66: The Stepfather

66: The Stepfather

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

The Stepfather

You will find that if you really try to be a father,
your child will meet you halfway.

~Robert Brault, www.robertbrault.com

I was enraged. Furious.

My widowed mother was “dating.” At sixty-one, she was, in her own words, “Seeing someone.”

That someone was named Irv, and before I ever met him, I was predisposed to hate him. I was, you see, a daddy’s girl, though a troubled one. Even by young adulthood, I had not quite unraveled my complicated, intense relationship with the man I had loved so much — and so imperfectly.

So this Irv was a usurper, an intruder, and someone who clearly already had a place in my mother’s life just a year and a half after my father’s death.

“What is she thinking?” I asked my sister, who had none of my rage. Ruthie had made her peace with our father before he left so suddenly one April day, felled by a massive heart attack. Her conscience was clear. Mine was cluttered with the might-have-beens that could never be.

The loss of my father was still so raw for me that despite my being a thirty-one-year-old woman, I was locked in a battle with myself. The emotions didn’t go to college, after all, and the loss of a parent knows no timetable, especially when guilt is the handmaiden of grieving.

So I held off meeting this Irv, and settled for hearing snippets about him from my mother, who was undeniably showing signs of renewed spirit and — dare I admit it? — happiness.

It wasn’t my imagination that her green eyes actually sparkled at the mere mention of his name. And that hurt even more.

What about loyalty to my father, her husband of thirty-eight years? What about honoring and cherishing his memory?

It took a good friend to set me straight over a long, painful and honest lunch. She had picked up on my anger, my guilt, my confusion, and made one simple statement that cut through the fog. “This isn’t about you,” she said. And how right she was.

I wish I could say that it was smooth sailing from there.

I wish I could report that I welcomed Irv with an open heart when we finally met several months into the courtship. But that would be fudging.

It took more visits with Irv for me to begin to acknowledge his humor, his spunk and his obvious affection for my mother. I was not a pushover, and Irv knew it. He had the wisdom to bide his time and let a relentlessly critical daughter make her way to him in her own time.

There was actually no pivotal moment, no dramatic breakthrough. There was just a slow, steady and growing comfort with the man and the relationship he’d forged with my mother. There was a lessening of that early rage, and the sobering realization that I was being a brat about something far too important for self-indulgence.

Irv married my mother in our living room two years after their meeting through a mutual friend. My sister and I were their attendants. My three daughters, still too young to fully understand what was happening, were the excited flower girls in organdy dresses.

It was those little girls who also ultimately got me to the place I needed to be. Irv became their buddy, their “stand-in” grandfather at milestone events. Only the older two even remembered my father, and Nancy, who was a baby when he died, made the purest connection to Irv.

As he shared school plays, the angst of three adolescences, graduations, birthdays and holidays, Irv became a fixture in our lives. I no longer bristled at the notion that it was his face in family photos, and it was his hug at those occasions of state.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking of this gray-haired man with the playful spirit as a wan substitute for my father.

His son and daughter and grandchildren were woven into our tapestry. We were that sociological phenomenon, a blended family, in our middle years.

Irv and Mom were married for nineteen years. They had plans for a twentieth anniversary celebration, but Irv’s raging prostate cancer aborted that plan.

It was my final hospital visits with Irv that wordlessly sealed our relationship.

During his last days, I would tiptoe into his hospital room, shooing my mother away from her vigil, and sit beside him. I was never sure whether he was aware of my presence as he slipped in and out of consciousness.

But each time, I held his hand in mine.

Each time, I like to believe, he felt not just my presence, but my total, uncompromising acceptance.

It was time.

A man named Irv was no longer the enemy.

And as he slipped away one fine spring day, I mourned — and also rejoiced — that a foolish stepdaughter and her patient stepfather had finally found their way to peace.

~Sally Schwartz Friedman

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