My stepfather died twelve years ago today. I had wanted to write a post reflecting on this, on all he meant to me and about the impact he made in those far-too-short twenty-three years he had been part of my life. But I have no idea how to do that, no idea how to even begin.
Should I talk about how he first came to be part of the family? How this punk kid, barely twenty-one with long hair and motorcycle boots, fell impossibly and undeniably in love with a woman nine years his senior, a divorcee with eight and nine year old brats thrown into the bargain? I might have to add some poetic license about how even at nine, I knew he was something special. In all those years together, he could never quite conceal that love-struck grin every time he glanced at my mom. Theirs was truly a love song for the ages.
Or maybe I could talk about the Pinewood Derby. About how I had resigned myself to being the only kid in the cub scout troop without a racer, because when there’s rent to pay and groceries to buy and multiple jobs to work, sometimes you have to do without things. I could describe walking up that long flight of steps to our second floor apartment and finding him there, grinning like the little kid he still was. I could tell the tale about taking that plain block of wood and turning it into speed personified, a gleaming red triangle with racing stripe decals and hard plastic wheels built for rolling down the rough Gloucester City pavement.
And then I can write about how I found the same racer in the weeks after his death. The red a little faded, the decals peeled away, the rear wheel wobbly as drunk at closing time, but sitting in a place of honor above his desk. I could share how I sat for an hour, rolling the car over the desktop and crying as I remembered him patiently holding the finishing nails as I missed that last wheel (and found his thumb) over and over. And about the way he held the car up when we were done, like we had just created the pace car for the next Monte Carlo 500.
Or maybe I can recall all the times working together, on side jobs, at the bike shop, down “the land” when he and Mom built the house. How he spent a decade fruitlessly trying to teach me how to hammer a nail in one or two strokes, how to change the oil on a 69 Plymouth Valiant, how to install a rubber roof. I could write about how he always would send me under porches or through cellar windows on jobs. He said it was because I was skinnier, but I always knew it was because – big as he was – he was deathly afraid of snakes and spiders and the other creepy crawlies that often made those places home.
Maybe I can talk about the time when I bought our house and discovered the sewer pipe was cracked, and how he was there the next day to fix it. Or the time he did the same when we needed a cold air exchange on the heater. Or the time the roof blew off and he got to the house before I could even get home from work. Or how overwhelmed I was at his service, after dozens of people approached me with that same story – the times he was there for them whenever a pipe burst or a roof leaked or a car wouldn’t start. I could include how I asked for people to share their stories on notecards and how we received literally hundreds from those whose lives he touched in some small but profound way.
Maybe I will write about the little note of pride in his voice whenever he introduced me as his “son.” And about how we both would giggle like children whenever that person would respond, “he looks just like you.” I could talk about how he always struck that perfect balance between father and friend, brother and teacher. About the mutual respect he and my father shared and my father still talks about today. I could close with how, in a time when many kids may not have one father-figure available, I was lucky to have two to guide and shape me into who I am today.
Or maybe I should keep it lighter, and write about how I miss his Archie Bunkerisms. About how he loved to eat “pizzer” and drink “soder”, but it was a good “idear” to wash his hands in the “zink” because he just finished using the “terlet.” Maybe I can write about the silly sense of humor and the pranks he loved to play, often embarrassing but never cruel-hearted. I could write about all the times he’d work his upper plate loose to unleash the goofiest denture grin imaginable, and I could go off on a tangent about how much he would have absolutely loved the technology of today, especially Facebook, and theorize about the hacking wars he’d get into with my sister. Between the two of them, I put the over/under on statuses involving farts at 85 per year.
Or maybe I can talk about how much he loved being a Pop-Pop. I could start with the changing table he built that provided a safe diapering spot for all three of my girls. I could write about his excitement when his first grandchild – my Sarah – was born, how he couldn’t wait to get to the NICU and get on those scrubs. I could share that my favorite picture from her infancy is the one where he’s holding her in those big, stubby mitts of his, looking down at her in rapt wonder and how he explained away his watering eyes as allergies. Maybe I could end with how I still see him at every event and milestone, beaming with pride, his ‘allergies’ in full force.
And maybe as I write these things, I realize the truth: I could write for another dozen hours and fill out another hundred pages and I still wouldn’t be able to capture everything he meant to me. And I realize that, though I miss him still, that though those twenty-three years he was in our life was far too short, I am blessed to have him for the time I did.
And maybe in the end, the best I can say is this:
Jimbo, thank you for all that you gave and all that you were. Most of all, thank you for not giving up your pursuit of that 30-year-old lady and her two bratty kids.