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
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 "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 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 some day, when I had to step in and be a
disciplinarian, I might have it thrown in my face that I wasnít her
"real" father. If I wasnít 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 wasnít 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
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 hadnít faced. It was that in order to be fully
appreciated I had to plainly be me. I didnít have to act like anyone
else. I wouldnít 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 studentsí 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 shouldnít, 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 didnít 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 kindness.
Published in www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Garden/4834/EncouragingStories