I’m saying goodbye today to my second dad.
For more than 30 years I had two dads. There was my biological dad. And there was my stepdad. Starter Dad, Finisher Dad.
Starter Dad didn’t finish the job. He didn’t completely leave the picture, but you know how divorce goes. No matter how you try to stay in a kid’s life, it’s never the same. I saw it from the kid’s point of view. For a long time I didn’t much like my biological dad. I felt abandoned and those feelings were accompanied by the requisite side orders of anger and resentment and a little bit of shame and embarrassment (before 1970, Catholics just didn’t divorce, don’t you know!). But enough of that.
So when my mom remarried, I heartily embraced Finisher Dad. He was many things my biological father was not: Sober, reliable, steadfast, traditional, and Catholic. (The Catholic part I could take or leave, I’m just making distinctions here).
Starter Dad was fun, quite the partier and, well, not quite so steadfast. He had a decade or two of impressive business success. He prospered in the go-go ’80s real estate/mortgage industry. I benefited with a few nice Christmases and vacations at Lake Cumberland and summer weekends boating around the Lake Erie Islands. He married twice and divorced twice. Twice bitten, once shy.
Finisher Dad, meanwhile, spent years working in ditches, outdoors in subzero weather, building skyscrapers and high schools. He was a plumber. A damn good one at that. Licensed Master Plumber. Master of all things on blueprint. He worked his way up in the company, but always the work was in his blood.
One of his co-workers told me (yesterday) the story of the state office tower he plumbed in Columbus. Skyscraper. More than 5,000 inserts for toilets in the building, his co-worker told me. The insert (I think that’s what it’s called — a tube that guides the waste pipe) is set in concrete then the pipes are later run through the inserts between concrete floors. Out of those 5,000-plus inserts, one — one! — was out of plumb. And that was the architect’s error. Another story from Randy was about the plumbing plan blueprints Dad drew up for the house Randy was building about five years ago. The building inspector asked who drew up the specs — 2-inch waste line here, 4-inch line there — and he marveled that he’d never seen such impressive specs. So precise, so exact, so perfect.
Finisher Dad had a high school education and a mind as sharp as any mechanical engineer. He could rebuild car engines, weld quarter-inch steel to a car’s frame, plumb a house stem to stern, work a crossword puzzle with the best of them (he did them in pen, whereas I stick to pencil because I’m kind of chickens**t that way). If he were a younger man, he’d probably have been an excellent IT guy.
Finisher Dad was also married twice. Never divorced. His first wife, Betty, died suddenly from a ruptured aneurysm. No one to blame, just a terrible, sad tragedy. His finisher wife, my mom, outlived him.
Funny thing about second marriages is you typically hear about nightmare scenarios featuring the evil stepparents imposing their dark wills upon unsuspecting innocent children. Think Cinderella. Ours was not such a case. Oh, sure, we had our share of conflict (I mean, really, who doesn’t?), but I also have many happy memories of those days at 91 E. North Broadway. Big house. Big family. Friends, neighbors and extended family came and went. Holidays were boisterous, festive affairs. My mom and Finisher Dad were deeply involved in community and neighborhood – when they weren’t fixing up our own house they spent countless hours fixing up other peoples’ homes with a pipe wrench or paint brush.
At yesterday’s visitation, time after time, people I haven’t seen in 20 years told me how much they admired my parents — mom and Finisher Dad — and they invariably had a story or memory to tell me about. Some stories I’ve heard dozens of times, and others were completely new to me. One example of affection for him and by extension to the rest of our family: His first wife Betty’s siblings, Pam, David and Bobby came to the visitation. And they said to several of us, You are family. This is nearly 40 years after their sister died. To me, that speaks volumes. That is love. It is genuine affection.
Neither of my dads was especially adept at expressing himself in emotional or relationship terms. Starter Dad could to a degree, mainly after having had a few belts of booze, but Finisher Dad wasn’t built that way. Maybe in part a product of his generation, in part that stoic German stock, in part just because he was not a big talker. He let his actions speak for him.
He was passionate about commitment. Commitment to family. Commitment to cause. Commitment to the job at hand. And commitment to God. He had a deep, deep faith. Because he didn’t talk a lot, when he did talk his passion and articulation could surprise you. And, Dear Lord, don’t get him started on Christmas trees!
As I drove down to Columbus today (yesterday), I kind of searched for an appropriate way to honor my Finisher Dad, the stepdad who in many ways became the father figure I felt missing in my early life. And then it came to me: Live the kind of life he lived. Live a more exemplary life, accepting that I am not perfect but continually striving to be more perfect.
That is how I will try to honor my Finisher Dad. I will strive to live a more exemplary life.