I didn’t need another dad. My dad died when I was 15, and I mourned that loss for years. By the time I was in college, I was doing okay–at least I said so to anyone who asked–and didn’t want another dad. One stepdad had moved in and then out of our lives, and it wasn’t the best experience for anyone concerned. That confirmed that I had been right: I didn’t need another dad.
Married, done with college, another stepdad entered the scene, and I was determined not to like his imposition into our family. But I saw how much he loved my mom, and how he took my teenage sister under his wing. She really needed a firm hand during her rebellious years, and he did a great job. He might be okay for them, I decided. But me, I’m out of the picture.
A couple more years went by, and I was pregnant with our first child. Suddenly, with pre-term labor at 30 weeks, I was on bed rest. And the stepdad (who I didn’t need) came to stay with us, to bring me lunch as I lay like a beached whale on the couch. He painted, set up the baby’s room, puttered around in the yard, and made sure I had plenty to eat and drink. I could see how well he might fit into our family.
Then when our son was born, there was Jim, video camera rolling, as proud as if our son was his very own flesh and blood. And as each child was born, there he was again, beaming. He’d already had his own grandchildren, but he was pretty thrilled with the crop of step-grandchildren he was getting from my sisters and me. So maybe he was going to fit in pretty well.
We moved a lot as a young family, and there were my mom and step dad, visiting, playing with the children. Jim and my husband undertook several remodeling projects wherever we lived. He brought a crowbar and hammer and loved every minute. And my husband felt pretty sure he could use a father-in-law like that.
High school and college graduations, and a wedding in our family, would find Jim beaming again, photographing every minute, the happiest grandpa in the room.
Thirty years later, we all gathered to wish Jim a happy 90th birthday. And suddenly I realized that I had needed a dad all along. He had been there, with a hug and a kiss, ready for adventure with the kids, for remodeling with my husband, for a raucous game of cards every evening, with a strong shoulder to lean on in joy or pain. He had been there all along, strong and steady.
He had been the only grandpa our children remembered. He had been the dad my teenage sister needed, and he did it well. He had been a dad to my older sister and me, in ways we didn’t anticipate. He was a father-in-law to Kyle, who loved thinking through home improvement projects while wandering with him through the Home Depot. He’d been our dad.
And on his 90th birthday, with all the family gathered together, we found that we were losing him. He was slipping away. I was able to tell him how much he meant to me, to my husband, to our children, and to thank him for every loving thing he did for us. We were thankful that he heard us and responded with a hug, a hand squeeze, a little pat on the arm. We moved him into hospice at home and said goodbye to him, one child and grandchild at a time. What a miraculous gift, that most of us could gather together at the right moment.
I realized why I hadn’t wanted another dad. The pain of losing my own father was so great, it left a huge hole in my heart. No attachment to another dad meant no more great holes in my heart. But Jim snuck in there anyway. And I realized, in spite of myself, that the memory of all those loving years was even worth this sharp, momentary pain of loss right now. We are all the more rich now, because he was our dad. Our grandpa and father-in-law. Mom’s husband.
I love you, Jim. Thanks for being my dad.
James Eitel: husband, father, stepfather, grandpa. 1926-2016