Horror stories about stepfathers and stepmothers abound, and no doubt many are true. What we hear far less often is the story of the stepparent who literally “steps up” to fill the shoes of an absent or otherwise not-so-devoted biological parent. I was 21 years old when my mother married Herb Neighbors. Previously, she had spent nineteen years in a miserable marriage to my father, whose erratic behaviors, triggered by alcoholism and Bipolar Disorder, had made each day of my life unpredictable at best, but sometimes downright wretched. Through the years, I maintained my tenuous relationship with my dad, but I learned from Herb, a man who never had any biological children, what a father really should be.
I don’t know anyone who met Herb that didn’t like him. He was proud to be from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, an alumnus of Oklahoma State University. About 5’8” and stocky, his blond hair, blue eyes, and freckles belied the fact that he was one-quarter Cherokee. He was quick to laugh, quick to make others laugh, and comfortable to be around. He was kind to both people and animals. He was hard-working, humble, and helpful. His name personified his personality. Herb was the neighbor who was always there for you, regardless of what you asked of him. The word “no” simply wasn’t a part of his vocabulary, sometimes to his detriment. I’m not sure I’ve ever known anyone so laid back, so I was shocked when, not long after he and Mom married, while reading in my room during my college hiatus, I heard a string of thunderous expletives followed by a hammer flying like a missile past my doorway. He had been trying to hang a shelf in a closet, when the whole thing crashed to the floor. But fortunately, those explosions were rare and usually involved his thwarted efforts to operate some kind of new-fangled technology. He was notoriously unhandy.
Herb was devoted to family – to his own parents and siblings, but most of all to my mother, and by
extension to my husband and me, and then to his grandchildren and great grandchildren as they came along. He and my mom were the first to arrive for all the family celebrations and all the kids’ school ceremonies, shows, and ballgames. Similarly, he and Mom were the first to come running when I called in times of trouble. To my kids, Herb was Paw Paw, and I don’t know how he could possibly have been a more proud, loving, and giving grandfather. He even quit his managerial job in Salt Lake City, after our second child was born, and brought my mother to Texas so they could be close to us. As the kids grew up, we were so fortunate to live only a short distance from Granny and Paw Paw, and they always welcomed my children and friends into their home, unconditionally. They were a perpetual presence and a tremendous positive influence in both my children’s and older grandchildren’s lives.
When cancer took my mother in 2007, Herb continued to go about his simple life – picking up my grandchildren from school, sitting on the back deck listening to baseball and watching the hummingbirds, walking around the neighborhood and stopping to chat with his neighbors. He still remained a part of all our family activities, still laughed and told jokes, still had his bourbon and water in the evenings, but there was a huge hole in his heart. His own health began to falter as he approached his 80th birthday, his steps less sure, his hearing faded, his driving hair-raising. We even began to see a few cracks in his rock-solid patience.
In November of 2012, I asked Herb if our grandsons, who lived with us, could stay there for the night while my husband and I attended a basketball game at our alma mater. Of course, as always, he agreed. So, the last time I saw him, we were delivering the boys, and he was just leaving in his car to run one of his many errands of the day. Early the next morning, I was startled by the phone ringing and wasn’t sure I was awake when my daughter, who lived with him, told me she thought my beloved stepdad was dead. Somehow, I calmly told her to call 911, that we would be there right away. When our call disconnected, though, I collapsed to the floor, sobbing those uncontrollable, breath-robbing, grief-stricken wails that take over your body when your world has just collapsed. The moment I walked in the house that day and saw the lifeless body of the man who, besides my husband, had been my greatest support for the last four decades, I felt like the air had been sucked from the house. Despite his being 81 and a smoker, I was shocked. He had still been getting around well, driving, shopping, taking walks, and attending my four-year-old grandson Eli’s TBall games and practices. The night before, my daughter said, he had been in a jovial mood, falling asleep in front of the TV with Eli in his lap, when death took him quietly and quickly as he slept.
So, he left us suddenly, a blessing, so everybody told me. He’d lived a long life and had been spared the steady decline and failure of his body, the perpetual aches and pains that so many elderly people endure for years. He’d only gone to the hospital once, and his mind had been clear until the end. Looking back, I’m grateful he was taken so suddenly, but back then, I wasn’t ready to lose him. I still think about him just about every day – the man who became my father when I was already an adult, the man who never had any children, but could not possibly have been a better father.
Happy Father’s Day to all, and a special thank you to the extraordinary dads who chose to become our dads after we were born.