“The willingness of American’s veterans to sacrifice for our country has earned them our lasting gratitude.”
– Jeff Miller
So, it’s Veterans’ Day. And in honor of Veterans’ Day, I want to take the time to talk about one of them. My favorite one, actually.
(And just for the record, that’s the last time I’ll refer to him as that for the rest of the blog. Just wanted you to know that he is my step-father for informational purposes. As you will see from the story I’m about to tell you, I have dropped the “step-” part of his name because that is no longer necessary. He is my dad.)
So, when I was about 5 years old, my mom met this great guy named David. I thought he was pretty cool, to be honest. It was kind of nice having someone else around when it had only been myself and my mom for all those years. My mom and real dad had divorced when I was a baby and though my dad was definitely in my life, I only saw him on the occasional weekend. I lived primarily with my mom. Just the two of us. Suddenly, this new guy was around quite a bit. I remember him taking me along with them when they went places and such. One particular early memory that sticks out in my mind is the time I got to go to the movies with them. There’s a Brad Paisley song called “He Didn’t Have to Be” and in it there’s a line that says, “he took my mom out to the movies and, for once, I got to go.” Yep. That line gets me every time. Because that was me – the new guy was just as happy to have me along as he was my mom.
And then came the day when I was about 6 years old. I came home from school and my mom and David were sitting in the living room and said they wanted to tell me something. I was young, so the memory is somewhat hazy, but there are two things that really stand out. One – I remember sitting on David’s lap. They told me that they were getting married (I don’t remember the exact words – just have that memory of sitting on his lap) and apparently I was pretty happy about the news. All was well. A new person to join our family. Yay!
But then comes the second memory.
My new room.
Now, mind you, my mom and I had lived alone all of these years in a small two-bedroom apartment. And with it being just the two of us, I had sort of decided that my mom’s bed was my bed too. And she had allowed that. So that “extra” bedroom back there was just that. Extra. A place for storage and my toys and whatnot. Not a place where I actually slept. Duh. I slept with my mommy.
They walked me back to the room and opened the door. There was a new bed, a few new toys, and (I distinctly remember this) some new little workbooks on my bed. I LOVED those workbooks. They were the kind that taught you how to write in cursive by tracing the little dots. I was such a nerd – writing was my favorite thing in the world to do (not much has changed actually). So, with them knowing how much I liked those little workbooks, what was wrong with a little bribe to sweeten the deal, right? Well, it worked. I loved my new room!
Until bedtime, that is.
Bedtime rolled around, and I wanted to sleep with my mom. Like always. But, alas, that was a no-go.
Now, I’m no psychologist. But I’m willing to bet that that bedroom moment was the one that planted the seed. This man that I really did secretly like, was now to become the enemy. He took my mommy! Thus, began the years of the “you’re not my real dad”s and the “I don’t have to listen to you”s and the “I hate you”s. Oh, my poor poor mom. The hell I must have put her through. (Funny how that becomes so clear once you have children of your own.)
Eventually, my dad joined the Army and that’s when the new brothers and sisters started to arrive. I went from being an only child at age 7, to being the oldest of five by age 13. Now, that part was pretty cool. I adored being a big sister. The part that wasn’t cool, however? The moving. The endless, ENDLESS, moving. The girl who had lived in the same small town her whole life was now being uprooted and sent to God only knows where. Yep, I was to become a “brat” – in every sense of the word. I made sure the whole world knew how I felt about that, too.
Well, let’s fast forward a bit. To age 17.
Not much had changed in all those years. I still fought with my dad every chance we got – and I’m sure my mom still cried silent tears over each and every one. Not once had I stopped to think about what he was doing with his life – serving his country each and every time he donned that uniform. Not once had I realized that he was supporting and providing for this large family each time he laced up those big black boots. Nope – I couldn’t see past myself and my own “misery.” And at this point, that misery had reached it’s peak. Not only had he moved us yet again, but this time we were in a whole different country. He had taken us all the way to Germany…the big doo-doo head. Oh, I was never going to forgive him for this one, you could mark my word.
