Journey to honor a stepdad on Father’s Day

His name was Irv. I was so predisposed to dislike him that I even found fault with his name.

“Who is he?” I demanded of my widowed mother during the moments when she had regained her equilibrium enough to speak of this stranger, this man named Irv, with whom she had a date.

A date? The concept was utterly alien to me. My 61-year-old mother going out with a man named Irv?

The loss of my father was so raw for me still that despite my being a bonafide thirtysomething adult, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the notion that Mom was going out to dinner with a man just a year after Dad’s death. A mutual friend had “fixed them up,” a term I generally relegated to teenagers.

Several months later, I had to admit that Mom was smiling more, even laughing a bit. This man named Irv had somehow reignited the spark in my mother. Her green eyes almost danced with pleasure at the mention of his name.

I should have been grateful. But all I felt was anger. How dare this usurper insinuate his way into not just her life, but ours? Yes, Mom now wanted my sister, my husband and me to meet this Irv.

I bristled at the notion, but it was clearly important to her, so we set a date. So many years later, I can still remember that meeting, an uncomfortable Sunday lunch at our house. Our three little daughters, excited to be part of this adventure, were done up in dresses and quite charming to Irv. He, in turn, did a magic trick that absolutely won them over.

My husband, while gracious and a fine host, understood my feelings about this odd situation. My sister was cordial. And I’m sure my coolness was noticeable as this tall, gray-haired man managed to make it through that first family encounter.

I wish I could say that I came around quickly after that, and warmed to the notion that Irv seemed to make Mom’s life better. But a stubborn, still-grieving part of me couldn’t make that leap. I remained aloof.

Let me cut to the chase. A year after they met, my mother married Irv at a small wedding ceremony in our living room. She wore a perfectly beautiful pale yellow dress, looked radiant, then dashed off to a honeymoon on a cruise ship with this man who had lost his own wife to cancer years before.

Shortly after the wedding, I grumbled to a good friend about how stunned I still felt. And luckily, that friend had the wisdom and courage not to sympathize, not to comfort, but to confront me.

Susan wasn’t gentle. How dare I object to a man who had erased some of my mother’s grief and loneliness? By what right did I act the spoiled brat when I was old enough to know better? And when would I realize that this new union wasn’t about me?

The wake-up call worked. I started doing that most difficult of labors: self-examination. It was the loss that had rocked me. My father was gone — suddenly, permanently, forever.

No, Irv would never be a substitute for my father. Nor did he care to be. He was my mother’s husband, a distinction I clung to. For years, I couldn’t bring myself to refer to him as my stepfather. That somehow seemed disloyal to my dad.

Irv was in our lives for 19 years, years that contained so many milestones. It was he who sat beaming at our daughters’ birthday parties and high school graduations. His chair was at the Thanksgiving table and our Passover Seders. His corny jokes and antics were gradually woven into our family tapestry. And his adult children expanded our circle.

We were, in the lingo of social science demographics, a “blended family.” And slowly inexorably, we managed to do just that: blend.

Not easily. Not without accommodations on all sides.

But with effort, with caution, and then with growing comfort, Irv became one of us. The stiffness yielded to affection and warmth. And yes, we honored my stepfather on Father’s Day and how he loved that! It was a leap for me. And for him.

Then came Irv’s final illness, a brief but terrible one. Within weeks, he was at a care facility close to the apartment he had shared with mom.

One day, when she couldn’t be with him, I went to visit. Irv was barely conscious. His husky frame had melted away and he was just an old, sick man lying in a hospital bed. No jokes, no antics.

But a flicker of recognition crossed Irv’s face. I will always believe that there also was a momentary smile.

And then there we sat, alone together.

I held his hand. We never spoke a word.

Minutes passed. Then hours. I couldn’t bring myself to leave.

And two days later, he was gone. It hurt far more than I ever thought it would.

Today, years later, our daughters still speak of Irv with affection. And so do I.

And there he is, in our photo albums, in our memories, etched into our lives, this man named Irv… who taught a foolish, stubborn daughter that love can come in unexpected ways. ••