She was four years old when I first met her. She was carrying a bowl of soup. She had very, very fine golden hair and a little pink shawl around her shoulders. I was 29 at the time and suffering from the flu. Little did I realize that this little lady was going to change my life.
Her mom and I had been friends for many years. Eventually, that friendship grew into care, from care into love, to marriage, and marriage brought the three of us together as a family. At first, I was awkward because, in the back of my mind, I thought I would be stuck with the dreaded label of a stepfather. And stepfathers were somehow mythically, or in a real sense, ogres as well as an emotional wedge in the special relationship between the child and the biological father.
Early on I tried hard to make a natural transition from bachelorhood to fatherhood. A year and a half before we married, I took an apartment a few blocks away from their home. When it became evident that we would marry, I tried to spend the time to enable a smooth changeover from friend to father figure. I tried not to become a wall between my future daughter and her natural father. Still, I longed to be something special in her life.
Over the years, my appreciation for her grew. Her honesty, sincerity, and directness were mature beyond her years. I knew that within this child lived a very giving and compassionate adult. Still, I lived in the fear that someday, when I had to step in and be a disciplinarian, I might have it thrown in my face that I wasn’t her real father. If I wasn’t real, why would she have to listen to me? My actions became measured. I was probably more lenient than I wanted to be. I acted in that way in order to be liked, all the time living out a role I felt I had to live – thinking I wasn’t good enough or worthy enough on my own terms.
During the turbulent teenage years, we seemed to drift apart emotionally. I seemed to lose control (or at least the parental illusion of control). She was searching for her identity, and so was I. I found it increasingly hard to communicate with her. I felt a sense of loss and sadness because I was getting further from the feeling of oneness we had shared so easily in the beginning.
Because she went to a parochial school, there was an annual retreat for all seniors. Evidently, the students thought that going on the retreat was like a week at Club Med. They boarded the bus with their guitars and racquetball gear. Little did they realize that this was going to be an emotional encounter that could have a lasting impression on them. As parents of the participants, we were asked to individually write a letter to our child, being open and honest and to write only positive things about our relationship. I wrote a letter about the little golden-haired girl who had brought me a bowl of soup when I needed care. During the course of the week, the students delved deeper into their real beings. They had an opportunity to read the letters we parents had prepared for them.
The parents also got together one night during that week to think about and send good thoughts to our children. While she was away, I noticed something come out of me that I knew was there all along, but which I hadn’t faced. It was that in order to be fully appreciated I had to plainly be me. I didn’t have to act like anyone else. I wouldn’t be overlooked if I was true to myself. I just had to be the best me I could be. It may not sound like much to anyone else, but it was one of the biggest revelations of my life.
The night arrived when they came home from their retreat experience. The parents and friends who had come to pick them up were asked to arrive early and then invited into a large room where the lights were turned down low. Only the lights in the front of the room were shining brightly.
The students marched joyously in, all dirty-faced as though they had just come back from summer camp. They filed in arm-in-arm, singing a song they had designated as their theme for the week. Through their smudgy faces, they radiated a new sense of belonging and love and self-confidence.
When the lights were turned on, the kids realized that their parents and friends, who had come to collect them and share their joy, were also in the room. The students were allowed to make a few statements about their perceptions of the prior week. At first, they reluctantly got up and said things like, It was cool, and Awesome week, but after a few moments you could begin to see a real vitality in the student’s eyes. They began to reveal things that underscored the importance of this rite of passage. Soon they were straining to get to the microphone. I noticed my daughter was anxious to say something. I was equally anxious to hear what she had to say.
I could see my daughter determinedly inching her way up to the microphone. Finally, she got to the front of the line. She said something like, I had a great time, and I learned a lot about myself. She continued, “I want to say there are people and things we sometimes take for granted that we shouldn’t, and I just want to say…I love you, Tony.”
At that moment my knees got weak. I had no expectations, no anticipation she would say anything so heartfelt. Immediately people around me started hugging me, and patting me on the back as though they also understood the depth of that remarkable statement. For a teenage girl to say openly in front of a room full of people, I love you, took a great deal of courage. If there were something greater than being overwhelmed, I was experiencing it.
Since then the magnitude of our relationship has increased. I have come to understand and appreciate that I didn’t need to have any fear about being a stepfather. I only have to concern myself with being the real person who can exchange honest love with the same little girl I met so many years before – carrying a bowl full of what turned out to be a kindness.
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