Friday, June 24, 2011

An Open Letter to my Stepson

I remember when I first met you.  You were 6 years old and angry.  Your mom and dad weren't together any more and here I come intruding on your fantasy that your folks would ever get back together. I apologize for your perception of me at that time: an interloper who was the ONE reason his nuclear family wasn't going nuclear. Never mind that I didn't even get together with your dad until 6 months after your mom and dad divorced. Still, I understand how my presence was unwelcome.

Your dad lived with his mom, your grandma, and you lived with your mom and your little sister.  I know that was hard for you.  I remember hearing about you having to wake up your little 4-yo sister and position her in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal before getting yourself out the door to walk to first grade. And Mom? Mom was in bed sleeping off last night's bender or meth session. Thankfully you were available and reliable, even at the tender age of 6, to care for your little sister. But I can't help but wonder what went on in your head at that time.  Did you disconnect?  Did you resent?  Were you terrified that you were virtually alone as man/adult of the house.  It gives me tremendous grief to imagine you in that position.  I wish I had been able to rescue you from such a horribly detrimental time in your early development.  Because I can see how it, at least partially, molded you into the man you are now.

You and I didn't spend a whole lot of time together when you were little.  You were never really comfortable being around me.  Your sister thought I was pretty cool.  I remember she used to sit in my lap and play with my ear for hours. Do you remember that your mom is responsible for the first time we were thrust together as a unit? It was two days before Christmas 1996 and it was also your little cousin's 3rd birthday. We went to Grandma's house to celebrate the birthday and then your dad and I were taking you and your sister home to your mom.  We arrived but your mom wasn't home. We waited for a while, we sent messages to her pager, we knocked on the door, we looked around the condo complex, but she clearly wasn't home.  We waited a while longer, drove to a nearby Kmart to see if her car was there, we drove around the neighborhood to see if she was at her friend's house, but we never found her.  We wanted to make sure we exhausted every avenue to drop you guys off, but she was nowhere to be found. So, we took you and your sister to my apartment. That was your first time ever being in my apartment.

The next day your mom called to say she was out of state and she'd have your Christmas for you in a few days. She had never informed your dad that she was leaving town.  Had she let him know, we could have made arrangements - clean bed for you, extra food in the fridge, a change of clothes would have been nice, maybe a jacket since it was December. Oh, and Christmas presents suitable for a 6 and a 4 year old. THAT was a mad scramble LOL! I remember using part of my bill money to buy you guys lots of little stuff that I hoped you'd like. Your dad couldn't contribute.  He was giving 89% of his net income to your mom in child and spousal support because he hadn't gone to the divorce hearing and your mom generously inflated his income so she could get more support. She certainly won that battle! My mom was kind enough to buy you and your sister some clothes to wear for several days, also a winter coat and some hair stuff so we could do your sister's matted hair.  Your mom came home from her out of town vacation several days later and you went home to her.  But not for long.

A week after you turned 7, your mom called your dad to tell him that she was being evicted and could we "come get the kids for a little while" until she gets on her feet.  Your mom was still getting 89% of your dad's net income, leaving him $100 to $125 every two weeks to live on.  That was in April 1997 and you lived with your dad for the rest of your youth.

In October 1997, I just couldn't support a household of 4 on my own any more.  We had moved to a bigger place since my 2-bedroom apartment wouldn't suffice. I helped your dad draw up the paperwork and we went to court to ask for termination of the child support. When the court agreed, we started living again.  You and your sister had a birthday party EVERY year.  You played flag football and basketball in the neighborhood league.  You played in a baseball league near your aunt's house.  We had family over all the time and we bar-b-que'd.

In the fall of 1997 we announced that we were having a baby.  You were FURIOUS! I wasn't sure why you thought having a baby was going to eliminate your place in the family?  But I guess kids just feel however they feel. I was sure you'd try to maim the new baby or do some horribly disfiguring thing to the child.  But when he was born, you sat in that hospital and held your new brother. We have a picture of you holding your little brother and I could cry right now just envisioning that picture.  You looked absolutely radiant and proud. It is, frankly, my favorite picture of you EVER.

We lived in relative peace, going through the motions of life.  We went to your school numerous times for the carnival, the Halloween parties, talent shows and to watch you dissect gross stuff. 

