Sunday, June 19, 2011
I was thinking about the definition of the word “father”, what it means, and why certain people bring so much meaning to the word. In truth almost anyone can become a father. The biology is a simple process of a man meeting with a woman, but what of the deeper impact of what transpires between a man and a child? Webster says the definition is “a man who has begotten a child” another definition says “to sire, a man’s relation to his natural born child or children”, but I think the definition goes so much further for father than that. My definition was so much more complicated than the simplicity of just biology.
My grandfather was a tall, bald man who wore his heart on his sleeve. By all appearances he was tough, a Teamster, a truck driver, a man’s man, but to us he was a gentle giant, who cried when he mourned, laughed when he was happy, held us close when he wanted to express his love. I found out when I was young, around 11 or so, that he was not my biological grandfather. I had never known until I was told that he was not my blood. Everything about the way he treated us, the love he held for us, said he was our family. Confused by this new information I had received, I talked to my grandmother about it. “Does this change anything? Should I feel different?” I asked my grandma. “No, Kellie, its love, and love is love.” “Do I have to call him my step grandpa?” Grandma looked me straight in the eye and said these simple sentences that would change my definition of the way I saw blended families forever. “Kellie Lynn, the only steps are the ones that lead into the house. He is your grandfather, the one who has loved you since the day you were born. He loves your mother as if she were his own, probably more, actually.” I took it all in, the words my grandma had carefully spoken about the man I had always loved, the man who would have given his life for anyone of us. I had seen the love he had for my mom, hugging her tight when they would enter or leave our house. This man, this gentle giant was so much more than a human Petri dish full of chromosomes. He was my grandpa, the one who patiently sat through every performance I ever had, every big moment in my life, even driving three hours to see me off to prom. I was a part of him in ways that defied biology. I was a part of his heart and he was a part of mine. When I tell stories of my family, I speak of the only grandfather I ever knew. I call him “Grandpa” because to me, to us, that is exactly who he was, and the way he will live in my heart forever.
I have heard a phrase I used to love being bantered around in the political world, tossing it in wherever a point is made to the benefit of whoever is speaking. The phrase “Teachable Moment” is the one I am referring to. I had appreciated the depth of those words because my father had taught me to appreciate my failures as learning, evolving past one’s own self. My dad never said the phrase “teachable moment”, he used words like “lesson”, but the idea was clear, I would absolutely fail at things in my life, and when those moments happened, he wanted me to learn something from them. My father could be eloquent in his speech and manner, but he could also be very effective in just stating what he thought in simpler terms. “Listen, Kellie, shit happens. You have to learn to pick yourself up when it does.” My father wanted me to have the tools to be able to get up after being knocked squarely on my ass. We all go through it, these moments in our life when by either our own hand, or by the hand of someone else we find ourselves flat on the floor, hoping it swallows us up. My dad knew this, he had lived long enough to experience it for himself, and wanted me to not live in fear avoiding the inevitable, or wallowing in my own humiliation any longer than necessary. I have enough stories of my old man, where he was swearing like a sailor, screaming at me to do something. He was tough, insisting that we never drink out of his cup, touch his dresser or move his keys. Use his favorite cup one time and he would come at you with a verbal assault. My dad raised us to trust that when he said he would punish you for something, you could take that to the bank. Because of my dad I rarely make the same mistakes twice. Being imaginative, I seem to come up with new ways to botch things up all the time. My father, the man who “sired” me, was more dad than biology could indicate. Because of the time he invested in me, I am able to pick myself up. Because he talked to me telling me stories of his own failures, I knew I would survive, even when it felt like it was impossible. My dad’s persistent teaching remains one of the loudest voices in my head. His biological DNA resides on my face, but it his love for me that is most visible.
You only get one set of parents, those who gave birth to you, donated DNA, chromosomes and biological history. You only get one mother and one father. Once they are gone, they are gone. My children found out what it was like to have half of their support system, their teachers, mentors, ones who love you unconditionally disappear as if they had been an apparition. Once their father was gone, he was gone.
I have kept Danny alive for my kids through stories about him, telling them over and over how much he loved them. Every day there seems to be reason to tell them something I had forgotten to tell them earlier. He is very much alive in their hearts, but only as a memory of what they once had. When Michael and I had gotten married, he had expressed real worry about not being a good father. Just because I loved him didn’t guarantee the kids ever would. But I knew Michael would be a great father, mentor, adviser to the children I adored and he would grow to love. In the beginning, my love for Michael was all the more reason for the kids to detest him. The kids and Michael walked around each other unsure if they could trust. I had insisted that this would eventually work out, it just needed time. “Michael put the old ketchup in the new ketchup bottle. It’s disgusting and I won’t eat it. Thanks for bringing him here, now I don’t have any ketchup”, said one of the kids. “Kel, I told Dan and Tom to rake the yard and they haven’t moved from their room”, Michael looked at me desperate for how to handle my stubborn kids.
“Go punish them”, is all I said. Michael and I had agreed that once we had gotten married he had carte blanche with the children. I figured if I trusted him enough to marry him, then I certainly should trust him to punish the kids. And in fact I did trust him, completely with our children. The kids went from being ‘my children” to “our children”. Michael has never tried in any way shape or form to take Danny’s place. I am awe struck by how respectful he is to our kids and their need to continue their ties to their father. The kids need Danny to be a part of their lives. Michael is indeed their dad now, doing what their father no longer can. He has taught them to drive, taken them to school meetings, college tours, gone through job applications, found them car insurance, helped with their banking, held their hands when they needed it and kicked their butts when they needed that too. I have watched all of them grow together, talking on the phone, laughing watching a movie together, spending time with each other. When the kids need advice they go to their Michael. He will always be “Mike” to them, because the word “Dad” belonged to Danny, but Michael knows he is their father, too.
Although it is true you only get one father and one mother, you may find yourself with a few more parents than you ever thought possible. Families are based in love, not biology. Much to my dismay, there are lots of people who have fathers and mothers and no family. These men who show up every day, working jobs, teaching us what we need to know to survive in the world, they are so much more than shared flesh and bone. They are our Dads. For every man who stepped up for a child, who taught love and how to ride a bike, for every time they cleaned a scraped knee, held a nervous hand, regardless of blood type or DNA, this day is dedicated to you, thank you!
Happy Father’s Day to my dad and my beloved husband. Your love has taught me there is no greater gift.