I have only cried in Neyland Stadium three times: Coach Fulmer’s last game, the Florida game eight years ago, and tonight.

I didn’t cry at the Florida game because UT lost. I didn’t know anything about football eight years ago. I was crying because I was in love with a man who loved God, his two sons & UT football. I didn’t see where I could fit into that trinity. Was there room for a fourth force?  Because I was certainly a force that needed attention or otherwise I would be a force that would be reckoned with.

I had finally found the man of my dreams.  I wanted to soak up every minute with him. I craved all his attention…undivided attention.

And that just wasn’t humanly possible for an amazing dad with sons who were 4 and 10-years-old. He shared custody with his ex-wife.  That meant I would share custody of my knight in shining armor. There was 50 percent of my time with this wonderful man that felt invaded. The boys sometimes felt like two sloths to me. They would hang on my love. They each wanted to hold his hand; he had two hands and two arms, but three people who wanted to be held. I cringe writing this. Because in my adult “Einstein” brain (and in my therapist brain), I know these boys needed their dad to hold them and they deserved that consistent and steady love during my transition in their lives.

But there were times when I would present myself as a needy, selfish 8-year-old little girl. This wild child would rage out of my 37-year-old professional, supposedly self-aware, adult female body. Occasionally, it would happen without much warning and I would later worry that I had somehow hidden multiple personalities for over three decades.

Other times, I could literally feel what seemed to be the splintering of my heart. I would try to rationalize with that sad and demanding Veruka Salt, who wanted her love’s attention RIGHT NOW. Sometimes the accomplished, professional therapist I was in my adult life would win and sometimes she would just wave the flag of surrender and let Veruka say her peace. Somewhere in between those two extremes is when I would feel my eyes swell with hot, salty tears. In an attempt to “dry it up” (thanks, Daddy—for teaching me how to do that so well), I would have to swallow this gigantic lump that wouldn’t stop expanding. If I couldn’t get it down, the tears would leak out.

And that’s what happened that day eight years ago in Neyland Stadium. I cannot remember the circumstances surrounding the escape of the little girl. I’m sure The Engineer was taking good care of the boys at moments when I expected him to gaze into my eyes and profess his love for me. I clearly remember being extremely grateful that extra large sunglasses were in vogue. The sunglasses hid my eyes, protecting me from judgmental stares of those who had never been in my shoes—an outsider trying to find my place in a cohesive family.

Fast-forward eight years. Eight years of intentional and deliberate work to develop a loving, caring and connected stepfamily. Eight years of discussing topics and events most biological parents cower at the thought of speaking. Eight years of my own inner battle to love even when my offering of love felt rejected or sabotaged.

Tonight, eight years later, I’m sitting in the same seat in Neyland Stadium, choking back tears of a different source. Tears I never thought I’d experience as a stepmother.  I’m looking across the stadium at the student section. I know that 10-year-old “sloth” is over there. But now, I can see him for who he has always been—a smart, generous, kind young man. And now he is in his new role as a freshman in college.

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Student section at the 2016 home opener

The tears sneak out. No sunglasses at a night game to hide behind.  The Engineer is both surprised and touched by my emotions.  I literally cannot look across the stadium without becoming emotional.  I’m aware of how bizarre my behavior must look to the couple beside us, who are new neighbors to our season tickets. I feel the need to over-share and explain the bittersweet experience. They find it sweet.

At halftime, the stadium full of UT fans grumbled out of their seats due to a losing score. They complained their way to concession and restroom lines, be-groaning players, coaches and referees. I stood in waiting—eyes wide-open, as alert as a soldier on patrol.  I knew I would see him in the ocean of Volunteer orange.  And I did.  As he rounded the end of the ramp, I yelled out his name, waved wildly and ran to hug him tightly.

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Rebecca and her college freshman

These tears signify a love I didn’t think I was capable of. A love I didn’t think I deserved.  Tears with salt that heals old wounds.

*******

Over a week has passed since the home opener. I shared this story with a dear friend who knew me before I met The Engineer. She said, “Rebecca, those were tears celebrating all the deliberate hard work, the calculated effort, the precision and planning you did to be a stepmom. You made a choice that you didn’t have to make. You chose to risk love.”

And I did. I gambled love. I hit the jackpot—a full house and a full heart.

© Rebecca G. Townsend, LLC 2016