How I screwed up with my new dad

Let me tell you about how I screwed up with my dad – my new dad, in this case.  If you’ve read one of my previous posts, you might know that I’ve lost my dad.  My dad was an amazing man – unfortunately we lost him to lung cancer in 1994, when he was only 59 years old.  My dad fought a good fight – I truly believe he gave it all he could, but certain events, possibly just one event, brought him down in the end.  I’ll talk about that in another post.  He had a hospital bed at home, which is where he wanted to die – but sadly he didn’t get that option – his last two weeks were spent in the hospital, as his health-care providers were unable to do the right things for him at home at that point.

Those last two weeks were very hard on our family.  Although we are eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to say good-bye over the course of the 2 years before that, we knew it was the end.  At one point, my dad said he wanted to discuss my mom remarrying because he cared so much for her, and when he was gone, he wanted her to be happy and taken care of.  My mom was very emotional about it, and said she didn’t want to discuss it.

My dad had a friend named Art who had also come from Germany – they knew each other from the old country.  Our family knew this family – although they lived in the Toronto area, we saw them relatively often – every few years.  We spent time with them, knew them well and in true German tradition, I called this man Uncle Art whenever I saw him because we were family friends.  About 15 years prior to my dad’s passing, Uncle Art lost his wife to cancer.

About a year after my dad died, I noticed some mail from Uncle Art.  It was addressed to my mom, and so I asked her the next day what that was.  “Oh,” she said, “nothing much.  He was just writing me to share some grief and let me know that he knew what I was going through.”  At the time I thought that was quite nice of him.

About a week later, my mom got a long-distance call, which she said she would take in her bedroom.  She was on the phone for quite a while, but I paid it little attention.  Not long after that, my mom was on holidays when a postcard arrived for her, from Uncle Art.  Reading it in her absence, I sensed a little more than sharing of grief in it.  I sensed that perhaps there was a little affection in the message, and remembered that long-distance phone call.  I immediately became angry at this.  I couldn’t believe the affrontery – the nerve!   Here I was, the man of the house, taking care of my mom.  My dad had asked me to take care of my mom when he was gone, and wasn’t I doing just that?  Well, since my mom was on holidays, I decided to put an end to this right then and there – I determined that not passing this correspondence on to my mom was going to be best for everyone involved.  Of course, when a guy is 21, he doesn’t realize that his decisions have repercussions and consequences as clearly as he might realize it 10 years down the road….

Well, after a few weeks, my mom returned from her vacation, and the phone calls continued.  Correspondence continued to arrive on occasion, clearly marked to my mom, and not to me.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it all, but I didn’t like it – not one little bit.

That summer, my mother went to Portugal for over a month.  In her travels, she had flights landing in Toronto there and back.  What I didn’t know was that she had agreed to go for lunch and a stroll with Uncle Art on her trip there – and that he asked her to marry him.  My mom did not say yes, but promised him to consider it while she was in Europe – on her return trip, during her layover in Toronto, my mom accepted Uncle Art’s proposal.  I learned all this during a supper that my mom had hastily invited my brother and his family, and my wife and I to upon her arrival.  It appeared that my mom was quite uncomfortable telling us this news, and we were equally as shocked to hear it.

So Uncle Art was to become my stepfather.  I was appalled – it really had an impact on me, and it really felt as though my job as man of the house was going to be taken from me.  I felt insulted, betrayed by my mom, and started developing very strong feelings towards this man.  Not warm and fuzzy feelings, mind you.  I could see my life as I knew it coming to an end – a very abrupt end.  My mom had told Art that I was still living at home and she felt attached to Edmonton, and if he wanted to marry her, he would need to move to Edmonton.  Because this was more of a simple statement instead of an ultimatum, Art had the choice and he told my mom that he would gladly move to Edmonton.  Art moved here a week prior to the wedding, bringing only his car, his mountain bike, his tools and some sentimental things with.  He truly moved INTO our lives.

In December of that year, my mom and Art got married.  It was a nice wedding, a small affair, and I wore a smile at the wedding, but it wasn’t real.  My fear, and impending sense of dread, continued its slow creep into my heart, relentlessly reminding me that I was now going to have to share my mom.  It might sound silly, but it was a big deal to me.  After the wedding, they had a Costa Rican honeymoon and I felt as though Doomsday was when they would return.

