August 2018

Because I Knew You: The Three Most Influential Men in my Life

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

“I’ve heard it said,
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them.
And we help them in return.
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…”
—from the musical Wicked

In my 61 years on this planet thus far, countless people have influenced my life and helped shape the person I am today. In fact, I believe that everyone who crosses my path is there to momentarily stop me in my tracks—to teach me or direct my attention either to something I need to give or to receive. I’ve noticed that by treating every encounter as if it is potentially life-changing, it indeed becomes … life-changing.

As I pondered the question of the most influential men in my life, I riffled through the catalog of teachers, pastors, former bosses, relatives, celebrity crushes, old boyfriends and past loves. But I quickly narrowed it down to three who stand out.

My first love, as is the case for many girls, was the man responsible for my being here. He made no secret of the fact that he wished for a girl and was a tad disappointed when my brother popped out four years before I came on the scene. In the 14 years I knew him before he made his eternal exit, Daddy had a profound influence, shaping many of my fundamental character traits. My father was not my role model, but a powerful teacher, nonetheless.

Some lessons came in reverse. Instead of seeing what I wanted to be and mirroring it, I determined what I didn’t want to be. Because Daddy suffered from a mental illness, I learned early on what vulnerability looks like. So, I stepped up my game to appear less vulnerable, steeling myself against failure, ever striving for perfection to gain the attention and approval of a mom who clearly favored her firstborn and was preoccupied with her own predicament. Hovering in the shadow was imperfect me, frightened and confused, pretending, always, to be “okay.”

Today, I make it a point to reveal my vulnerabilities and share my fears with the intention of freeing others to do the same. Sometimes the people we know and love simply are not “fine,” and that’s okay.

An overly sensitive child and self-conscious teen, my tender heart was like a loose baby tooth tied to the doorknob on a string. Daddy’s sporadic absences and ultimate departure from this world slammed the door, leaving an empty, bleeding socket—an underlying sense of abandonment that played itself out in the form of anxiety and distrust, dictating what I would need from any future man who would seek to win my love. I became tenacious and dependable and somewhat obstinate, because those were and are my survival tools. Yet I will forever carry a hint of insecurity that came free with my life luggage. Daddy was and is the background music, setting the tone for every relationship I’ve ever had with a man.

Fresh out of college, after a brief marriage to Mr. All Wrong and many disappointing dating experiences, I decided to write off men for a while and go to church. If I couldn’t figure out what to do with my life, surely God would direct my path. And he did. Sort of. The Sunday I walked into the First Baptist Church in Statesboro, Georgia, I was greeted by an older gentleman (a deacon), who ushered me to my seat and eagerly welcomed me to the fold. Over time, I got to know this man, fell in love with him, and ultimately married him. He was 33 years my senior—six years older than my mother and obviously old enough to be my father. But guess what? He was not a surrogate father or a sugar daddy. What I saw in him was not only his ability to provide the security and stability I longed for, but something else that had been missing all along: someone to show me my worth. Many people saw me as a trophy wife, and I was not immune to the labels typically slapped on women who make unconventional relationship choices. What I learned from my experience was to stop worrying about other people’s opinions.

There were many “firsts” with Zack. He introduced me to new people, places, physical experiences, and ideas. He colored my world with romance and adventure and framed the picture with affirmation and love. He taught me to believe in myself.

By example, he showed me how to make every stranger a friend. To be in Zack’s presence was to be the only person in a crowded room. He was attentive, kind, and generous—traits I like to think rubbed off on me.
In a practical sense, he shifted my life’s direction by introducing me to outdoor sports and fitness—not because he wanted to change me, but because he wanted me to share in his active lifestyle. I never considered participating in a sport or gracing the door of a gym until I met him, which is funny considering how important my fitness routine still is today.

Zack was an accomplished tennis player who stood across the net from me, hitting ball after ball within easy reach, waiting for me to actually hit one back. Because of his patience and encouragement, I learned to play and play well. Tennis became a defining part of my life for a number of years, and my participation in the sport was a source of many special friendships along with a more positive body image and higher degree of confidence that spilled over into every aspect of my being.

Zack’s support also led me to pursue writing as a hobby, which evolved into the work I do today. If not for him, you would not be reading the words on this page.

We had our unique set of problems, as every couple does. But I learned to revere and honor my marriage vows as I navigated Zack’s declining health and ensuing financial challenges. After 20 years together, on the day he died, life as I knew it was forever changed. In the split second it took for his heart to stop beating, my world went silent, only to jolt me awake with the reality of my sudden aloneness and lack of significance. Who was I without this man?

In spite of all his goodness, Zack had a controlling, possessive, over-protective edge. Those qualities, which served as my safety net in the beginning, became somewhat limiting over time. Diving into the dating pool again at age 45, I was suddenly like an awkward teenager, floundering around in a sea of fish my mom had always assured me were there. I swam with a few sharks before meeting Tom, who tossed me a life raft and became my life partner.

I’ve always been attracted to quirky individuals, and let’s just say Tom is not your average Joe. He is a brilliant individual—a self-made man with a diversity of talents unlike anyone I know. An engineer and successful business owner, a musician and magician, he is pragmatic, self-assured, and creative all at once. Tom is a busy man who doesn’t have the time nor inclination to fawn over me or set me up on a pedestal for safekeeping. He has given me wings! Since the beginning of our relationship, he has encouraged me to go anywhere I wish to go, to pursue my dreams, and be and become anything that makes me happy. I’m certain he came along to help me find confidence within instead of relying on his praise and adoration. While he provides for me and always has my back, he’s taught me to be my own person outside of who I am with him.

Tom rarely has anything negative to say. He can find the bright side of most situations and looks for the good in every person he meets. He has taught me to accept and appreciate the differences in others, opening my mind to new ways of thinking and expanding my heart in ways too numerous to count. He sometimes drives me crazy, as husbands are wont to do, and I often crave more of his attention. But he mostly makes me stronger and better.

One of the most important skills he has taught me is to trust again. Unlike Daddy, when Tom walks out the door, I know he’s coming back—until the day when he can’t. And so, my lessons have come full circle.

To the men in my life, I am who I am today, because I knew you.

  1. This is a fabulous article! Linda has used such descriptive metaphors and defined beautifully what these men did for her in a way that makes all of us want to identify those qualities in our own lives. Hurrah for this article!

    — Elisabeth Nantz    Aug 4, 05:12 pm   

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