106: I Call Him Papa Jim

106: I Call Him Papa Jim

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

I Call Him Papa Jim

Remember, we all stumble, every one of us.
That’s why it’s a comfort to go hand in hand.

~Emily Kimbrough

I was thirty when he became my father. He was tall, a strikingly handsome retired Army Major, with military bearing and manner intact. But I didn’t feel intimidated. Mostly, I just felt grateful. You see, he’d been my friend before he met my mother, and I knew the kind of character he had. I knew firsthand the kind of man he was, and I was thrilled that, by marrying my mother, he was about to become a part of our family forever. So, though I’d previously called him “Jim,” on that chilly November day, as he took his vows with Mama by his side, I called him by a new name. I called him Papa Jim. He was my new dad.

I have a birth father and I have no ill will toward him. I just don’t know him, and he does not know me. He left us when I was fifteen years old. He has a new family, with a wife and children I’ve never met. Since he left, I have graduated from high school and college with honors, married, divorced, remarried. I have overcome battles with anorexia, infertility and a brain tumor. I’ve birthed three daughters, fulfilled a childhood dream of becoming a writer, and won first place in the women’s division of a skeet-shooting contest! If my biological father spent a day with me now, he’d have to start from scratch. He would not know the woman I’ve become. Papa Jim, however, does.

Papa Jim has done one thing that sets real dads apart.

He’s been there. With me, for me, beside me, every step of the way. Through the proverbial thick or thin. For the last eighteen years.

I remember the day I gave birth to my first daughter, Zoe, after twelve long years of infertility. Papa Jim stood alone in the waiting room, pacing nervously, pushing his hands deep into his pockets, and waiting while my mother and my daughter’s father stayed with me in the delivery room. Papa Jim was there, standing by my bed with tears in his dark eyes when I handed my brand-new daughter up to him. “Meet your granddaughter,” I said, and he reached down to take her in his arms. In that moment, I remembered the countless sacrifices he’d made for the previous nine months — the dinners he ate alone so my mother could be with me when I thought I was going to miscarry, the patience he’d shown during my many late-night calls to her, when I was afraid because my baby hadn’t moved much during the day, or when I felt an unexpected pain.

When, two years later, my marriage ended, Papa Jim drove from Georgia to Indiana to move my baby girl and me back home. He’d had a heart attack by then, but you’d never have known it by the way he walked briskly up and down the flight of stairs to my apartment. He carried Zoe’s baby bed, the sofa, our table and the 101 boxes of her toys, our clothes, my dishes . . . my LIFE . . . out to the truck. He worked tirelessly and efficiently, and I had to force him to stop now and then. “Let’s do this,” he would say. “Let’s keep going, honey.”

I didn’t know then, nor did he, that this would only be the first of many moves he would help me, and my three younger sisters, with over the years.

On the day of my brain surgery, Papa Jim and my mother were the last people I saw before the surgery. Watching him there, standing strong beside my weeping mother, I felt safe, like I always have since he entered our lives. A few weeks after the surgery, I ended up living with my girls at my parents’ home to recuperate. Papa Jim quietly moved his beloved train collection and military library into storage to make room for us.

It wasn’t easy. Papa Jim likes peace and order and quiet. Life with three young granddaughters is antithetical to his military-trained sense of order and restraint. There were times I could see frustration growing in his eyes, and there were times he was unable to keep it in. A sharp word, an edgy response to a question, would pop out. But nearly as the words were spoken, Papa Jim would come to me, or the girls, and apologize.

“Honey, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what gets into me,” he would say, regret obvious in his voice and eyes.

That is how he is — quick to apologize, accept blame, and honest as the day is long.

He also adores our mother. They are inseparable. They get up at the same time and go to bed together at the same time. They grocery shop together. And he sacrifices for her. For years he has had a dream of returning to Hawaii. He was stationed there years ago and has never lost his love of the islands. But he puts that dream off, year after year, because other things keep coming up. Like the times my sisters and I have moved back in with them. Like the moves he has helped each of us with. Like raising grandchildren.

Four years ago, my parents took in my sister and her new twin baby boy and girl. My sister and her other five children moved out after a few months, but the twins stayed with Mama and Papa Jim, who agreed to raise them. Papa Jim spent months changing diapers, warming baby bottles, searching for missing pacifiers. He has logged countless miles walking crying babies back and forth in the hallways of their home, patting small backs, trying to soothe restless babies back to sleep. The twins are four now and he plays ball with them in the yard, sits patiently by the kiddie pool in the backyard, stands by with paper sacks while they run around picking up pecans, and holds glass jars for their firefly collections on summer evenings.

I honestly can’t remember my life before he came into it, and I cannot imagine my life without him in it. I love him so much, my amazing, my fabulous Papa Jim.

~Donna Reames Rich

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