I thought about what it meant to be a father. I suppose fathers are governed by the need to protect and entertain. For a brief time it seems fathers are the funniest and safest things in a young child’s life, but as evidenced by the teenagers surrounding our little encampment things change. “Betsy” I called out waking her from a shallow slumber “she will never wear the type of bathing suits I see out here.” Betsy smiled assuredly. I shot back in a loud whisper so as to not wake Keeny. “Did you see how that boy was looking at that girl? Horrifying!” Betsy took off her glasses and smiled. “I know, it’s scary babe. We just have to teach her the right way to do things and make sure she knows there is a safe place for her to rest.” Still I fumed, “but there is hope, right?” Again Betsy smiled “it’s scary how quickly they grow rebellious, but there is hope.”
I watched Betsy doze back off to sleep. I marveled at her perspective. Mothers are such strong examples of indelible grace, of unwavering love. I thought of all the things I needed to be in Keeny’s life. I thought about how I sometimes struggle to see my purpose - well, at least until I see her smile. Then I know. I am to be a leader to her. Not a leader of industry or finance, those desires now seem secondary, but rather a leader to that little heart beating fast - someone to show her the way to go. I suppose what I have come to learn in these few months, as a father, is that a child longs to be loved. A child wants to be embraced, led down the paths they must follow. A parent can make those desires whole. I realized that I must find in myself a heart to serve Keeny’s best interests.
Keeny stirred in my arms. The afternoon was hot and she needed the shade of the condo’s deck. I kissed Betsy and assured her that we would be okay. Together we walked up the path. We found a cool corner chair and took our seat. She was snug in my lap. Alone on the deck, we watched a patch of about forty pine trees, at least two hundred feet tall, dance in the wind like an evangelical choir during a revival, their branches raised to the heavens. Keeny lay back in my arms alternating between pulling a foot to her mouth and glancing up at me with her baby blues. We were content. There was no fussing, cooing, or wiggling; it was just us sharing a quiet moment. After awhile, she somewhat awkwardly rolled over and climbed up my tummy and chest with several frog kicks until the crown of her head was nestled under my chin. She once again looked up at me and touched her hand to my cheek. A relaxed sigh and closed eyes soon followed. She was again sleeping soundly. All the worries of my life were forgotten in that moment. “I love you to the moon and back,” I whispered and kissed her forehead. I was, all at once, everything I wanted to be as a father, at peace with my baby girl.