One evening, while they were gone, I went out with some friends.  I chose not to drive my beloved Audi Coupe, and took Art’s car instead – since I wasn’t insured on it, and wasn’t given permission to drive it, it wasn’t a good idea from the start.  A fresh snowfall on that night sealed my decision’s fate as being one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.  I took a slippery corner on the way home and bounced the front right end off a nice, high curb.  I left the car outside on the driveway overnight and decided I’d get whatever damage there was fixed the next day.  I took the car into the dealership, noting on the way that it was driving with a distinct limp.  To make a long story somewhat shorter, after much negotiation, they agreed to fix it on time before my parents got home – the bill was enormous, as there was suspension damage, etc, but I thought it would be better to get it over with than to have to tell Art I crashed his car.  Hiding things never makes things better nor easier, kids – when they got back, the first thing Art did was wash his car, and immediately noticed that his right front wheel was mashed up – HOW could the dealership not have replaced that, or at least noticed it and brought it to my attention?  They fixed all the internals, yet left the visible damage.  He asked if something had happened to his car.  I vehemently denied that I had driven it, or that anything had happened.  I felt that, with each lie, I was digging myself in deeper, which of course I was.

Taking a retrospective look at that situation, I remember being very angry at the dealership for not properly fixing the car, and at Art, for having unintentionally caught me.  That’s a 21 year-old doing his best thinking.  I had no remorse, nor did I realize that I was the entire problem.

I continued to disrespect Art over the months, and found myself being out of the house more and more as time went on.  At supper, when I was at home, I wouldn’t even show Art the respect of saying hello, or even acknowledging him.  I would basically only communicate with my mom, and treated him as though he didn’t exist.  The strain on my mom during this awkward time must have been intensely painful because of the dichotomy between loving her son and accepting his needs and wants, and now doing the same for her new husband.  My mom is an amazing woman, and somehow balanced this as best as she could.  Sadly I was aware of this strain I was causing, but was too self-centered to do something about it.  My mom did talk to me about the situation and my behaviour during this time, but it wasn’t confrontational.  She gently reminded me that she needed and deserved to be happy too, and that the way I was treating Art wasn’t fair to him and that it hurt him and it put a lot of undue pressure on her.

The beginning of the end was on the day Art took me aside to talk with me.  I felt immediately attacked, without even knowing what he wanted to talk about, and so I resented him even more for cornering me like that.  But what he said opened my eyes, even if it was a barely discernible slit.  He said he didn’t know what he had done to hurt me or offend me, but that he wasn’t asking me to change.  He said that he never had any intention of replacing my dad – his intention was simply to make my mom happy again, and to do the same for himself in the process.  He missed his wife, my mom missed my dad – they both knew each other, they both knew what they wanted and needed and it fit together.  Wouldn’t I consider this to be OK if I knew it made my mom happy again?  At the time I thought this was a ridiculous question, but as I walked away without having said a word to him, it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, I might be part of the problem.  And that thought didn’t let me go.

I started developing some respect for this man, as he hadn’t asked me to change.  He had laid his intentions, his heart, out for me to dissect and left it with me to consider.  And I started watching my mom – who, since my dad’s death, had become a shell of her former self.  What I saw in my mom was resurrected radiance – once again smiling and enjoying life.  And I realized that this man had actually come here to do a good thing for my mom.  By marrying her, and letting her stay in Edmonton, he was actually doing me a favor!

I started to come around, albeit slowly.  I started talking to Art, and started seeing that he was the same great guy I knew he was when I was growing up.  And finally, one day I was able to call him dad.  I did it quickly, and on my way out of the door, but what my mom told me afterwards sealed the deal.  She told me that when I finally called him dad (something he had never asked me to do nor expected from me) Art broke down crying – happy that we finally had a real connection and happy that it appeared he was going to be accepted.

It’s a long story, I know, but I want to clarify why I’ve chosen to share it.  It is a time in my life that I wish I could take back and do over, and a time that I’m ashamed of.  Thankfully, the most harm was done to myself and not others, and I learned a lot through it, mostly about myself.

I have spoken to a number of people in similar situations – step-parents that just aren’t fitting into their vision of what life should be.  I learned a very valuable lesson that I’ve tried to never forget.  It would have been very useful to take the time to think about why this step-parent had come into my life because I would have realized that it wasn’t really about me in the first place.  I wish I had realized that none of this was about me – it was about my mom and Art having found each other and just wanting to be happy again.  It wasn’t meant as an insult at all.  I’m glad that I figured this out before having done more damage to my relationship with my mom and with Art, and I’m glad my mom didn’t let my behaviour damage her relationship with Art.

Why?  Because he’s a great man.  Anyone reading this who knows him will agree that he is one of the most giving, generous and kind-hearted people.  He truly loves my mom and cares about her.  He absolutely adores my wife, my kids, and frankly, he has treated me with respect and like a son since he arrived in our lives, even when it wasn’t nearly reciprocated.  I’m proud to call Art my new dad – and I’m so glad my mom is happy with him.

If you find yourself in a situation where it seems like the way of life you’ve come to love is under attack, make sure the “attacker” is truly focused on you before you fight back – as it turns out, sometimes these things aren’t even about us, but rather other worlds around us colliding and making the big world we all live in a better place.

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