‘I didn’t understand the phrase ‘unconditional love’ until I met my kids.’: Dad shares touching video montage of fatherhood, ‘I will cherish this job forever’

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The following story is paired with an auditory and visual representation (see below).

“As I’m writing this, I can’t help but think about Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. It’s been weeks since they died, and I honestly can’t get it off my mind. Even though I never had a chance to meet him, there’s one thing I understand: a father’s love.

See, I didn’t understand the phrase ‘unconditional love’ before my kids, Jude, who’s four and a half and Nolan, who’s 2. Until 2015 when my first child was born, I didn’t understand the natural instinct to protect them from anything. I didn’t understand what it was like to want to sacrifice myself to save their lives.

Courtesy of Mike Exline

If I could use one word to describe our lives, it would be ‘recorded.’ I record everything, including both Jude and Nolan’s first hour of life. Maybe it’s just who I am, but I’ve had a camera in my hand since I was 13 years old (videos I’ve since hidden away, to never be found again). I vividly remember opening a Christmas present and seeing my very first camcorder. From that moment on, I recorded everything. Little did I know, that was just the beginning.

Today, I’m a videographer for a TV news station in Boston, Massachusetts. I’ve worked in news for over 13 years. Since moving here I’ve covered the 2018 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, where I got to interview my hero, Lebron James. The 2018 World Series, where I interviewed a bunch of drunk Red Sox fans and the 2019 New England Patriots Championship parade where, for a moment, I thought I might get arrested. Oh, I also interviewed Willie Nelson back in 2009, who was just as cool as I imagined. As exciting as all of this was, it doesn’t come close to the joy I get from our videos.

Courtesy of Mike Exline

Sometimes I have a vision. I see two small children running towards a sound, the sound of their dad returning home from work. In a frenzy, they look to make sure it’s him and then dash to their favorite hiding spot. As he opens the door, he can hear their little voices whispering, ‘Shh, he’ll hear you.’ Anything that was on his mind instantly disappears when he feels their tiny arms wrap around him. This is the highlight of his day. He hugs and kisses his wife before his first of many games of hide-and-seek. Hours later, the kids are bathed, teeth are brushed, and they lay down for bedtime. He curls up next to them and pulls out his phone.

‘Which one should we watch?’ he asks. ‘Um, how about one when you were my age.’ He thinks about it. ‘Ok, let’s see.’ After a quick scan, ‘Oh, here’s a good one.’ He begins to show them a video, a video he’s seen many times before. A video from the year 2020. This is a vision of a family I haven’t met because they don’t exist yet. This is how my grandkids get to know me. Not the 63-year-old grandpa they see, but the 33-year-old grandpa they’ve never met. They get to watch their dad, uncle, and grandma when they were young. They get to see what they looked and hear what they sounded like. They observe over 30 years of family moments enshrined forever. This is my hobby. Some guys have golf, this is mine. This is my passion.

Courtesy of Mike Exline

If you asked my parents how many pictures they have of me when I was young, it might be a handful. How many videos? None. I honestly didn’t appreciate platforms like Facebook and Instagram as much before Jude and Nolan were born. I think a lot of people only think about the present. They use these sites to voice their political views, look at funny animal videos (which I’m totally guilty of), or stalk exes (I don’t judge). The way I see it, this is our timeline. A real-life time capsule.

One thing I’ve tried to remind myself of is to be present. I want to record enough to capture a few moments and then put the phone away. It’s tough because my natural instinct is to be rolling, but if I’m constantly recording, then I’m not really a part of what’s happening. I don’t want them to remember me as a cameraman, but rather their dad, so I feel I’ve found that balance.

Back in April, I made a video with Jude that, to my surprise, went viral. It was a pretty normal morning for us. I woke up early with the boys (we let mom sleep in) and decided to make pancakes. After they were ready, I realized we were out of syrup. While the boys waited patiently at the table I discreetly walked over to the pantry, grabbed a new bottle (thanks to my amazing wife Jes for thinking ahead), and secretly hid it behind my back as I sat down. I told them we were out of syrup, but luckily, I knew magic. I had them close their eyes, switched bottles, and magically refilled the bottle. A few months later that video had over 22 million views on Twitter and over 8 million on my Facebook page. It aired on CBS National and more recently on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

It’s been nearly a year since we made it and I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to us. From Miami, Florida to India, people from all over the world telling us how happy it made them. Jude has even since been Facetime friends with a 3-year-old boy from Australia who saw him in the syrup video. His name is Tahsee and looks remarkably a lot like Jude (a little inside joke they have). That’s the power of these videos. Two boys over 10 thousand miles apart making a connection. I like to imagine someone out there who might be having a bad day. They see that video, and for 46 seconds it brightens up their day. The fact we made that many people smile is such a wonderful feeling. If you’re wondering, yes, Jude thinks he’s a celebrity now.

As Jude and Nolan get older, I’m fully aware they might get sick and tired of ‘dad’s videos.’ I’m sure by the time they’re teenagers they’ll think these videos are lame, and that’s okay. That’s life. The last thing on a 16-year-old’s mind is a family video. But, eventually when they’re older, hopefully, they’ll see it all differently.

The harsh reality is I won’t be around forever. One day I’ll pass away just like Kobe Bryant, but his memory, just like our videos, will live on. Videos of their first steps, first words, family trips, and even of their wedding day, where I’m sure I’ll be a crying mess. Then, when the time comes to pass the torch, I will be watching Jude and Nolan’s videos of my grandkids. It will be a reminder of just how much their mom and dad loved them. Because the one thing I know for sure is this dad really loves his boys.

Courtesy of Mike Exline

Oh, that magic syrup video I mentioned, Jude’s never seen it. I edited together a bad version for him to see. Someone asked me once when I planned on showing it to him and I didn’t have an answer. A part of me never wants him to see it. That part of me wants him to stay 4 years old forever. After a few days, I started to feel conflicted about it. Does he know? Is he just pretending? So, one day as we’re playing with his toy cars, I went for it, and I asked him. ‘Jude, I gotta question for you.’ Fully decked out in his Spider-Man costume, he looks up at me and takes off his mask. ‘You remember when we made the syrup video?’ He nods yes and nervously I ask, ‘Do you know how daddy did that?’ ‘Oh, yeah,’ he responds. Man, talk about a punch in the gut. I felt crushed. Just as I thought my heart might literally break, he looks at me again and adds, ‘Magic. You used magic.’ I smile. ‘Yeah, yeah that’s right.’ As I sat there, taking it all in, I feel Nolan’s tiny body climb up my back for another piggyback ride, and right before takeoff, I here Jude’s voice again. ‘Yep, magic. You’re a magic dad.’

I have two theories. One, he really believes it. He really believes I know magic. Or two, he’s playing the part. He knows how happy it makes me, so he wants to hold onto that feeling. That magical feeling. So, yeah, I guess magic is real after all. It just depends on your point of view.”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Mike Exline. You can follow his journey on Facebook here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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