He Chose Me - Why Stepparents mean way more than Society is willing to Acknowledge
Three years ago Joe died.
Joe was my step-father. He adopted me when I was in 5th grade and I went from one ethnic last name my elementary school principal couldn’t pronounce to another. My baby sister had been born and I remember the day of the adoption so clearly.
My newly legal grandpa was there, I was wearing a red and white little girl suit (I have always loved suits and Joe had amazing taste) and Judge Glavas is the one who signed the paperwork making me officially Joe’s daughter.
Joe was a hard man. He didn’t hold back on criticism and firmly believed in tough love. I have had six surgeries in my lifetime (I think, sometimes they blur together) and Joe was there for four of them. I remember coming home from the hospital when I was fifteen, still incredibly groggy from anesthesia, first time I had had an outpatient surgery (three had been before this and all inpatient for a long time) laying on the couch in the living room. Joe dropped a basket of laundry next to me and said I needed to fold it since I was just laying there. Yep, not always the most compassionate man when you would think a person would be.
But that’s the thing. He was actually compassionate but it came in really weird ways. When I was 25 and having a surgery, he stayed with me all night in the hospital. The doctor said I had to stay elevated and on my back. I sleep with the flatest pillow possible and on my side. He kept moving me so I stayed in the right position all night. I was a grown ass woman, married with a kid and yet my daddy would not leave my side. Now when I was awake and went home he told me I should put away the dishes that were out, but see, that is were the interesting aspect of his personality came in.
My dad taught me many things but he fundamentally taught me three HUGE lessons.
“If you can walk, you can work.”
I heard that so many times growing up from him that when I think of the phrase I hear it in his voice even still. Joe lived with pain most of his life. Some he caused himself, some was simply his body being a dick. I can relate to that. And I think Joe saw that I was going to be in for a lifetime of that kind of problem as he had. So he instilled in me the ability to push through. I can be tired, sore, have a migraine that is making keeping water down a problem, doesn’t matter, shit still needs to get done. Life doesn’t care. And whining about it doesn’t do fix the pain or get stuff done. So just get up and do it.
“I know you’re smart. I know not because of how well you doing things but because of how well you get out of doing things”
Joe didn’t like people. There are very few people he liked in any real way. Most of them were fictional. My brother is named after a John Wayne character so I think you can guess who one person might be. He preferred nature. He preferred westerns, mysteries, wrestling and B level action movies. I might get some of my taste in that aspect from him, to be honest. But what he didn’t like was people wasting time and quite often that involved societal expectations that might force him to have to deal with stuff longer than what he wanted.
A girl growing up in the 80s and 90s, I had a LOT of mixed messages. I can be anything but don’t be too smart or guys won’t like you. You should have a career but children, marriage and your husband’s career need to come first. Geeky girls who are good at math, science and like things like sci-fi and comics are the comic best friend of the guys but not the ones they date. Oh and course, you are all going to die young from AIDS, cancer and the hole in the Ozone layer. Like I said, weird times. I had a math teacher who would make fun of the girls in the class when they made a mistake but praise the guys for trying even when they failed miserably. Role Models were hard to come by and 80s teen movies that were now being played all the time on tv like 16 candles drove home a lot of those lessons (oh Jake Ryan, that movie is so problematic and yet to have a guy sit on a kitchen table - probably more like a blanket in the living room because now I don’t want butts where food is going to be - with me and a birthday cake is still one of my fantasies).
Joe saw all of this. He knew I was smart, my test scores showed it (even when my grades didn’t always hahaha). But he saw me floundering. I was being torn between what I thought I was supposed to be and who I am. So he yelled at me one day. I don’t even know what I was supposed to be doing but I wasn’t doing it and there is a good chance I had figured out a way to not have to do it or get someone else to do it. And that’s when he told me I know you’re smart. I know not because of how well you doing things but because of how well you get out of doing things. Then I am sure he probably made me do what I was supposed to be doing.
In that one statement I learned two things. One, I was smart. And not just book smart but actually smart. Yes, I had been told this by other people but it was normally in a you need to apply yourself, do great things or what you future holds way. Not a No dude, you are smart regardless of what you do. And there wasn’t a but. It wasn’t followed by you need to calm down and let other kids have a chance to talk about it or you are too aggressive or a know it all or just tone it down or you need to smile and be nicer. These are all things I had heard when I was little, I have always been hyper and talkative, that never changed.
But what he said was just put out there. You are smart. Period. It wasn’t an excuse or a call to action or a you need to blend in more. That was odd to hear. But it was needed. To this day I don’t doubt my intelligence. It took a bit to realize that it was okay to be ambitious (like my 30th birthday, lol) but I have never doubted my ability to learn, adapt, grow and change through the pursuit of knowledge.
The other thing was that I am not traditional. The whole “how you get out of things” part of the statement. Now that took a bit longer to fully sync in but it did. And he was right. I love to automate myself out of jobs. I often refer to myself as a pragmatic lazy person. I would rather just put the time in to write the algorithm so I never have to touch the damn thing again than do what most people do which is procrastinate which ultimately takes up more time than if you even just did it right away. I mean honestly, that isn’t lazy that is just inefficient time wasting.
But he saw that in me before I ever saw it in myself. And as I got older I did start to see it. And the more I saw it the more my bosses did too. By it’s very definition I am okay with change, it doesn’t scare me. Because as long as the change means less boring work, it is in my favor. And that is an asset.
But through all the things he taught me there is one thing above all others that he did that words can’t even begin to express how much it means to me.
He chose me.
He didn’t have to adopt me. He didn’t have to refer to me as his daughter, to treat me as if I was his own, to fiercely protect me, to hold me when I was scared, to even love me. It is sad that these are true statements yes, but they are. And there are PLENTY of people out there who have stepparents who these statements are true for. But they weren’t for me.
And for a little girl who though has a huge family filled with many loving people, most of them strong confident women, you would think it wouldn’t matter that much. But it did.
In a world where I felt abandoned by people who left or died, betrayed by my own body a lot of times, unsure of so much, there was always Joe. I was in a car accident when I was 17. I skidded on a patch of ice and slammed into another car. Not that big of a deal but in the moment it was huge. My mom picked me up and we went home. The first thing I did was climb into my daddy’s lap and cried. 17 years old but I needed to feel safe. I needed to be weak and he was the ONE person I knew that no matter what I could be weak without judgement or reprisal. Over two decades later that is still a true statement, which is actually quite sad and probably says a lot on why his death still weighs on me so much.
Was he the best dad ever? Oh God no, I would never claim that. Ever. There was a lot of stuff. But he tried. He sincerely tried. With a little girl who was kooky, hyper but introverted, strong-willed and passionate but scared of so much who happened to be sick a lot. And for that, I feel special. Because he didn’t have to do that. But he did.
He loved me for me. And to have someone do that, truly do that, who isn’t obligated because they are biologically related to you. It makes all the difference. Especially to that little girl.