I was 9 years old when I first met him. He was a loud, gregarious sort. His accent was funny, so were his clothes. Worst of all, he really liked my mother. My father had decided to set up house with his new wife and my mother was looking to set up house with a new husband. It was the 70’s, that’s how things worked. This man came in to our lives through one of the most important men in my life, my Uncle Billy. If he was favored in the eyes of my Uncle Billy, he had to be a good guy.
I’ll never forget that Christmas Eve in 1971 and he was there. My biological Dad was not happy and I didn’t get it. “Wait, it’s the holidays, aren’t we all supposed to get along?” Clearly not. So Jim, the new man in our life, took a back seat, let the emotions fly between my parents and looked at me and said, “It’ll be alright darlin'” Ugh, I hated that term, I hated that accent, I hated that man and the fact that he was in my home at Christmas.
My mother married, “that man” in 1972. My sisters cried, I was oblivious. He seemed decent enough, despite the accent and the fact that well, he wasn’t my “real” father. Shortly after their marriage, my mother, “that man” aka Jim and my middle sister and I moved to Texas. Talk about a culture shock. From a suburb of Chicago to the heart of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, it was tough. My sister was gorgeous, she was immediately a welcome Yankee and soon had a serious boyfriend. I on the other hand, was unibrowed, void of any self-confidence, and an awkward Yankee that had no idea of what was to come. It was probably just as well. I, like my new “Dad” figured what ever will be will be.
As I grew into myself, which I thought would never happen, “that man” turned in to my father . Jim was attentive at all the right times and understanding of my painful teen years. Jim never doubted my talent and capabilities even though I did constantly. As my sister moved up and out, I stayed and graduated high school desperately wanting to be a singer, which I knew was my calling. Jim told me all the time, “Go for your dreams darlin’!” The term that I used to hate, now became a term of endearment. Jim never, ever lost faith in my abilities no matter what I wanted to do, he was my biggest cheerleader.
As I grew, married and had children he proved to be an amazing Grandfather. He loved my children as if they were his “blood” grandchildren. To him they were. He never missed a birthday or a graduation. He always boasted about his grandchildren and at every turn, bragged about his “daughter.” How I used to hate when he referred to me that way. But as our relationship shifted, his role in my life gradually changed and I realized he wasn’t trying to prove anything, he was simply taking ownership of what be believed to be true. I was his daughter and my children were indeed his grandchildren. When he fell in love with the love of his life, she too became a wonderful addition to his world and to mine.
So that brings me to the question in the title, does the term step-parent diminish the quality of love, care, and devotion that is given to a step-family? In some instances perhaps, in mine, not at all. Jim stepped up to the plate regardless of my angst ridden teen comment, “You’re not my real father!” He would patiently respond, “I know darlin’ but I will always love you as if you were my own.” Who says that? He did.
So here we are. I just spent a weekend with him as he’s waited for cancer to make the final call. Jim never like finality. Cancer consumption is a terrible thing to witness. The passion filled, optimistic, “things will work out” guy, was dying. A 250 pound strong, full of life man was now down to 140 pounds asking me, “Why can’t I get my energy back?” I quietly shared, “Grandpa, cancer is tenacious and very selfish with its territory.” He didn’t buy it and I tried to. He never once complained. When I’d ask if he was in any pain, he’d calmly reply, “No darlin’ I feel fine. It’s just these darned knees.” This was as the bag connected to his liver continued to drain.
During my last weekend with him, we talked about family, my kids, and his beloved grandchildren.
He mentioned time and time again how proud he was of me. I looked at him holding back the tears as I witnessed his daily deterioration. I wondered why technology continues to jump forward with incredible inventions, yet we still can’t beat cancer. I wondered why cancer takes the good people? Likely not a fair statement, but mourning makes you think of all kinds of inappropriate thoughts. I know that cancer is not discerning as it takes old, young, strong, smart, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, artists and writers. It doesn’t discern.
I write with a heavy heart and a love for someone I initially thought had no place in my life. I write this realizing what an absolute privilege it was to know a man that despite the anger of this world, and the ugliness of it all, always remained positive. Some (including myself now and again) accused him of being “pollyanish” but if that’s the worst of what he leaves behind, I consider myself a very lucky recipient of his love, respect and upbringing. In my experience, “step” means a step up.
You will be missed, Grandpa Jim, Dad, Grandpa. I love you.