Do you remember the trip we took in 1999?  My friend was getting married in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  It was our first little family vacation trip. We stayed at a great condo/hotel with a room right off the pool.  We spent almost every day in that pool! It was great fun. We did a little exploring around town, it was a nice family trip. And it opened the portal for wanderlust.  Until we travel, we generally don't know how fulfilling and how exciting it can be.  I'm glad we were able to provide you with the opportunity to see life outside of San Diego.  I'm not sure if you know this, but the trip was made possible by my own grandmother's passing and my inheritance from her. 
In 2001 we planned a trip to Vancouver to visit my dad and his wife. Since your mom had moved out of state in 1998, she wasn't available to sign a note saying she would allow you and your sister to travel out of the country.  This was actually a blessing in disguise.  Your mom not signing the note forced your dad to go to court where he won win sole custody of you and your sister.  We happily traveled to Canada to see grandpa and nanna and a few of my other friends.  We went to the science museum and did some other sightseeing.  I remember you enjoying the jacuzzi at my dad's house and playing pool with grandpa and your dad. During that trip you bonded with grandpa and it seemed like you really liked the Vancouver area. As a matter of fact, I sent you back to visit on your own a couple of years later in your early teens. It was like your own personal vacation, grown-up style.

When you were getting ready to enter junior high school you wanted to try something different than the neighborhood school. You asked me to help you get registered for a Magnet school in a prestigious neighborhood north of town. We completed all the paperwork and got all the references and when you won the lottery and were set to enter the school, I took you shopping for new school uniforms and school supplies.  Since the school was only about 5 miles from my job, you carpooled with me every morning and every afternoon.  The school was a challenge and as it turned out, you weren't all that keen on the program.  Before the end of your first year, you asked to be transferred to the neighborhood school so you could just be a regular kid. That sounded perfectly reasonable to me.  I believe in preventing failure wherever possible. You seemed pretty happy to be able to walk or ride your bike to school, you made more friends in the neighborhood and all was good.

In 2002 we had another baby: SURPRISE!!  We had not intended to have any more kids, but....there it was.  Thank God we were ruinous at staying sterile.  That child is a true blessing.

During this time we were living in the southernmost part of the city.  You used to ride your bike all over, you built a bike ramp and you and your brother used to jump off the ramps.  Around this time you started to go out and socialize more.  I used to drop you off at the movies where you and a group of kids would meet up and hang out. You were a pretty good kid.  You never gave us any trouble, really. Decent enough grades, not trouble at school, no trouble with the law. You were pretty easy.

In 2004 we decided to move to Texas.  The housing prices were shooting through the roof and we decided to move some place with a lower cost of living.  Some place with better opportunities for all of us.  Our life in San Diego was completely stagnant and we realized there wasn't going to be a lot of upward mobility unless something drastic changed.  After a couple of trips to Texas, your dad and I agree that we liked what we saw.  I found us a rental house in the Houston suburbs and we made plans to move in June 2004. Your dad had taken a temporary assignment in Greece and he was able to send money home to help us with the move and to help us after we got to Texas since I wouldn't have a job right away. I was so proud of you when we were packing up the U-Haul.  There was no way we would have been able to get all that work done without your unbelievable strength and exceptional work ethic.  I'm not kidding.  You and your friend pretty much staged and packed up that entire truck while I cleaned and purged. Without you we would never have been able to drive off into the sunrise.  And drive we did!  It was helpful to be driving cross country with another family.  I know you probably enjoyed being able to ride with them for long stretches. You know, they still ask about you?  Ask how you're doing, what you're up to? The last time you saw that family was at your high school graduation a few years ago. We used to spend quite a bit of time with this family.  It's just funny how people can make a mark on your early life and become so dispensable later on. I, by the way, saw them 3 days ago.

Shortly after we arrived in Texas and got all moved into the house, we worked on getting you enrolled in the local high school.  You were going to be a big Texas Freshman! What's even better, you were going to play football! I remember taking you to the first day of football training.  We walked into the training room to hand over the forms and the coach took one look at you and said, "yo, California. Give your jewelry to your mom. We don't wear that stuff here." You unhappily handed over your chain and your earrings. But you replaced those cherished items with people and new experiences.  You made friends easily, your willingness to learn and your work ethic secured you a good position on the freshman football team. You played football all 4 years of high school.  Despite the knee injury and subsequent surgery, you made the varsity team and you even lettered!  I remember going through the forms and the decisions of what to put on your Letterman's jacket.  I think you picked just the right badges and crests.  It's a great jacket and it was totally worth the money I paid for it.  I'm REALLY glad you took my advise and you didn't give it to any girls in high school.  Girls are vicious creatures and you likely wouldn't ever have seen it again. But you do have it and it will, hopefully, always remind you of a fair and easy time in your life:  High School. I'll never forget your senior football banquet. The smallest offensive lineman was voted the Line MVP for the season.  It was a really excellent culmination of all your hard work on the line and your boys and coaches wanted to be sure to recognize you for all your effort.  We loved that moment for you!

