The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent.
By the time they came into my life I had mostly given up on the idea of having children. After an unsuccessful marriage I had modified my wants and expectations of how life was going to proceed going forward. However, when you make plans life often laughs at you and gets ready to either throw you a curve ball or a cream filled pie. My kids were both the best curve balls ever thrown at me.
Never a sports analogy left unsaid. But hey, I am a guy – let me stick with what I know.
I would like to think that I hit that curve ball out of the park and ran the bases jubilantly while the crowds cheered. It turns out that I am still at bat after fouling off the 11,372 pitch. But aren’t the ones that you foul off the best stories in life? I mean how many good stories go ‘Well, everything happened the way it was meant with no problems or unexpected events, and blah blah blah happily ever after…”
Happily ever after isn’t often a straight line, and isn’t always what we initially conceptualize as happily ever after. There are so many gifts that they have both brought me, and one of those gifts are a happily ever after that never imagined I would know. “Happily ever after” is such an inadequate statement to be honest. Life goes on, as do the lessons, as do the growing list of memories and most importantly – the stories. As I have gotten older, stories are how I have come to measure time. They are how I explain myself to the world. Do not judge me on what you see, judge me by my experiences and by how I communicate those experiences.
These are stories about my step-children…you know what, f&%k the whole “step” thing. I feel that they are as much a part of me whether they are my biological children are not. The worry, concern, and love that I feel for them knows no labels. It is one of those annoying distinctions that we have to make to society, because society needs those labels. It also has to do with a conscious effort that I made from the start to never try to replace their father, or have them perceive that – because I am not. I considered myself to be a bonus parent who can be highly entertaining, educational, and annoying at the same time.
I never realized how different two children could be. For the sake of keeping their embarrassment levels as low as possible, I will refer to them as “DFF” and “16”. When I first met DFF (means Double Full Full – an inside joke) when he was 14. We bonded easily over watching the Vancouver Olympics – especially watching aerial and freestyle skiing. We would often make up new names for tricks and began turning the volume off and commentating ourselves, saying things like “look at so and so, coming into land the double full full with McWaffle twist!” We then bonded further watching David Caruso super cuts on YouTube, Charlie Sheen’s public breakdown, and some very inappropriate stand up comedy. I am sure his Mom wondered what the hell I was doing, but she trusted me and knew that I was looking for ways to get to know him. DFF made me feel welcome from the very first day, we had the ability to communicate honestly from day one.
Then there was the other one, “16”.
I was a rambunctious child. As I have written earlier, I was a prank loving little rogue. My mother always told me that I was someday going to receive a karmic parenting bill that would make me reconsider the folly of my youth. Little did I know that my karmic comeuppance was going to come in the form of a headstrong, precocious, and wise beyond her years 7 year old.
I had yet to witness the rage that could be mustered by an angry 8 year old, but one day during our first winter together I made the mistake of laughing at her while she was angrily making a point about me preparing dinner too early. After she unleashed a scream at me that shook the wine glasses in the kitchen, she proceeded to turn from a 55 pound eight year old into a 300 pound gorilla while running up the stairs, making sure that I heard every step before stomping around more and slamming her bedroom door. I am certain that she proceeded to make a voodoo doll of me, but I never found out for sure. DFF gave me that ‘why did you have to poke the bear” look while we both stood in stunned silence. It was something that I never wanted to witness again, and understood a valuable lesson about 16 that day, do not laugh at or with an angry eight year old girl. ever.
There was the time that I learned the difference between parental worry and the perception of childhood fun, and that the two can be one in the same. I offered to help organize 16’s eighth birthday party. There is a public zoo where we live with public use gazebos that are first come first serve. It was a Friday afternoon in the summer, and I found an unoccupied prime location gazebo for us to use. Only a few minutes after claiming our space I almost got into a fist fight with a group who claimed that they had seen it first, a true birthday cake Mexican standoff. After running them off, I left my father to stand guard while I got the ice cream cake that she asked for, and to gather the supplies. I spent the day in a state of full on 100% anxiety as I worried about the ice cream cake melting, that we didn’t have enough refreshments, that the pinata didn’t break, that it was too hot for the kids – all while the kids were in full on fun mode, and that they were oblivious to the potential disasters of party planning. It was my first true lesson in adulting being a total killjoy.
