“I forgive you,” my dying father said.
A week later at his memorial service, as the eulogies droned on, I endured the confused glances from Dad’s friends and acquaintances. No one knew who I was; they had no idea Dad had ever had a family before his current one—even though we’d all lived in the same town for nearly forty years.
Sitting next to Dad’s second family in the funeral home, I thought about what it meant to be a parent.
What had gone through my father’s mind when he left my mother with 18-month and 6-year-old daughters? Even in his anger toward her, how could he so immediately divorce himself from our young lives?
During the drive to the cemetery, I sat in the limo with Dad’s second wife and children. I felt alone, save for my baby daughter whom I clutched in my arms. Looking out the vehicle’s window on that hot July day, I held a different father to my heart, a man who’d totally taken responsibility for my sister and me from the moment he married my mother.
It couldn’t have been easy.
“Don’t touch me!” I yelled the first time my stepfather Paul tried to spank me. “You have no legal right to touch me!”
That defiance presaged years of trouble: Fifth grade—I ditched two weeks of school. Sixth grade—I started sneaking out of the house at night. I was labeled an “underachiever” by the time I was ten. I hung out with hippies, smoked dope before I hit adolescence. This isn’t bragging; I’m merely exposing a fraction of my rebellion to give you an idea of what Paul had to put up with.
And he did it with love, grace and a good dose of stern discipline.
Through the years, a change occurred. Perhaps it was those Sunday morning breakfasts, just the two us, at the restaurant before he went to play golf and I had to go to religious school. Maybe it was when I won those academic awards or wrote the long letters home during my year as an exchange student to France.
Somehow, along the way, the two of us—we mighty adversaries—became dear friends.
My biological father always lingered in the background. I had to see him at least every six months because mother had gotten into the habit of having him provide our free dental care. (Which, btw, left me terrified of dentists until I was 43.) I had this vague idea that I was supposed to love him, but wondered why? He didn’t seem to care about us, didn’t try to be part of our lives.
My young confusion turned into wrath. I hurt my father deliberately at times, excluding him from important moments of my life.
Then I had my first child.
What good was my anger doing anyone?
I decided it was time to stop the nonsense. How could I be a good parent if I carried my past grudges and fury, transmitted them actively, to another generation?
Through both of our efforts, Dad and I finally found a gentle peace. It still had its edges, but most of the time we focused on being compassionate to each other rather than bringing up past pain.
During Dad’s final illness, I was struck by the love my father’s second family had for him. Listening to them talk and joke, watching them change his urine bag and give him sponge baths, it was obvious Dad had embraced his new family as thoroughly as Paul had embraced my sister and me.
It was a seminal realization.
In fairy tales, blended families never work.
In my story, the miracle is that both of my fathers got a second chance. Even more astounding—they succeeded where they’d failed before. And what a blessing for all of us stepchildren that we understood what a gift we’d been given.
Paul was a wonderful father to me.
Dad was a wonderful father to his new family.
Somehow, in these circles, I find comfort.
There is enough love to go around.
Happy Father’s Day.