When I was in my mid-20s, my mother married a charismatic photographer named Tom. He was the owner of a photography studio and son of a LIFE magazine photographer, and he and I connected on the subject of art and entrepreneurship. I was an art history major, and had just started my own business as a web developer. We hit it off quick.
At the time, Tom seemed easy-going, and unlike my father’s new wife, Tom did not engage in a power struggle with me for my mother’s affection. This was a welcome relief, as my father’s new wife neurotically kept tabs on how many times my father and I had dinner together, and made sure her two adult children received the same number of dinners from him as I did.
My mother’s new husband did not try to become my “new dad”— after all, I was an adult and already had a father. Neither of us liked the “step” terminology, so in honor of the Internet age we adopted the terms “virtual father” and “virtual daughter.” We took family vacations together. We shared a family dog, though Tom was always the Alpha. He made it clear to me that if I ever needed anything, he would be there.
The honeymoon days with my “virtual father” were spectacular. But eventually what I now know was a manic cycle ended, and he spiraled into a deep depression. I had not experienced bipolar disorder firsthand before, and neither had my mother. They say the lighter the light, the darker the dark. I am sure I only saw the dusk of Tom’s darkness; it was my mother who endured the midnight hours as long as she could.
When Tom died, he and my mother were just four days away from being officially divorced after an 18-year marriage. After months of silence, Tom and I were trying to repair our damaged relationship. I felt very conflicted. On one hand, he treated my mother horribly at times. On the other hand, I have a deep compassion for people living with a mental illness. And there were times when my “virtual father” was there for me when my father was not.
Tom did not die by suicide, as I often worried would be the case. He did die suddenly and unexpectedly, just two minutes after walking into his house after inpatient surgery at the Washington Hospital Center to remove a fatty lump that was growing ever closer to his heart. He needed to have the surgery before he was removed from my mother’s insurance policy.
When I told people that did not know me so well that my stepfather had died, I dropped the term “virtual father” mostly for simplicity. I was surprised by how many people would ask: “Were you two close?”
This question always felt like a loaded one, as if the person asking it was questioning the validity of my sadness. My response was a defense of my right to grieve my “virtual father.” Though I would appear levelheaded and calm on the outside, inside I assumed the person questioning me was disenfranchising my grief.
Seven years later, I recognize that while the number is growing, not everyone experiences parental divorce and remarriage. And of those who do, not everyone gets to have a “virtual father.” No longer irritable from grief itself, and in a realm where both my mother and I can recall Tom somewhat fondly, I now can answer the question with my whole heart.
“Were you close?”
Close enough that I was on the way to his house to deliver medicine when he took his last breath.
Close enough that when I walked in on the first responders trying to resuscitate him, I dropped my knees, grabbed his hand, and told him that I loved him, that I forgave him, and that I hoped he’d forgiven me.
Close enough to know that you don’t have to like someone all of the time to love them forever.
Heather Stang is the author of Mindfulness and Grief.