I remember how we quickly developed our own language for everyday situations like “Is your seat belt on?” being replaced by “Meep meep? Meep Meep” and “Good night, I love you” being replaced with “Narf narf”. I understood the consternation that she sometimes felt, that she felt a loyalty to her father and how that loyalty may have caused conflict for a young girl who was trying to understand the new realities of her new familial situation. I understood more than others as I was an ACOD (a child of divorce) too. I could always tell when she was experiencing the inner struggle and confusion that an ACOD often experiences, and tried my hardest not push her, or DFF.
There were the parenting wins that would make me feel Machiavellian, like when I convinced 16 to eat my homemade meatloaf by calling it a giant meatball. I am sure she knew I was full of shit, but she appreciated the attempt at deceiving her. DFF and 16 lived through the growing pains of me learning how to cook, and that every recipe in the beginning involved chicken. 16 had a way of using shame to prod me into expanding my cooking comfort level. Some of our best times involved cooking or baking together, and we even have a cooking tradition of listening to Nelson Riddle era Frank Sinatra albums as we cook that continues today.
There were the awkward times, like when I took 16 as a 13 year old to go bra shopping and how truly awful walking around LaSenza and the training bra sections of American Eagle and Old Navy can be. It actually ended with us making the agreement to stop, go buy a smoothie, and to never discuss it ever again.
There were the difficult times that I do not wish to rehash here, or the times when my sense of discipline had to be updated from my childhood experience. There were the times that we stood screaming at each other on opposite sides of a door, and the times that we couldn’t find common ground with each other. Those times were few and far between however. I would like to say that those disagreements were never my fault, but that would be a lie. I always was able to admit when I made a mistake to both DFF and 16, and I can tell that they always appreciated it.
The hospital visits, PA days, scraped knees, visits to the dentist, sick days, and ups and downs of family life have given us an earned trust and history that have helped us forge our own distinct relationship together. As I look back, I miss the days that 16 stayed home “sick” and I would either call in sick myself or “work” from home, and we would binge watch Hannah Montana or Lizzie McGuire together. There is nothing more amazing than looking at the world through the eyes of child, or being allowed briefly into their worlds as a parent. I have never been as proud and as terrified as the day she chose me to tell about the young man that she had met at school and would be going to lunch with. Perhaps 16 saw me as the easier mark between her Mom and I. I get the feeling that it was more, and I loved being in the loop. In fact, she is now that main editor of what I write here. I cannot wait to see her reaction to this post.
I am not trying to diminish or minimize the relationship that I have with DFF, relationships between fathers and sons will always be different than the relationships fathers have with daughters. My experience with my own father and my stepfather tells me that age and shared life experience will bring us even closer together. My father and I saved the best for last in our relationship.
Even though I have had less time with DFF, and met him later in his development, I take no less pride or joy in the road trips with David Bowie and Ralph and Kevin that we have shared, taking him to his first Blue Jays game, and the many other memories that we have made together. Some of those stories will be for another time and place however.
16 made me work for it, she watched me with a hawk eye while she decided whether I was a worthy addition to her family. She, like her Mom, has always held me to a higher standard that involved a steep learning curve as a new parent in my early 30’s. I am hoping that after all this time, 16 now sees me as a keeper.
How can one say thank you to children without embarrassing them. To say thank you for giving me something that I never thought that I would get to experience. To thank them for helping me find a level of happiness that can only be experienced by carrying a sleeping seven year old to bed in your arms, or being the one that they wake up when they are scared in the middle of the night. The happiness that comes from meeting the first boy that your daughter brings home.
They have allowed me to feel that sense of pride and love that is experienced when giving a speech at your son’s wedding, or having him stand as my best man when I married his mother. The privilege of tying his tie for his prom, and talking to him on the phone when he told us that he was getting married. The joy of having his beautiful wife SDIL (Step Daughter In Law) join our family, and fit so seamlessly that it feels like she was always there.
Words cannot express the profound impact that the two of you (now three) have had on me, or how I truly came to life when you came into my life.
All I can do at this point is hold on and enjoy the memories that my rapidly increasing perception of time are bringing. To remember to enjoy every single moment. To savor every little victory. To be the voice of reason or shoulder to cry on when life gets the better of them, and to be the same rock of foundation or safe harbor that my parents gave me when I needed it.