Almost twenty years have passed since I got the call. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the grating of the ringing phone jolting me awake as I slept alone in my dorm room. It was my aunt, my mother's sister. I can't recall the specifics of the conversation, only that at some point my aunt interrupted me saying, "You can't what?"
What was she talking about? Only then did I become aware that I had been chanting the words, "I can't, I can't, I can't." It came out unconsciously, but the sentiment encompassed exactly what I needed to convey. I can't cope with this news. I can't understand what is happening. I can't lose my mother. I can't.
Days and calls and car rides went by in a blur. Those times are just flashes for me, my memory allowing me a glimpse here and there but not a full review of the time. Perhaps this is the protective nature of my memory; more likely the result of the shock.
As with all deaths, especially those involving a younger person (my mother was 44), there were lots of family dynamics to negotiate. Divorced parents, step parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. I followed in a daze, staying where the adults told me. I stayed near my aunt's side and held all others at arm's length.
My step father was the furthest. We had never had a good relationship, and now my feelings for him bubbled with rage and hatred. Why did he get to live while she was gone? Why was my access to all that she ever was now to be run through him?
On the day of the viewing (a word I have always hated, a word that makes it sounds like you're going to see a lovely movie), I made it into the front door of the funeral home and immediately found a small anteroom where I sat alternately crying quietly and staring off into space. I can't say how much time went by. I heard the tears and cries from the next room. I heard my grandmother's screams as she tried to say goodbye to her oldest child. Still, I sat in that room. I made no attempt to rise. I was not ready to see her body.
Eventually, my absence registered with grieving family members. Who it was that came to find me initially I cannot recall. What I do remember is that my aunt, my most trusted confidant so far, and her husband eventually got me to stand. I started to walk with them and then knew, knew that it wasn't time yet. But they thought otherwise, taking me by my arms and pulling me, pushing me, dragging me across the lobby toward the room where my mother's body lay. I began to struggle, to cry, but their grip tightened. And then, suddenly, he was there. My step father. Taking my arm himself, insisting that I didn't have to go if I didn't want to. Opening the front door of the funeral home and taking me outside for a walk. Giving me the moment I so desperately needed to gather up my courage. When we returned, I was finally able to face the goodbye ahead of me.
Twenty years later, I see that time through a lens fogged by time and experience. The 39 year old me is a kinder, gentler and much more forgiving version of that 19 year old girl. But I see her and I know what she didn't know at that time: her step father had just planted the seed of kindness that would surprise her beyond belief by flourishing into a rich, vital relationship in her life.
He is not, never was, a perfect man. Theirs was not a perfect relationship. But in those moments, I was first able to realize that he had genuine love for me, for our family. While other family members spent time trying, successfully, to take my mother's things for themselves from his home, he guarded things, saved them for me. Gave me her engagement ring and clothing and cedar chest. Hauled around large items through years and moves until I was ready to settle down and collect them for myself. Helped me buy a car and pay for my wedding and buy a tank of gas each time I saw him.
There are family and friends who will never understand why I remain close with him, but for me, it all comes down to that moment before the funeral. There I was, needing to be saved, and there he was, ready to save me. Just like a father would. It was then that our relationship really began. My brother had always called him "Pop, a term I had rejected because I refused to give him that much respect. The child that I was could only see his flaws and would grant him no mercy from them. The woman I became is honored to have him in her life, grateful for all he has ever given, honored to call this broken, imperfect man her Pop. And so lucky that he was there for me, before, and after, the funeral.