My Second Dad

My story begins, quite unfortunately, the same as many of these stories do- my father died when I was 13 and my mother was bat shit crazy. But through all of this, there were good times. There were good people. One of those people was Phil.

Phil met my mother in the early eighties when he was the computer guy at the same office where my mother kept the books. Apparently, he was head over heels for her then, but she met my father, eventually marrying him and having me. By the time their marriage dissolved, when I was still a baby, Phil had moved on to a better job in the city. Phil always said my mother wouldn’t date him because he was a nice guy and women always go for assholes. I realize now that he was including my dad in that statement. Can’t say I blame him. My father was an attractive and talented musician who apparently slept with some groupie, causing my mother to beat the shit out of her in a bar restroom while eight months pregnant with me. Phil worked with my mom until after I was born, so I’m certain he heard this story. At any rate, Phil ended up liking and respecting my dad in his final years, so I can forgive the statement.

My mother described Phil as “eccentric.”

After my mother and father divorced, my mom married a chef. Two weeks later she asked him to move out, and another four weeks after that, the marriage was annulled. Still counts, mom. I don’t remember him at all. After that she married the dentist. Then she divorced him. And then she married him again. She was married once before my dad, to my older sisters’ father, so we’re up to five marriages at this point, albeit two to the same jerk. You can thank the priest at my Catholic school for that stellar advice. At the time when mom was divorcing the dentist for the final time, she was called to Grand Jury Duty in the city. There she happened to bump into Phil in an elevator, and he gave her his card. The dentist found said card, accused my mother of infidelity and that was that. The divorce proceeded, mom and I rented a duplex in our little town about 45 minutes outside the city, and mom started dating Phil. I honestly didn’t have any issues with any of this. I didn’t care one way or another about the dentist, the only part that sucked was not being able to bring my dogs to our new house.

Mom went all-in with Phil. Whereas she had loved wearing heels and makeup with the dentist, she became downright outdoorsy with Phil. Weekends, when I was with my dad, mom and Phil would camp, hike and kayak. Sometimes in the middle of the week we’d drive to the far side of the city and stay at Phil’s. For me, it meant getting up at 5 a.m. to drive home and then go to school, but I didn’t care. I loved Phil’s apartment. He didn’t own a TV, which meant I spent my time reading and drawing. I loved having Phil in our lives.

My mom became an entirely new person with Phil. I thought she was finding herself.

One day my mother informed me that Phil had been cheating on her. She was crying and angry. But from what I gathered, mostly by eavesdropping (what do want, I was 10) Phil had been casually dating the other lady before he started seeing my mom. Mom had assumed they were exclusive, and Phil had not. They worked it out, but really mom never forgave him. Even at ten years old, I felt like my mom was twisting the truth and not being fair. But then, that’s just how my mom was.

Then one day my world crashed down when my father was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital in the city. But Phil always visited with us, and sat in the waiting room with me when it was too hard to see my dad hooked up to all those machines. Dad was in and out of the hospital for the next few years. When I was twelve we met Phil halfway and moved into a townhouse in the suburbs. He had a man cave in the basement where I loved to hang out and talk his ear off. I loved to talk. Phil did not love to talk, but somehow we settled into a comfortable relationship.

I never felt like Phil just put up with me because he wanted to be with my mom.

A year later, my dad lost his battle and my mom lost her mind. She had always been up and down. Summer meant late-night trips to a diner for “coffee and desserts” while winter meant mom put on pajamas straight after work and went to bed right after dinner. But after my dad died mom steadily declined. It started with her gaining something like eighty pounds. Then she started going out to bars and clubs. Eventually, Phil moved out. He kept paying our bills because, well, because he was a nice guy and because my mother was obviously incapable of taking care of us.

Mom became yet another person.

Suddenly she decided she was not an outdoorsy type at all. She dated all the men. Men twenty years younger or older than her. Men who flaunted their wealth. A guy from Germany, whose emails she made me translate, and a Mexican restaurant owner. And so on and so on. Her hobbies changed from hiking and camping, to clubbing and yachting. This meant mom wasn’t around much. When I complained that we didn’t have food, she’d drive to the grocery store and send me in with her debit card. She still saw Phil sometimes and when she wasn’t home I’d call and invite him to dinner. I’d cook and he’d clean up. Or I’d offer to buy him ice cream if he picked me up for a bit. I never asked him for anything without offering something in return. Mom added my name to her account so I had a debit card of my own. I was getting survivor benefits so I didn’t feel bad about buying things sometimes. It’s not like she was paying the bills with that money.

Life with my mother was unstable, at best, but life with Phil was the ultimate in stability. Every Wednesday evening we went to the shooting range. He even brought one of my boyfriends once. (When that relationship ended, Phil took me back to the range. I hung that target in my room.) My mother believed that girls shouldn’t have to do certain things (like pay their own bills) but Phil never made me feel like I couldn’t do things because I was a girl. He taught me to shoot, showed me how to brew beer, taught me to drive. We hiked together, and talked about everything. Everything except what a nut job my mom was. I don’t think he wanted to admit it. They got back together, oddly living in apartments on opposite ends of a hallway in a complex. Mom jerked him around like no other, and eventually broke his heart again.

The last time I saw Phil, I was 19, dating a certifiable asshole, and I was asking for money. I was ashamed and I knew I was acting exactly like my mother. I refused to use him like that, so I never called again. That was twelve years ago.

As much as I recognize that my mother screwed my head up, leading me to make some really terrible decisions, I can’t deny the influence Phil had on my life. I still love being outside more than anything else. I take my kids hiking and camping, and one day I’ll own a boat.

I’ll spend more time on the water than on my phone, or in front of the TV.

I make lists like he did. Home brewing beer is on my bucket list. I have a deep love for history and just learning in general. All these things, I got from him.

I never called him Dad, but I hope he knew. I hope he knows. If I could tell him one thing, it would be that through it all, both my mom and G, I’ve never believed the insults that were hurled at me, because you taught me that I didn’t have to change for anyone. Thank you for accepting me. Thanks for being my Dad.