My father is a stern man. As a child I feared him. On the few occasions I felt softness from him, I was too startled to embrace the moment.
I’d never seen my father cry. He didn’t cry when he buried his parents and two of his sisters, he didn’t cry at any of our weddings or the births of his grandchildren, he didn’t cry at the news of my cancer or divorce. There is only one time I’ve seen him cry, and I feel compelled to recount it.
When I first started dating my spouse, he had custody of his 22 month old son. We moved in together on his son’s 3rd birthday, and for the next 9 years I raised him as my own. My parents also embraced him. He was their grandchild, the same as all their other grandchildren. It was unexpected and heartwarming.
During 6th grade my stepson’s mother decided she wanted him back. She waged a campaign to win him back. Her primary method was prompting him to disregard me. We owned a restaurant at the time. and my ex worked nights and weekends, so this became a problem. The situation was complicated by the fact that we had two other children, both of whom looked up to and adored their half brother, and I feared might begin to emulate him.
In February my spouse announced that he was taking my stepson to Chicago to live with his mother. They would leave as soon as school let out in June.
Everyone knew what this meant. He would no longer have structure and boundaries, or a stable, loving family.
The months from February till June were some of the longest in my life. The night before they left, my 3 sons laid in bed, hugging each other and crying. By that time I was emotionally exhausted and crippled, and stood by helplessly watching. It was a dark time for all of us.
As we predicted, my stepson fell apart. He started missing school, eventually dropping out. He got into loud, violent fights with his mother requiring police intervention. He spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Eventually he fell into a pattern of not quite self- destruction, but definitely not self fulfilling or productive. He was lost.
During this time, and the 10 years since, he has remained, at his core, a genuine, intelligent and loving person. It was these character traits we all fell in love with. He had been a challenge from day 1, yet no one in my family shied away from the responsibility, he was that compelling as a person. Because of this, we all suffered. We were all sad and frustrated, felt helpless and prayed for his return.
When he turned 19 he joined the National Guard. It was the break we had all been praying for. We felt certain that the structure provided, as well as the opportunity for sucess, would bring him back to us, back to a happy, productive life. He was stationed in Georgia. I lived with my 3 children and spouse in PA, and my father summered in NJ. When it was time for my stepson to graduate basic training my spouse could not attend. I desperately wanted to be there, but could not fathom how I’d get myself and 3 children from PA to GA. Then my father called me.
“Your mother can’t make it” he said sternly, “but how about you and I drive down with the boys and go to his graduation? We can make it a fun trip, stay overnight in a hotel and we’ll all get to see him”. I was taken aback, and I jumped on the opportunity. I was nervous about the trip, but my father was relaxed, and it was an enjoyable excursion.
We checked into a hotel near the base, went for a swim then put the boys to bed. We had to be up early for the ceremony and we set two alarms to make sure we were up in time. In the morning my stern father reappeared. Having been in the Navy he understood the importance of our timely arrival and, not wanting to miss a second, he began barking orders. We got there in time to see my stepson before he got into formation. It was wonderful.
If you have never been to a military graduation I highly recommend you do. It is a stunning display of tradition, precision, personal fortitude and collective experience. The tears I had shed in the intervening years dried up and I was left bursting with pride. After the ceremony my stepson found us and took us on a tour of the base. He was handsome, self composed, proud, focused and strong. I would have given just about anything on that day for the promise that this would be his fresh start, it was such a powerful transformation.
The end of our tour ended in his barracks. He showed us his bunk and introduced us to several new friends. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted his Sargent. He pointed him out and, before I had a chance to acknowledge this, my father was on the move. He strode, sternly, towards the Sargent, his hand extended. Then, with tears in his eyes he shook the Sergeant’s hand and he thanked him for all he had done for his grandson. As he spoke his voice wavered and the tears began flowing down his face. My father was crying.
We never spoke about it. I wish I had the words in that moment to express the impact this had on me. It was one of the most sincere, spontaneous and soul wrenching displays of emotion I’ve ever seen. Truely.
I suppose this is because my father is a stern man. Yet I saw him cry.