20. Role Reversals

20. Role Reversals

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Role Reversals

It is not flesh and blood but the heart that makes us fathers and sons.

~Johann Schiller

My father died in 1949, leaving my forty-four-year-old mother a relatively young widow with two children to raise on her own. Mom accepted the responsibility without question. She went to night school to improve her chances of getting a better job and earning more money to help her raise my brother and myself.

My brother and I discussed why she never remarried, but respectfully accepted her decision and never challenged or questioned her any further. Years later when my brother decided to marry, that very question arose. “Why didn’t you ever take the plunge again?” he laughingly asked.

Mom didn’t hesitate. “Honestly, I never wanted to bring a stepfather into the house, to you and your sister,” she explained. “I’ve heard too many stories—kind of like the mean stepmother in Cinderella—only the cruel stepfather.”

Millie, the woman my brother planned to wed, was a widow whose husband had been killed in a fishing accident. She had a fourteen-year-old son. Now as irony would have it, my brother was about to become a stepfather, but nothing resembling the image my mother described.

From day one, I knew there would never be a question as to how he cared for and respected his wife and stepson, Michael. There was only one way to go—grow together as a family surrounded by love. I knew my brother would make a great father because in a way he had taken on the father role with me after Dad died. I experienced his kind, gentle and caring spirit and knew he truly and deeply loved his forever family-to-be.

From the get-go, George and Michael hit it off. They were like two peas in a pod. So much so that Millie often wondered how she survived their antics and constant teasing as the camaraderie between them turned to a father-and-son relationship.

When Michael was stricken with nephritis, my brother’s concern was one of a real father. He worried about the recovery process, tried to empathize with the suffering and devoted himself to nursing his son back to health. George loved Michael as any father would.

Over the years, when George and Michael were in a social situation that required introductions, neither hesitated to say who the other was and exchange loving stories about their relationship. Every time they introduced one another to someone, I noticed a strange ritual. My brother would always say, “This is my stepson, Michael.” And Michael would always say, “This is my father, George.”

At one family gathering, Michael seemed out of sorts and a little agitated with my brother. Finally, after some friendly prodding, I discovered he had a “mounting” problem with my brother. This complication, as he explained it, wasn’t apparent to anyone but needed to be taken care of immediately. I was devastated and my heart ached for him and his concern.

“Knowing George, I’d have to say there must be a reason behind it, Michael. Go talk to him about it.”

“I know,” he agreed. “When the time is right.”

Shortly after dinner began, Michael decided to propose a toast. He lifted his glass of soda and thanked us for coming, being part of his new family and for loving him. Glasses clinked. Warm fuzzies followed. Then without a warning, he turned to my brother and asked, “George, do you love me? Do you think of me as your son?”

My brother gasped with horror, nearly choking on his wine. “Of course I do, Michael. How could you ever think otherwise?” His eyes filled with tears. “What makes you ask such questions?”

Everyone at the table froze. All eyes focused on Michael, who proceeded. “Can you tell me why you introduce me to your friends and business associates as your stepson when I introduce you to my friends as my father?” he asked.

I watched my brother struggle through the tears. “Michael, you are my son in my heart, in my soul and in all the ways that count. But in all good consciousness I could never bring myself to assume the title of father or presume I had that right without your approval.”

By now, all of us witnessing this event were weeping.

George continued, “Since the subject never came up before, I believed it to be an unspoken understanding: I am your father.”

“Well,” said Michael, “since I consider you my father in my heart, soul and in all ways that count too, I’d like you to officially take on the title. And from now on tell everyone I am your son.”

My brother rose, walked over to Michael and embraced him. “Thank you, son,” he said.

I watched and listened, beaming with happiness as my brother kept one arm around this fine young man and raised his glass high. “To my son, Michael.”

Everyone cheered with delight. I felt great pride, deep respect and unconditional love for my brother who had just imparted the same feelings to his son. At that moment, I saw how love influences life and affirms its own truth.

~Helen Colella

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