So, the summer I turned 17, I was flying back to Germany from having spent the summer back in the states. (I would fly home each year for about 6 weeks to see my real dad and that side of the family.) This particular summer, I was on my flight back to Germany and had a short layover in Paris. Talk about feeling like a big shot! I mean, granted, I never actually left the airport during my four-hour Paris stay, but still. I was sitting in an airport in Paris on my 17th birthday – alone! Check me out! After wandering around feeling like a grown-up for a while, I finally decided to make my way to my boarding gate and sit at a table while I waited for my flight. I went to rest my head on my hand and…there it was again. The lump I had felt while back in the states and had hardly mentioned to anyone now felt a little larger. It was this strange growth in my neck that I couldn’t quite explain. I felt fine – wasn’t sick or anything. But still there it was.
My flight made it back to Germany and I stepped into a world that was to be drastically different than the one I had left a few months before. Suddenly, everything would change. No more everyday teenage school life filled with volleyball and basketball games and who’s dating who drama. No, my life was now hospital stays and doctor’s visits. Hodgkin’s lymphoma saw to that. Suddenly all I knew were surgeons, oncologists, IVs and pills. Oh, the pills. Sooooo many pills. Nineteen pills a day, to be exact. When I wasn’t in the hospital, I was to take all of these pills at home at certain times throughout the day. I had one of those pill sorters that didn’t divide the pills by day, but by time. And each morning when I woke up, there they were – all sorted and set out and ready for me for the day.
Now, naturally, I assumed my mom was doing this – all this required “pill sorting” – but I hadn’t given it much thought really. Until one morning when I woke up and headed to the kitchen for something to drink. It must have been about 4:30 in the morning. I assumed no one was awake in the house yet, but I saw a light on in the kitchen as I made my way down the hall. I knew my dad got up early to go in for PT prior to his work day, but this early? Really? I walked into the kitchen, and I saw something that was to change me from that moment on.
There, sitting alone at the kitchen table, with bottles and bottles of pills set out before him, was my dad. Complete in his BDUs, with only a little light on so he wouldn’t disturb the rest of the house, counting out each and every one of my nineteen pills and placing them in the slots where they belonged. This man, who I was nothing but cruel and nasty to, spent every morning literally making sure that I was going to survive the day.
That changed everything.
Suddenly, my eyes were open to so much that I had not taken the time to see. For one thing, he was supposed to be in Bosnia at that time. He had orders to ship out weeks before, but had requested a stay to help my mom through the worst part of my treatments. He did end up having to go, but was allowed to postpone until my chemo was over. (I still had to have radiation after that, but at least he was able to help mom through the first part – remember, she had four other kids besides myself). Also, my best friend Erica and her little sister were being sent back to the states to live with family members they barely knew because their single-mom soldier was also being sent to Bosnia (she was in the same company with my dad). Seeing the anguish I was going through losing my best friend during the hardest time of my life, my dad petitioned the Army to allow he and my mom temporary custody of the two girls so that they didn’t have to leave. I still don’t understand what all was involved with all of that, but I know that for about 6 months, I had two new sisters, thanks to my dad and mom. And a best friend’s hand to hold through the hardest thing I would ever go through.
Somehow, none of these things had registered with me. Until I saw those pills scattered all over that table.
Have I ever told him this? Honestly, I don’t know. But I know that he saw the difference in how I treated him from that day on. Cancer will make you grow up, that’s for sure. It’s amazing how it will shine a light on the things you hadn’t taken the time to notice before. And in my case, that light was shone on my dad. The dad who loved me and took care of me all of those years, when he certainly didn’t have to.
I’m so proud today to call him my dad. I can’t remember a time he has ever called me his “step-daughter.” I have always just been his daughter. When you ask him how many kids he has – his answer is never four. It’s always, always, five. I have never been anything other than a daughter to him in his eyes, even when I most certainly didn’t deserve that distinction.
So, on this Veteran’s Day, I want to give the biggest shout out I can muster to my favorite veteran on the planet. My dad. Thank you for not only sacrificing for our country, but also for your mean little redheaded step-child. You will always be a soldier in my eyes – in every sense of the word.
I love you, Dad.
“We never know the love of a parent, until we become parents ourselves.”
– Henry Ward Beecher