The real meaning of fatherhood

This stepfather will never forget the day he realized he was a 'real' dad.

It was hot in the choir loft. No matter how cool it was out in the pews, it was always hot up there, where the wood panels were joined in just the right way to ensure there was no chance for air circulation. I was sweating in my choir robe and surreptitiously trying to fan myself with my bulletin. I was celebrating Father's Day for the very first time.

Growing up, I knew what Father's Day was about. When you went to church on that particular Sunday morning, you wore a white rose in your lapel to show that your father was dead. Then you went back home and Grandmamma would fix Sunday dinner, and you would go out to play in the hot summer sun.

Even when I realized that mine was an unusual living arrangement (how tired I got of being asked what my daddy did for a living), I never thought much about Father's Day. Wear the rose, go home, and eat dinner. Once I stopped going to church, the day was distinguished only by a few extra ads in the paper in early June.

Then one July day in my 39th year, I married the mother of two young boys. The next few months were spent adjusting to the New World Order. I had spent the past couple Christmases with my "almost family," so the idea of getting presents wasn't new. And when my birthday rolled around, I was delighted, if not surprised, to get gifts and be taken out to the boy's favorite pizza place for lunch.

But I wasn't a father. I was a stepfather, which is a completely different beast.

The boys had a real father who was intent on being in their lives (an idea I wholly approved), and I made sure he got gifts from them on the appropriate occasions.

In the meantime, Amy and I decided on a church, and I joined the choir and tried to be the best stepfather the boys could have, even when they reminded me that I wasn't their real daddy.

Then June rolled around, and my wife announced she was taking the boys out for Father's Day shopping. "Excellent," I said, and did some chores around the house – fixing the bunk bed and moving the TV so they could watch Saturday morning cartoons more comfortably.

That evening Amy told me I needed to go to the library for some R&R. "Happy Father's Day," she said. We both laughed, and I took off, truly delighted with my gift.

The next day was Sunday, and it dawned muggy as only a South Carolina morning can dawn. Then Amy said it again: "Happy Father's Day." My smile was bittersweet, as though I was getting to play in the ninth inning because we're ahead by 20 runs anyhow.

Amy had procured the appropriate roses: white for me, red for everybody else. The boys decided right away that flowers were way too "sissified" for the likes of them, but finally compromised by letting their mother carry them. Sunday School ended and we parted – my proto-family and I – and I watched them enter the sanctuary before I went up to join the choir.

As we filed into the loft, I spotted my family and performed the ritual: I thumbed Amy a kiss, mugged a scowl at the older boy, and tugged an ear at the younger. The youth minister went through a few announcements, we all sang a hymn, and the pastor rose to offer a prayer. He reminded us that we were celebrating fathers and ... he asked all the fathers in the church to stand.

Of course, he didn't mean me. To stand up would be claiming a title I didn't deserve.

Then I thought about the bunk bed. I had picked it out and arranged for someone to bring it home. I had repaired toys, helped when the boys were not feeling well, and signed forms for elementary school. I had attended school plays and soccer games, and made these children my heirs.

I looked to my wife, my love, and she nodded at me – urgently. Men were standing right next to me, all around me, but I wasn't a real father, I was a stepfather. The pastor was starting to talk about sacrifice and hard work and raising children. Amy held up two roses where I could see them.

Then I joined the other men standing just as the preacher was turning to look at the choir. The applause was breaking out, and Amy was crying.

As the pastor prayed, I thought about what I did every day and decided that I must qualify as a father. Standing there didn't make me the fraud I had thought I must be.

Later in the car, I took Amy's hand and squeezed it.

"Big, isn't it?" she said.

"Wonders never cease," I replied.

The boys treated me (with my own money) to lunch at their favorite pizza joint.

In the nine years since that day, we've graduated to the boys' favorite steakhouse for most celebrations. They still don't wear flowers. I look forward to Father's Day enough that I don't mind sharing it with another man.

That was my first Father's Day – the day I ceased trying to be a good stepfather, because I was already a father. It was a startling revelation. And all it took was one choir loft, two roses, and the threat of a pastoral prayer.

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