Since my father’s stroke last month, I’ve had some long talks with Dianne, my step-mom. Those conversations illustrate how much we’ve both changed over the years. Or is it just me who has changed?
Let me be honest: Ours has never been an easy relationship. I spent the better part of my teens and 20s resenting her to the core. Our quarrels had all the drama of a TNT series. The two of us in the same room was like throwing a match on gunpowder.
I’ve often wondered who was more at fault along the way. Knowing myself as I do now, I tend to think the trouble was more my fault than hers, because she had the misfortune of joining the family right as I was hitting my malcontented, conflicted and rebellious teenage years. I had a chip on my shoulder the size of an ashtray and I was full of hatred for a lot of reasons real and imagined.
A look at the broader picture shows how she was really at a disadvantage.
My brother died only a few months after she appeared on the scene, and she was home the night he had that final asthma attack. She plunged the adrenaline needle in him while waiting for the ambulance because that’s what you were supposed to do in the event of these attacks. But his number was up, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
She was also there a couple months before, in October 1983, when Michael had a similar attack that almost killed him that night. The doctors didn’t think he was going to make it that night, but he bounced back from the brink just in time, just like I bounced back from the brink more than once when the Croh’s Disease was attacking me so bad that the doctors were ready to pull out the colon and throw it in the trash.
I guess I was just a little luckier than he was.
Anyway, me and Dianne were always in conflict. I thought she was in the marriage with my Dad for his business success. I fought constantly with the step-sister she gave me. I was jealous of the step-brother she gave me because he was suddenly the cute youngest kid. Before my parents divorced it was Michael, Wendi and me, the youngest. Being sick, I was also spoiled rotten. Then the step-siblings came along and Michael died, making me the oldest son, a title that carried a lot of pressure.
I blamed it all on Dianne.
Of course, she also gave me a beautiful half sister in late 1985 who came along at just the right time, bringing joy to the family I never thought we’d see again. I was always grateful for that.
But still we fought. By the late 1990s we were barely speaking to each other. The resentment and hurt ran too deep on both sides. Then, sometime in 2000, things started to change. We met in a small breakfast place on the Revere-Malden border and talked it out, civil in a way that had been inconceivable just a year earlier.
I don’t remember the contents of the conversation exactly. But somewhere in there, we agreed that something had to change. I think the change really set in after Sean was born a year later. Becoming parents gave her a whole new respect for me and Erin. Actually, I think that for me, becoming a parent was when I finally started to grow up. A decade into parenthood, I get a lot of what she was trying to tell me back when I was a self-seeking kid.
Fast-forward to 2011. I know now that back then I was looking for people to blame for my pain and she was too good a target to pass up.
She has stuck by my father through all kinds of illness and turmoil. She loves him deeply, and worries about him constantly.
Nothing has made that clearer than the past month.
I’ve watched her push past the point of exhaustion and borderline madness to care for him.
She’s lost a lot of sleep and you can see it in her eyes. This month has been vastly more brutal for her than the rest of us, except, of course, for Dad. She’s gone over the cliff for him. That’s what love is all about.
I’m sorry I ever doubted her feelings for him when I was younger.
But that’s in the past. We talk to each other as grown-ups now. The respect is mutual. Things can never go back to the way they were.
Thank God for that.