Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Father He Didn't Have To Be

When I was still a baby my parents divorced. My biological father maintained a lifestyle not appropriate for raising a child, and he knew it. His choice of a gay lifestyle was one of the many reasons that by the time I was twelve, he had disappeared from my life, only to return when I was well into my twenties, and beyond the age of being impressionable.

My future step-dad, a wartime U.S. Marine, and fresh home from Vietnam, babysat me when my mom dated his friend. Later, he and my mom fell in love, and he accepted the entire package, mother and son, as his own.

The Vietnam Veteran has always been "Dad." I was nearly three when he married my mother, and he never treated me any different than he would have if I had been his flesh and blood son. But, though he treated me as his son, he respected my father, conversing with the man when he picked me up once per year, and Dad always encouraged me to keep my father's last name and stay connected with my family.

My dad led by example, and disciplined with a controlled hand and a loving heart. He worked hard to take care of the family, at one point working two jobs (one from 2:00 am to 6:00 am, then the other fulltime during the day) and going to school at night. My biological father was fairly wealthy, coming from a family with money, but my dad never asked them for assistance, nor did he demand that my father pay the child support he never seemed will to pay anyway.

Dad taught me to throw, to catch, and to swing a bat when I was nine years old. When I played baseball it was mom who was usually at the games, because Dad had to work, but he came to the games when he could.

He treated me so much like his own flesh-and-blood-son that when we were together in public and around extended family, even people that knew he was my step-dad would forget, and say things like, "You apparently got that trait from your dad." Even Grandma made that mistake occasionally. Nobody ever said anything to challenge it. As far as everyone was concerned, he was my dad.

When I became a father, I tried to model my actions after dad's, but as Brad Paisley's song goes, I was just hoping I could be even half the dad he didn't have to be.

My biological father essentially rejected his grandchildren, telling me he didn't like kids. I don't blame him, he was not equipped for such a role due to his childhood, and his lifestyle. My dad, however, fell in love with my children, proud to be a grandfather.

When I nearly died in 1985, and Dad saw me lying in intensive care, my chest mechanically rising and falling under the support of a respirator, and my head flowing blood and spinal fluid through the left ear, the man who was strong, hardened by war, and unemotional when all else was falling apart around him, felt cold and clammy from the terror of seeing his son struggling for life. He went to a sink in a nearby bathroom and washed his tears away, praying for my survival. I wasn't his stepson, in his eyes, I was his "son," his precious son, fighting to survive.

He has hugged me when I needed a hug, and given me advice when I was up against the wall. He has done everything a Father is expected to do, and a little more, and he did it voluntarily - after all, being my step-dad, he didn't have to be a loving father if he didn't want to be.

Last Friday, my daughter graduated from high school, and my son was home with his wife caring for her after her surgery. As a result, my wife and I have had our grandson, Ezekiel, with us for four days. After my daughter's graduation, we all met for dinner in town. My dad rode in with my sister and her husband and children, unable to attend the actual graduation because of work. When he saw us arrive at the restaurant holding his great-grandson, his eyes lit up, and a loving smile spread across his face.

I have always called him Dad, and my biological parent Father so that I could maintain a distinction - but Dad is not only a dad. He is a Father, my Father, the Father he didn't have to be.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. I love you with all of my heart. You have made me the man I have become, and I thank you for it.

And Happy Father's Day to my biological father who died in 1999, God Rest His Soul.


Brad Paisley - He Didn't Have To Be

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