Some years ago, my mom took a job in Queens, N.Y., and had to get up at 4:30 a.m. every day to commute. My father’s job started later. He could have slept until at least 6:30. For someone like me, the promise of two extra hours of sleep every day would have sung like a siren, and I would have sleepily mumbled goodbye to my partner.
But my father didn’t do that. Instead, he decided to go to sleep at 9 o’clock with Mom every night. In the morning, he got up first, put on the coffee, brought it to her, and then they sat in bed drinking it together to start the day. “I want you to think this is normal,” he would tell her.
They’d follow each other on the highway until their routes to work split — her to the right, him to the left. And then they called each other.
This, I learned, is love.
I don’t know what they talked about, or how they possibly could have had more to say. Maybe they talked about their three kids or their jobs and what they could expect at work that day. My mom is more of a talker than my dad, but he always answers when she calls.
My boyfriends have had a lot to live up to because of my dad. For example, he does whatever my mother asks when she asks it. I can’t think of a single time she’s requested he go buy milk at the gas station down the street and he’s grumbled or said no.
I remember once when this caused a fight with a long-term boyfriend. I asked him if he could please get some butter so I could make mac and cheese; I had just noticed we were out. “Why do I have to go get it?” he said. “Why can’t you?” and progressive though his comment was, in that moment all I could think was “My dad would never say that to my mom.”
There are so many ways in which my father is the measure of all the men I meet. He is my mother’s ultimate cheerleader and defender. You cannot say a bad thing about her without having to answer to him. You cannot hurt her feelings or give her a tone, or two people will be upset with you.
I learned that this, too, is love: having an instant protector of your ideas and choices, your qualities, your personality — someone to see all that might be flawed in you as beautiful and right. Someone to paint the dark sides of your personality as light, or simply accept the things about you that you wish you could change.
My mother struggled at one point with bad dreams. For a time, my father decided the solution to this was to buy her weekly bouquets of flowers to put on her nightstand. His idea was that if she had something beautiful to look at before falling asleep, she would have good dreams. Though I don’t think it worked, I noticed it anyway and took mental notes, adding to my checklist for an ideal partner: “Must buy me flowers to put on nightstand.”
I’m half-kidding, but my real takeaway is serious: “Must try to help me through my struggles.” And if he cannot help me solve a problem, he must unbegrudgingly accept it about me. “Your mother has a lot of feelings,” my father might say. Or “your mother is going through menopause.” Without resentment or condemnation.
This is what my parents do for each other: They prefer each other’s flaws over anyone else’s and paint their partner with a generous brush. They also seem to genuinely like each other, even after 30 years of marriage. I do not entirely understand this, but I sure hope to find it.
Sometimes I think I am too complex or difficult to love. But then I think: My mother is many things, too — beautiful, strong, driven and deeply loving. She can also be quick to tears and high-strung. But my dad loves all of her. And because I have witnessed this for years, I think I might also, one day, find someone to love all of me.
Emily Heiden is a University of Connecticut alum and a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati.