I have just passed the fifteenth anniversary of my stepfather’s death, and soon it will be Father’s Day. So John Albert Hansbrough is on my mind. He died in the spring of 2000 at the age of 81. He was 49 when he married my mother, and I like to think that in many ways John and I grew up together. I was 21 when I met him for the first time, still recovering from the difficult years at the end of my parents’ marriage. I was not ready, or mature enough, to give up my own suffering to make room in my life for this loud, big (6′ 4″, about 240 pounds), extraverted, braggadocio tradesman.
My mother had moved on in her life because she had to—perpetually dependent on others, my mother was charming and delightful so long as her needs were being met. And in John they were. I resented him because of his differentness from my father, who was small, intellectual, aloof, quiet, of the managerial class and not bald (did my mother discriminate not at all with her taste in men?—were her needs the only criteria for relationship?); I resented him because he was a willing caretaker of my mother, enabling her to remain the child she was. In short, it was hard to see my mother happily taken care of when she’d never taken care of me in the way I thought I needed. The more I resisted John’s intrusion into my life, the louder and braggy-er he became. My visits to their home were tests of my patience and tolerance, most of which I and my smart mouth failed.
Until one visit when I made my mother the target of all my unprocessed rage. We had a terrible fight—or rather I had a terrible fight with her. About what, I am ashamed to mention it was so trivially juvenile. When you’re brimming with as much toxicity as I was at the time, it doesn’t take much to provoke a vesuvian eruption. Using her go-to strategy of retreat behind a closed bedroom door, she left me yelling and angry in the living room, where John was quietly sitting in his favorite armchair. He rose; came over to me, snot-nosed and sobbing in frustrated despair; took me in his gigantic arms and whispered, “You have no idea how much your mother loves you.” And with that I collapsed, and he carried me over with him to his chair and held me for as long as I needed to cry.
He’d put up with my crap for years, managing still to love me and to provide just what I needed at just the right time. Even more remarkable because John never had children of his own, yet he knew instinctively how to parent at that moment. My mother, my discriminating mother!, loved him because he was devoted and kind. In giving me the parental love that I’d craved for so long, John Albert Hansbrough became my true father that day. And he gave me back my mother besides.
Thereafter John and I were close, good friends. Quite simply, I adored him for all he’d taught me about love, responsibility and connection. I did what I could to support him in the care of my mother as she declined into ill health and disability made worse by her passivity and willed helplessness. He predeceased her, worn out and ill himself but a caretaker to the end.
When I was struggling with grieving for him, a woman friend shared what she’d done after the death of her own father. She said to go find a jewelry charm of an animal whose traits reminded me of what I’d admired about him, put it on a chain and wear it around my neck—he would be with me that way, and I could be conscious of his example.
I picked an elk figure that is also part human, a stylized warrior, upright and arms spread wide. The very image of what John was: big, strong, unafraid, open. I wore it all the time for about a year after John died, and my friend was right. It helped. Still does, when I need him to be with me. I say, “You have no idea how much your daughter misses you.”