Leah and I married young and have been blessed with a beautiful life that includes both laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, but above all, it has been held by the bonds of love. From their birth, I have loved my children more than I ever thought possible. The story that follows here, therefore, is only a small (albeit, life-changing) part of our story.

One year ago today, I took back the promise.

From the time Layne was a little girl, she was always my baby girl. She had a way of looking at me with her big brown eyes and could so easily get Daddy to say “yes” to whatever it was she wanted. She could melt my heart with her sweet little smile, and like most fathers, I would have done anything to provide for her and protect her from all harm. Often to her mother’s and brother’s chagrin, Layne had her daddy wrapped around her little finger. Just as I had done for her brother, the moment I looked into her eyes, I made a promise that I would always be here for her.

In her teenage years, I heard a new song that had come out. It spoke my feelings as a father to a beautiful daughter. It was the song Baby Girl by Will Hoge. Some years later, I had the opportunity to create my own ringtones, and for Layne, I created the ringtone that is the chorus of that song. It is still my ringtone for Layne today.

Oh little baby girl
Sweet little baby girl
Be strong in this great big world
Oh little baby girl

Then she grew into a young lady, and suddenly there was another Jeff involved in her life. This was someone who brought a smile to her face greater than I ever thought possible. It was evident early on that she and Jeff were in love. She moved to Denver to be closer to him at the Air Force Academy, and she moved there taking my promise to watch over her, provide for her and protect her. Even if it meant stepping out of meetings, I always answered my phone when she called, and she knew her mom and I would be on the next plane, if she needed us.

But please understand this is not about whether Layne is capable of taking care of herself. She learned from her mother that she can do anything she sets her mind to do, and her adventures in this world are certainly not dependent upon having a man make it happen. This is about the promise of a father to be present to his children, no matter what.

Layne’s brother, Philip, and sister-in-law, Magen, were wed on 26 June 2010, and it was on that Thursday, 24 June, that Jeff wanted to have a talk with me. He had a velvet bag with him, and in it was a box. Everyone conveniently knew to be gone so that Jeff and I spent part of the evening alone. We sat on the back porch of the cabin in Salado, Texas, where everyone was staying, and he said, “I want to talk to you about what is in this bag.”

I told him to go ahead. He then told me about how much he loved Layne and the plans he and Layne had discussed. He then showed me the ring and asked me if I would accept his promise to take care of my daughter … my baby girl … always to be present to her and love her for the rest of their lives. He was waiting until after Philip’s and Magen’s wedding to propose, but he wanted my blessing.

We talked about how difficult relationships can be. We talked about his future career (which was yet to unfold) in the Air Force and about the stresses they would encounter. We talked about resources and tools that might be necessary to maintain a strong relationship and build a strong family. Of course, I was doing more of the talking at that point, but he was ready with the promise. He understood and assured me that I would not be disappointed in how he would fulfill that promise.

Finally, we talked about what he would call us. Jeff had been raised by Christian parents who taught him that respect for people his parents’ age always meant he would call them by title and name. He alternated between calling me Mr. Smith and Dr. Smith. He called Leah Mrs. Smith. We had previously told him that we gladly went by Jeff and Leah, but he said that would just never do. So this was my chance. I told him that I would only grant my blessing and accept his promise to love and care for my daughter in marriage if he never again called us those formal names. Without batting an eye, he said, “Fine, you can be Dad2 and she will be Mom2.” Later, we would just become Mom and Dad.

A blessing was granted and a promise was made. And Jeff fulfilled that promise to the fullest.  They were married on 11 June 2011, and he loved Layne in the ensuing five years with a greater love than most get to experience in a lifetime. Together they explored every part of their world. He was always fascinated with new outdoor adventures. They learned new things, they tried new foods and new customs, and they made friends that will last a lifetime.

When KB was born, she was blessed with a daddy like none other. Jeff loved his baby girl with as much enthusiasm and love as I loved my baby girl. She has so much of her daddy in her. She can make us laugh and cry just like he did.

Then it happened. The phone call at 3:15 AM a year ago on 23 September. Jeff had died, and our baby girl’s world was shattered. By 5:30 AM, we were at the airport ready to board the next plane that would begin the longest flight of our lives … trying to get to not just one baby girl, but both of our baby girls.

Jeff died in Guam, and because of delays in the autopsy, he wasn’t returned to us until 4 October. Between the time he had died and his dignified transfer back to Hawaii, KB had turned 3 and the squadron had thrown her an over-the-top birthday party. Then the day arrived. 


The two men who had promised to take care of my baby girl could do nothing at that moment to keep her world from shattering. All I could do was stand and watch … practicing presence, but wanting to protect them and make all of this just go away.

Following the dignified transfer and a luncheon, we then got to see him in the hangar. He was lying in state just below the canopy of the Raptor bearing his name. Layne went in with two of their closest friends to see him first and within a few minutes, we joined her. I tarried a bit and then had the chance to see him … to speak to him. In my mind, I had already recounted the promises and the dreams he had shared with me. I stood by the casket and touched his chest, and said, “It’s OK, Son. I’ve got this. I’ll take back that promise now.”


He had lived up to his promise to be the son-in-law I expected him to be, and it was my turn to be the father-in-law he expected me to be.  It was my job to make sure the promise he had made to care for his wife and children was still kept. 

So I am now the keeper of the promise. And while Layne is returning to the island exactly one year to the day that her beloved husband came home to that island, I will still hold the promise even from a distance. As it has been in the past, it is the promise of presence, no matter the miles that separate us.

Maybe … just maybe … this is what God does for us. We are called to live in covenant love with God and one another. We make promises about how we will be present to one another, to sustain one another, and to care for one another. We try our best, and sometimes, we are successful in fulfilling our promises. At other times, however, we are weak. Sometimes there are things that happen beyond our control, and there is no way finally to fulfill the promise.

It is then that God gently touches us and says, “It’s OK, my child. I’ve got this.” And the promise is fulfilled because God is a God of the Eternal Promise. This is Emmanuel … our God who promises to be with us, no matter what we face.

So to my precious family and to everyone to whom I have made promises, I know I am merely mortal and finally incapable of keeping the promises like I want them kept. But we have a God who takes those promises, adds to them the promise of a life that is eternal and abundant, and empowers us to live into the eternal promise of God’s grace-filled presence.

Jeff, you are missed so much. Our hearts still ache at the mention of your name, but we always want to hear your name and the stories people tell about you. And we are living into the promise to care for and love your family in a way that honors your memory. Layne is still my baby girl, and your children have a family that loves them more than life itself.

Layne, here is a secret you may not know. These are the lyrics of the first verse of the song and the chorus. This is why I chose the song. It’s your song, Baby Girl!

May the sunlight find your face
Even when the rain does fall
And get back on your feet again
Every time you slip and fall
Keep your heart wide open
And always taking in
And even when it’s broken
Be strong enough to fix it up again

Oh little baby girl
Sweet little baby girl
Be strong in this great big world
Oh little baby girl

Love, Dad

One thought on “Promises

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