Sunday, June 16, 2013

Stepfather Knows Best

My stepfather Gery, an avionics engineer, overseeing a
Gulfstream II jet checkride over Texas, in 1978
It’s Father’s Day 2013…my 23rd, to be exact.  I became a dad in 1991, and I can’t imagine even having a life before that. Kids bring so much excitement and energy into your life, and not a day goes by that I give thanks to God for bringing my two daughters into this world.

And now, 22 years later, I sit here in an empty house, because the two little girls that I love so much are busy today with their own lives, and my wife is working this afternoon, probably trying to get ladies who are out shopping (leaving their husbands at home to watch golf) to buy their heroes a recliner.  Either way, it’s a good day to do some blogging.

Since it’s Father’s Day, this would be a good time to write about my dad, or one of my grandfathers, but I’m taking a different approach this afternoon.  No disrespect to my own father, though.  He has accomplished so much during his life, and still continues to achieve milestones at the ripe old age of 78, for which he turns today on this Father's Day, so before I continue, I just want to say Happy Birthday and Happy Father's Day to my dad!

However, the person who I want to write about is someone who is my other dad:  My stepfather Gery (yes, that’s how it’s spelled), who married my mother when I was a teenager.

To set the stage…when my parents divorced (when I was 10), my mother moved us all back to her hometown of San Antonio.  She was a dedicated mom, focused on raising me and my two brothers, and didn't have time for any other person in her life, dealing with the adjustment of a new life with three boys who were homesick for their own hometown.  Over time, she went out with a couple of gentlemen for a while, and they were both good men.  They were hard-working, educated, and were excellent dads to their own kids. My mom would have done okay had she married either one of them, but it was not to be as she was focused on raising her three boys.  Little did we know the best was yet to come.

After a few years of traveling back and forth between Texas and California, my brothers and I decided (convinced) to stay in California to finish our school. It was a difficult decision, but we believed (again, convinced) it was the best decision for us. I look back on it now, and wish that we stayed with our mom, but you can't go back and change the past, and the friendships we’ve made as a result of our decision are still there today, so I don't have too many regrets on that matter.  Had we stayed, she might have not given Gery the time of day.

Being free of three monkeys (or “house apes” as he affectionately called us), she now had the freedom to meet someone if she wanted.  She was of the mindset that didn’t really need anyone, and I think she believed that when she met Gery.  He had a different opinion, though.  He started "sniffing around" (as he likes to describe it) a couple of months after we moved to California. When my mother and I would talk on the phone, she wouldn’t say much about him at first, but then I started noticing that every time we talked, this Gery guy was there visiting. She was kind of vague at first, saying he was a “friend,” but it was apparent that she had a man in her life, and after a few more phone calls, she finally put him on the line.  It was kind of awkward for a teenager, but Gery didn't seem to mind.  I think he got a kick out of it. He also happened to be ten years younger than my mother, and ten years older than me, so he was still young enough to relate, and old enough to be responsible.  

The first thing I noticed was that he had this deep “Hello” when he spoke, but it was quickly apparent that he was totally at ease with conversing with us.  He chatted like he knew us for years, and we quickly learned that he was a really nice guy, and he really cared for my mother.  This went on for a couple of years, until one day when we received a Christmas card from them, and it said, “Merry Christmas…we got married!”  We were totally surprised, but we were happy for them and even though we had yet to meet Gery, we were confident that she made a good decision.

A few months later, Gery and my mother drove out to California for my high school graduation.  That’s when I met Gery for the first time. He was a long-haired, self-described redneck with a handlebar mustache,, with hazel eyes that twinkled when he smiled (and turned black when he was angry), and I knew right away what she saw in this guy.  We liked him from our conversations on the telephone, but we really liked him after meeting him.  They stayed in California for a week, and I made plans to see them the following Christmas.  I flew out to Texas that December and was in San Antonio for about three weeks, and got to know Gery well during this time.  We spent many nights talking about everything we could think of, and he shared stories with me that proved that he was a pretty normal guy growing up, in spite of the challenges he had with his dad(s).  It turned out that his own father died when he was young, and his mother was married a couple of times, with the third and final marriage to a career military man.