When you graduated high school in 2008 we had high hopes for you. I personally hoped you would go to college and try out for football as a walk on.  We knew you wouldn't be in line for a scholarship because you didn't have the size to be a really effective lineman with the big boys in college. I did always hope that you would get faster because I thought you'd make a really excellent fullback.  I think, though, that life just got in the way.  I think we failed you when we let you start having 100% freedom in high school.  Well, I was against it, but I was always vetoed by your dad, which I believe you know.  I think, at the time, you were probably pleased that your dad wanted to be your buddy and he allowed you to roam the streets without curfew.  I think you probably loved it that, after I spent several months carting you back and forth to/from driving school, your dad let you drive his jeep without impunity - and without a drivers license. I don't think it occurred to you how dangerous it could be to drive without a license until you hit that drunk guy. I'll never forget the heart-stopping midnight phone call. You were absolutely hysterical.  You know I also heard the 911 call?  You actually called 911 to tell on yourself.  It was pretty morally righteous.  Most people would have driven away from a scene like that.  But you took full moral responsibility for hitting that man.  I hope you know that that accident wasn't your fault.  I believe that idiot drunk was in the street.  That intersection, now lit up like the 4th of July, used to be dark, marred by tall shrubs on all sides and with no street lights.  I do believe he was weaving in the street after a nearby concert in the park. Did you know that his insurance company tried to come after us for $25k since you were uninsured?  I wonder whatever happened with that...

When you finally did get a license at 17 you received a car. I don't think I need to even remind you that my mother and her husband gave you their SUV. Your dad was expected to pay them a small stipend for the car. I ended up paying them about $1,000 for it which was way way under market value. You really liked that car.  You put a new stereo into it. It's too bad you don't have it any more.  I understand your dad commandeered it a year ago to drive back to California from Texas.  I'm sorry you weren't able to hold onto that car.  It was intended for you to keep.

You and I never did get on very well.  From the age of 6 you had a fundamental distrust of me and a real dislike of women in general.  I'm not saying I blame you after how you were raised early on.  I used to watch how you treated your mother and your sister...and even me, if I allowed it. You used to complain about your female bosses - such bitches! I know you've got a real problem with women in positions of authority. Because frankly, you don't believe we have any worth other than serving you 24/7.  I watched it with the girl you dated in high school and then with the few you used afterwards. What's interesting is that I never maligned you in any way.  Frankly, you had more opportunities and benefits than any of the other kids since you were the eldest.  But what's strange is this:  you never took the time to get to know me as a person.  Regardless of who I am, all you had an interest in was taking as much as you could get without giving anything at all.  I remember mothers days when you wouldn't utter a word to me.  Birthdays when the other kids and your dad made an effort to give me a cake, you waited until the celebration was over and everyone had left the room to come serve yourself MY birthday cake. There were many times you ignored my existence until/unless you needed or wanted something.  I'm not all that hurt by your selfishness.  Except that you still think *I* have something against you.  If you had taken the time to know me you'd know that I'm "live and let live" about most everything.  Ask your sister.

A couple of years ago, the last time I really saw you, you tried to physically intimidate me.  I found it very very sad. It was like dealing with your dad all over again, except, I don't believe you're insane.  I believe you're completely sane, but you're utterly furious.  Just like you were the day I met you.

I can't tell you how excited the kids were to receive your letter from marine corps boot camp yesterday. They immediately wrote you back and I hope you get their letters very soon.  For some reason, the kids asked me to read your letter to them.  I didn't need to read your private words to them, but I guess in a way I'm glad I did. Your first sentence read "...I hope you actually get to READ this letter..." as though I'd ever interfere in a family relationship that isn't MINE.  I have never prevented you from being with your siblings.  I have never prevented your dad from being with his youngest children, no matter how I personally felt about his state at the time. Before you were ever out of diapers I learned that each person is entitled to make his/her own relationships and I am not at liberty to manipulate any of that.  YOUR relationship with the kids doesn't belong to me.

I guess I'll stop ranting and just say this:  of all 4 kids I always thought you'd be the most successful, the most balanced and the most stable.  I still hope this is true.  For you.

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