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Making Peace With the Dad Who Wasn't My Father

Accepting a stepparent can be hard — but the rewards can be inestimable

By Michele Wojciechowski | October 3, 2013

One hot August day just before I began high school, my mom called me from her office to tell me the most devastating news. “Ed and I are going to pick out wedding bands after work today,” she said.

I burst into tears, told her I couldn’t believe she was doing this to me and slammed down the receiver.

I hated my mother at that moment and I really hated Ed. But I hated him for only one reason: He wasn’t my dad.

When I was 10, a rare cancer was diagnosed in my father. There hadn’t been any symptoms — until the day that he, my mother and I went to a local park to see some hot-air balloons.

When we got home, Dad starting vomiting uncontrollably. My mother rushed him to our family doctor. While pushing on his abdomen, the doctor looked at my mom and said, “You’d better get this boy to a hospital.”

This was June 1978. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong and eventually resorted to exploratory surgery. They were shocked by what they saw: My 37-year-old father’s body was riddled with cancer.

His gastroenterologist should have caught it, but he didn’t. People told my mom she should sue him, but my dad asked her not to. He had an abiding belief that everything happened for a reason.
 
Just a few months after the diagnosis, he died, on Sept. 5.

(MORE: What Do We 'Owe' Our Parents?)

New Life, New Family
 
My family lived in Highlandtown, Md., at the time a working-class section of Baltimore. My dad worked for the Social Security Administration. Like many moms of the time, mine stayed at home with me, her only child. My grandmother and aunts lived just a few blocks away, so I grew up close to my mom’s family.
 
When my father died, my mother was just 36, with a 10-year-old daughter to raise by herself. Life was tough. My father didn’t leave us much life insurance, so money was tight. My mom lost many of her friends because most of them were couples and they no longer knew how Mom fit into their circles. They drifted away.
 
I had my own disconcerting transition. My fifth-grade friends had no idea what to say. After the funeral, they went back to life as though nothing had happened. But my entire world had changed.
 
Mom and I had always been close, but we became even closer when it was just the two us. No matter what, we would be there for each other. We really related to that Helen Reddy song “You and Me Against the World.”

About three years after my Dad died, my mom began dating. I hated every guy she dated because, in my eyes, they screwed up our special relationship.

So when she fell in love with Ed and decided to marry him, my hatred for the two of them, and the world, hit new heights. My mom told me that things would be the same between us, but I didn’t believe her. How could they? Now this guy was here.
 
My mom asked me to be the maid of honor at their wedding and I agreed. I only did it because I loved her so much and I knew it meant a lot to her. But when the minister pronounced them man and wife, I cried so hard my shoulders shook.

About a year later, my mom told me that Ed wanted to adopt me, but that’s where I drew the line. There was no way I was giving up what I considered one of my closest links with my dad: his last name.

Eventually we gelled into a kind of family. My mom and I were still close and because Ed had no kids, I remained an only child. Sometimes I told Ed that I loved him — and I meant it, to the degree I was capable of — but I held him at arm’s length. He still wasn’t my dad.

Ed was good to my mom and me. He worked hard at the local steel mill. Despite the difficult work he did in a dangerous environment, Ed was a softie — he treated our dogs like they were royalty and cried at commercials. He was generous to Mom and me and did a lot for us; nothing was ever too much trouble. One thing I was grateful for: He let my mother discipline me.

Mom’s friends regularly commented that she was so lucky to have found another good man. But I didn’t want to hear it.

What I wanted I knew wasn’t possible. I wanted my dad back.

(MORE: What to Do When Your Adult Kids Hate That You're in Love Again)
 
Getting to Know My Stepdad
 
I kept up the façade of pseudo acceptance throughout my 20s, but I still clung to my dad’s memory and refused to acknowledge Ed’s goodness. When I got married in 1995, both Ed and my mom walked me down the aisle. Ever since I was a little girl, I had looked forward to my father doing the honors. I had my mom walk too because she was my only connection to my dad.

Before, during and after my wedding, Ed was violently ill. Two days before my wedding, we had to rush Ed to the hospital. He was having symptoms similar to those of a heart attack. After many tests and lots of worrying, the only thing we learned was that it wasn’t his heart. But the doctors couldn’t tell us what it was.

My husband and I offered to postpone our honeymoon to Hawaii, but Ed insisted we go. “Planes leave all the time,” he said. “If we need you, you can come home.”

While we were gone, Ed went back to the hospital, where doctors determined that his gallbladder was full of stones and would have to be removed. Only when we returned home did I learn that Ed had been desperately ill during my entire wedding but didn’t tell anyone because he didn’t want to ruin my big day.

Over the next decade, Ed ceaselessly demonstrated his true loving nature and it was never more apparent than how he cared about my mother, 14 years his junior. When I was 36 years old and my husband and I were living in Baltimore County, about 20 minutes away from Mom and Ed, we wound up taking Mom to the emergency room. Because she was conscious and not bleeding, we had to wait a very long time to see a doctor.
 
As the hours passed, I noticed something that had somehow escaped my ken over the previous 22 years: how kind and patient Ed was with my mother. It was like the fog had finally lifted and I could clearly see what everyone had been talking about all these years.

Ed really loved her. He was a good man. And although he wasn’t my dad, he had a lot of the same qualities.

The news wasn’t good: Mom had lung cancer. Over the next seven months, she would spend a lot of time in the hospital or at my home. Ed slept in a recliner in her hospital room or in an easy chair with his feet up on an ottoman in our family room. At home, Mom was too weak to go up the steps, and he wanted to be near her. So she slept on the sofa, and he slept in a chair next to her.

The man slept in chairs for seven months.

(MORE: When and How to Coax Your Parent to Move Closer)

Two Decades Later: Acceptance
 
Ed was living with us full-time when Mom died in July 2005. After the funeral, my husband and I told him that we wanted him to stay. After all, he was 78 and we felt he should be living with people who could care for him.

But really, my motivation went beyond that. I had gotten to know Ed better in that seven-month period than I had in the previous 22 years. And I had finally opened my heart to him.

Today we live together in a much bigger house and Ed has his own “in-law suite.” The three of us have dinner together almost every night. We have finally become a family. Only this time, I don’t hate Ed because he isn’t my dad.

I love him because he’s Ed.

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning author of Next Time I Move, They'll Carry Me Out in a Box. 

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