To my stepfather:
I still remember the first time you showed up at our door, three pizzas stacked in your hand because you knew you were coming to a house of teenagers, and what teenagers don’t like pizza? Except you were coming to a house where a girl didn’t want to eat, period, because she didn’t want the pounds to show up in unexpected places, and she wanted, above all, to prove herself beautiful and exceptional so she could win back the dad who had left without looking back.
You showed up and ruined that plan. I ate the obligatory piece because it smelled so good, and then I holed up in my room, angry at my mom for bringing you home to meet us, angry that she was giving up. I knew what it meant — when she brought you into our home. It was the first step toward a new marriage. A man had to want the kids, too, if he wanted her. The kids had to want the man, too, if she was going to marry him.
I didn’t want to agree for a time.
It took you a long time to win our hearts because they had been trampled by the one who had left, and we didn’t trust ourselves, and we didn’t trust you, and we didn’t trust love, mostly. We didn’t trust love to change anything. We didn’t trust love to make a difference in our already messed-up lives. We didn’t trust love to lift us out of the pit.
We didn’t know how it would all end up. We didn’t want to get our hopes up and then be proven stupid for the hoping.
But you were brave. You didn’t let our hesitation stop you. You kept coming, those pizzas stacked in your hand and that goofy smile on your face, and you acted like maybe you liked us, and maybe we could be your children, and maybe this could work. Maybe.
And then Mom married you, and I sang at the wedding, and still we thought this probably wouldn’t last long, because we didn’t like you, or at least that’s what those protective walls around our hearts told us. But somewhere along the way, dislike turned to like, and then like turned to love, and then love turned to a fatherly love strong enough to walk a daughter who didn’t share your blood down the aisle to her beloved.
I just want you to know that I’m so glad you stuck around. Three teenagers in the house of a single mom is a whole lot to take on, and you did it with strength and courage and the most selfless love I’ve ever known in a man, with the exception of my husband. It’s not easy stepping into that tender minefield where you will have to pick up the pieces that another man left. Thank you for taking us as your children. Thank you for showing us we were worth something.
Thank you for being our dad.
Even though we don’t share blood or name or any part of our DNA, you are a dad all the same. Sometimes our dads come to us when we’re born, and sometimes they come to us later when they find us beaten down on a gravelly path and they decide we’re worth the risk so they bend down and set us right-side up, on our feet again. Thank you for deciding we were worth the risk.
There are a million reasons you could have left. The times I mouthed off, the times I didn’t listen, the time I punched you in the arm for kicking my dog away from your hunting dog, because I hated that hunting dog, and I hated you. You could have left every time, but you chose to stay. You chose love.
You were at every one of my kids’ births, telling the same joke over and over so the new people there would laugh: “Yep. They look just like Poppy,” and I can’t tell you what it means to me that my kids love you so much, that they want to be with you and Mom as much as they possibly can and that they think of you only as their grandfather, not their step-grandfather. I can’t tell you what it means to see you love them like they’re yours, just like you loved us. You have adopted us all into the fold of your heart, and this is remarkable and significant and life-changing.
We have adopted you into the fold of our hearts, too. Even though you’re a stepfather, my heart calls you “Dad”. And today, especially, I want you to know that.
Thank you for being who you are, for accepting us for who we were and are, for being a little crotchety at times now that you’re getting older, for being a nitpick sometimes, for being funny and fun and mostly full of love and honor and heart. Thank you for loving us. Thank you for waiting patiently back in those early days so we could find our way into love too.
Thank you for your light. Thank you for your son, who is like a brother to us. Thank you for the way you love our mom and the way you love us and the way you love all your grandchildren.
We love you. Happy Father’s Day. May there be many, many more.