From the age of eight, I had yearned for a father. When I was seventeen, my mother married again and I expected this man, Steve, to be a poor father like his predecessors. But I was wrong.
The walls I had built to protect my heart did not come down easily, and this time, my new “father” did not attempt to tear them down. Instead, little by little, he weakened them with patient and loving kindness.
This became clear to me as he helped me catch the wild kittens that hid in our garage. They darted in between boxes, yowling, hissing and scratching. Determined to escape, the tiny fur balls fought like lions. Steve’s arms bore the bloody scratches of their escape attempts. He never complained.
During the golf lessons he brought me to, I did my best to watch my stance and avoid slicing the ball. But golf was not my “thing.” Steve didn’t care. He patiently guided my strokes. His big grin and bushy eyebrows framed a face of mirth, never frustration. “Nice try,” he said, encouraging my pitiful attempts to follow his instruction.
“Steve, your fettuccini is better than Mom’s,” I raved one night.
“You think? I’ll make it more often.” He beamed with pleasure.
“Thanks.” I savored a mouthful.
Steve shook his head. “It’s just a package.” He flushed from my praise.
I loved the fettuccini, but more than that, I treasured sitting on a barstool talking with him as he made the fettuccini twice a week. Even when I grew tired of it, I enjoyed the time we spent together while he prepared it for the family.
He held me while I cried about never knowing my father. The fact that I quit high school never swayed his belief in me. He gently nudged me to seek higher goals.
Throughout junior college, he tutored me in algebra, economics, statistics and philosophy. Grinning from ear to ear, he clapped and cheered the day I walked across the stage to receive my Bachelor of Arts degree in history. The words, “I’m proud of you,” meant more than the degree I had earned after five years of study.
Finally, when I was twenty-one, I told Steve I had an important question to ask him. I trained my eyes on the ground, still uncertain about asking it. What if he said no? So much of myself would be laid bare. With one word he could break my heart. Dare I ask?
He took my chin in his hand and brought my eyes level with his. “You can ask me anything. You know that, don’t you?”
I knew then, as much as ever, that this was a man I could trust without exception. I plunged ahead.
“Will you adopt me?”
Tears slid down both of our faces as he hugged me and said, “I’d love to.”
Five years after he adopted me for my twenty-first birthday, I had a brainstem stroke and became a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. Four months after my stroke, Steve was diagnosed with cancer and had his right lung removed. He tried to continue working, but found it physically impossible. After Steve was deemed permanently disabled, he assumed my care.
I had caregivers from eight to five each weekday, and during those hours he caught up on sleep, ran errands, scheduled my medical appointments, filed insurance claims, cleaned the house and cooked dinner.
In the evenings and on weekends, he fed me and gave me fluids every two hours, and cleared my lungs at least every three hours to help me breathe.
He slept in the extra bed that was placed in my room in case I needed help during the night. Many times when I was sick, I woke him every forty-five minutes to assist me. When I was well, he still got up with me once or twice a night, giving me a smile, making me feel loved.
I was unable to speak, so I made a clicking sound with my tongue to call for assistance many times each evening and throughout the days on weekends. Regardless of the reason I summoned him, he came, whether it was to straighten my covers, adjust my shoe splints, apply lip balm, clear my lungs or tend to me in any one of a million ways.
Out of the endless nights Steve took care of me, I rarely heard him complain, even when he was exhausted. Frustrated. He has never shown resentment or anger.
Still, an immense amount of guilt weighed me down as I watched him grow older from my wants and needs that consumed his every minute. These were the years he should be relaxing and enjoying retirement. I expressed these feelings once and he answered, “Don’t you know I don’t begrudge even one minute I’ve spent taking care of you?”
Whatever I wanted or needed was his top priority. When the days were long and my spirit became defeated by the vagaries of my disabilities, Steve selflessly wiped away my self-pity and made me feel wanted and deserving of his love.
He made the unbearable bearable by simply being Steve. I call him Steve even today. You might wonder why I don’t call him Dad, Daddy or Father. He was and is so much more than that. He’s Steve. Today, tomorrow, and always, I will cherish the gift of his love. I can only say thank you, but the words could never express all that I feel.
J. A. K.