This military man (after some head-butting with a stubborn teenager) became the rock in Gery’s life.  He passed away before I had the chance to meet him, but I saw how much it broke Gery’s heart when it happened.

Another memorable moment during my Christmas trip came was when we stopped by his work, and he took us in to meet some of the guys in his department.  This is how we know that he considered us something special.  He introduced us to his coworkers as "my boys."   He barely knew us, yet was willing to call us as his own.

After the holidays, I came back to California but soon made a decision to move back to Texas within the next couple of months, and Gery was a big-time factor in my decision.  There were some job opportunities available and I wanted to take advantage of them, so it would require a big commitment on my part.  I was ready to jump at the chance, and I knew that with Gery around, I would be in good hands. Once again, upon arriving in Texas, there were more nights where he stayed up, talking with me until all hours of the night, and then going to work, with little or no sleep, and putting in a ten-hour day.

I lived with them for the next couple of years, until he and my mother left San Antonio for a job that he was offered in Southern California.  I learned how to become self-reliant thanks to him and I realized how much I was going miss him.  I decided to stay in San Antonio and get an apartment, and they moved about a month later.  The day before the move, they packed all their things into a moving van, vacated the house, and spent their last night in San Antonio at a nearby hotel. We spent the evening once again talking about things in general and what the future had to offer for all of us, and the only thing that kept Gery from staying up all night with me was that he had to to drive the next morning.  So we said our goodbyes outside the hotel room on the balcony, and I hugged my mom and told her much I loved her.  I then turned to Gary and when I saw that twinkle in his eye, I realized how much I was going to miss this guy.  I hugged him, and he hugged me back hard and "I love you and I'm proud of you."  He had poured so much of himself into me in the short time we had together, but it made the biggest difference in my life.

In January 1991, he called me; I thought it was odd that he would be calling, but my mother had been sick and it concerned me when I heard his voice.  In a broken voice, he told me my mother wasn’t doing well and that the doctors said she would be fortunate to make it past the springtime.  Not wanting to put any unnecessary burden on us, he didn't press the issue of me coming out to Texas until that time, but my brothers and I knew that time was of the essence and, hard as it was, we decided to go out there to spend some quality time with her before the end came. My brothers arrived on a Monday, and I arrived the following day.  We spent about an hour with her that day, and it was our last time together.  She went back to bed and went to sleep; Gery tended to her every need during that that time.  Little did we know that it was our last time with our mother.  For the next couple of days, he was at her bedside, waiting for the inevitable.  When she passed, he came out of the room with tears in his eyes, but with a small smile on his face as if to say “she's okay now,” and told me that she was gone.  It was difficult to watch him for the rest of the day because of the heartache he was going through, but after finally getting to bed and getting some much needed sleep (even if it was only about 3-4 hours), he was up the next day making arrangements for her funeral.

Gery made it out to California after my oldest daughter was born three months later, and that was the last time we physically saw each other.  We still talk on the phone regularly, although not as much as we should.  Each time, I have to make sure that I block out three or four hours to talk and to be near a electrical plug so I can keep my phone charged.  He’ll still stay up until 3 a.m. if I let him, and our conversations never end without saying “I love you.”

I’ve written so much…and it’s still not enough.  I can’t recall a bitter moment between the two of us. Sure, he can go into “dad-mode” and be irritating like dads can be, but I can’t recall a time where I’ve been mad at him.  If he has a fault, it’s that he tries to do too much, and that’s a good fault to have.  The times that we have spent together have been fantastic, and we've shared so many laughs over the years. And I'm a better man for having him in my life.

Happy Father's Day, Gery.  I love you.

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