Some truths can only be known in the moment.
I needed to buy board games for FANS, the group I founded at my university for foreign and native speakers. So I stopped at Target on my way to work…by which I mean I tried to stop at Target. Despite the store being 10 minutes away, despite having been there a few days ago, I got lost. Twice. Which meant I was cutting it closer than I liked as far as getting to class on time.
I couldn’t understand how I’d gotten lost–twice. Stress can affect memory. The semester’s hit the start of the busy period, but I haven’t felt overwhelmed? Hmm. I didn’t mean to end that sentence with a question mark. Freudian typo?
Hmm. Something might be stressing me.
There’s a parking garage at work. Usually on a Thursday afternoon there’s plenty of room, but today there was an event on-campus and the place was absolutely packed. It took more than 10 minutes after I entered the garage to get to an open spot. Now I was really rushing. I had to scan and email stuff before class and almost no time to do it.
I had to park atop the garage roof, which meant walking down five flights of stairs behind two elderly women who walked like two elderly women going down five flights of stairs. When I entered my building and headed up the stairs, I thought about the unlikeliness of the prior half-hour. What should have taken 30 minutes took almost an hour. I got up the stairs and turned left.
There she was.
For two years I had a stepdaughter. Being a stepfather to a stepdaughter is hard. You raise a child, grow to love her, to start thinking that this is it–not the way you saw yourself having a child, but the way it’s happened. One week she stays home from school, sick with something called Norwalk virus. She’s bedridden for days. The first morning she gets out of bed, she sits next to me on the living room couch and rests her little head on me. A few seconds later she’s vomiting all over my arm.
When I worked in day care, I always worked with the school-age children. I wasn’t interested in dealing with anyone who needed changing. I’m really, really not about dealing with another human’s bodily fluids. The moment my stepdaughter’s surprisingly warm and clear puke hits my arm, I’m surprised by how I feel. I feel a greater love for her than I’ve ever felt for her before. Someone has thrown up on me and what do I feel? My heart’s swollen up. I never want this child to hurt. Never again. I feel relief that she’s expelling whatever’s making her sick and heartbreak that she’s suffering at all.
You know what’s harder than being a stepfather? Than having the everyday responsibility of raising a child whose heart doesn’t speak in prefixes like “step”? Harder than being a “father” in every sense of the word, only not the biological or legal sense, which is all that matters to many people?
Being an ex-stepfather. Because your heart doesn’t speak in prefixes, either. Because there’s no preparation for processing how to lose someone that was never yours, but who was…who was something. Something I can’t name. Or forget. Or ever know again.
My ex and I work in the same department. It’s been a year since I last saw my ex-stepdaughter. I won’t use that term anymore. It’s too syllabic, too clinical. Too detached. It’s “too” something and not enough of something else.
I saw my ex and my lost little one ten feet away. I didn’t want the child to see me and I wanted her to see me. I’ve been afraid of this moment for a year. What if she saw me and didn’t seem excited? What if I was never nearly as important to her as she was to me?
“Look who it is,” my ex said to her.
“Hi,” she said, in the flat fake tone she uses when she’s just being polite. I literally felt my heart sink. Then her eyes lit up and her tone did too. “Hi!” I realized she hasn’t seen me since she was 7. Now she’s 8. That’s a long year, from 7 to 8. Plus I have a big beard now, which I didn’t a year ago. It took her a moment to recognize me. But once she did, I could see the excitement in her face.
“Hey,” I said, softly. I didn’t know what my rights were in this moment. Should I hug her? Pick her up and spin her like I used to? Shake her hand? Keep my distance? She has a father. And a new stepfather. I have nothing to do with her life anymore. I never will.
“I haven’t seen you in so long,” she said.
The last six months of my relationship, I spent more time with my lost little one than her mother. We grew closer and closer. We watched cartoons and documentaries about outer space. We both experienced traumatic losses early in life. We’re both fluent in what’s left unsaid. She’s not an emotional extrovert. When she said “I haven’t seen you in so long,” I heard something I never heard when she was six or seven. Something I never heard when she was in my life. Something I had to lose her in order to gain. I heard wistfulness. That means I matter. Or at least that I mattered.
I’d wondered how I’d feel when I saw her again. Wondered if I’d rather be forgotten or remembered.
I had to run to get to class on-time. I said good-bye and went to scan what I needed. While the scanner was running, I grabbed a sheet of paper and drew eyeballs, U’s, and hearts. On my way to class I went by my ex’s office, to give my lost little one a note. Their stuff was in the office, but I didn’t see them. I left the note on her stuff.
I got out of my 2 classes and then had a meeting run 35 minutes late. By the time I got out of work I was exhausted, and still had to climb up the five flights of stairs to the top of the parking garage so I could then drive a half-hour to meet someone for dinner. I stopped by the copier to get something. There was something in my faculty mailbox. I removed a sheet of paper from it.
Some truths can only be known in the moment.