Journey to honor a stepdad on Father’s Day

His name was Irv. I was so pre­dis­posed to dis­like him that I even found fault with his name.

“Who is he?” I de­man­ded of my wid­owed moth­er dur­ing the mo­ments when she had re­gained her equi­lib­ri­um enough to speak of this stranger, this man named Irv, with whom she had a date.

A date? The concept was ut­terly ali­en to me. My 61-year-old moth­er go­ing out with a man named Irv? 

The loss of my fath­er was so raw for me still that des­pite my be­ing a bon­afide thirtyso­mething adult, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the no­tion that Mom was go­ing out to din­ner with a man just a year after Dad’s death. A mu­tu­al friend had “fixed them up,” a term I gen­er­ally re­leg­ated to teen­agers.

Sev­er­al months later, I had to ad­mit that Mom was smil­ing more, even laugh­ing a bit. This man named Irv had some­how re­ignited the spark in my moth­er. Her green eyes al­most danced with pleas­ure at the men­tion of his name.

I should have been grate­ful. But all I felt was an­ger. How dare this usurp­er in­sinu­ate his way in­to not just her life, but ours? Yes, Mom now wanted my sis­ter, my hus­band and me to meet this Irv. 

I bristled at the no­tion, but it was clearly im­port­ant to her, so we set a date. So many years later, I can still re­mem­ber that meet­ing, an un­com­fort­able Sunday lunch at our house. Our three little daugh­ters, ex­cited to be part of this ad­ven­ture, were done up in dresses and quite charm­ing to Irv. He, in turn, did a ma­gic trick that ab­so­lutely won them over.

My hus­band, while gra­cious and a fine host, un­der­stood my feel­ings about this odd situ­ation. My sis­ter was cor­di­al. And I’m sure my cool­ness was no­tice­able as this tall, gray-haired man man­aged to make it through that first fam­ily en­counter.

I wish I could say that I came around quickly after that, and warmed to the no­tion that Irv seemed to make Mom’s life bet­ter. But a stub­born, still-griev­ing part of me couldn’t make that leap. I re­mained aloof.

Let me cut to the chase. A year after they met, my moth­er mar­ried Irv at a small wed­ding ce­re­mony in our liv­ing room. She wore a per­fectly beau­ti­ful pale yel­low dress, looked ra­di­ant, then dashed off to a hon­ey­moon on a cruise ship with this man who had lost his own wife to can­cer years be­fore. 

Shortly after the wed­ding, I grumbled to a good friend about how stunned I still felt. And luck­ily, that friend had the wis­dom and cour­age not to sym­path­ize, not to com­fort, but to con­front me.

Susan wasn’t gentle. How dare I ob­ject to a man who had erased some of my moth­er’s grief and loneli­ness? By what right did I act the spoiled brat when I was old enough to know bet­ter? And when would I real­ize that this new uni­on wasn’t about me?

The wake-up call worked. I star­ted do­ing that most dif­fi­cult of labors: self-ex­am­in­a­tion. It was the loss that had rocked me. My fath­er was gone — sud­denly, per­man­ently, forever. 

No, Irv would nev­er be a sub­sti­tute for my fath­er. Nor did he care to be. He was my moth­er’s hus­band, a dis­tinc­tion I clung to. For years, I couldn’t bring my­self to refer to him as my step­fath­er. That some­how seemed dis­loy­al to my dad.

Irv was in our lives for 19 years, years that con­tained so many mile­stones. It was he who sat beam­ing at our daugh­ters’ birth­day parties and high school gradu­ations. His chair was at the Thanks­giv­ing table and our Pas­sov­er Seders. His corny jokes and antics were gradu­ally woven in­to our fam­ily tapestry. And his adult chil­dren ex­pan­ded our circle.

We were, in the lingo of so­cial sci­ence demo­graph­ics, a “blen­ded fam­ily.” And slowly in­ex­or­ably, we man­aged to do just that: blend. 

Not eas­ily. Not without ac­com­mod­a­tions on all sides. 

But with ef­fort, with cau­tion, and then with grow­ing com­fort, Irv be­came one of us. The stiff­ness yiel­ded to af­fec­tion and warmth. And yes, we honored my step­fath­er on Fath­er’s Day and how he loved that! It was a leap for me. And for him. 

Then came Irv’s fi­nal ill­ness, a brief but ter­rible one. With­in weeks, he was at a care fa­cil­ity close to the apart­ment he had shared with mom. 

One day, when she couldn’t be with him, I went to vis­it. Irv was barely con­scious. His husky frame had melted away and he was just an old, sick man ly­ing in a hos­pit­al bed. No jokes, no antics.

But a flick­er of re­cog­ni­tion crossed Irv’s face. I will al­ways be­lieve that there also was a mo­ment­ary smile.

And then there we sat, alone to­geth­er. 

I held his hand. We nev­er spoke a word.

Minutes passed. Then hours. I couldn’t bring my­self to leave. 

And two days later, he was gone. It hurt far more than I ever thought it would. 

Today, years later, our daugh­ters still speak of Irv with af­fec­tion. And so do I. 

And there he is, in our photo al­bums, in our memor­ies, etched in­to our lives, this man named Irv… who taught a fool­ish, stub­born daugh­ter that love can come in un­ex­pec­ted ways. ••

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