Of My Own

Sep 4, 2020

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My father-in-law passed away yesterday. I need to write about it. This post will have nothing to do with Illini sports, but I'm 8+ months into this "write for free" phase so I don't have to worry about chewing up your free clicks with my personal stories. This is still a blog, and this is me blogging.

As you may know, when my wife and I got married, she had three boys. The day we got married they were 9, 11, and 13. At the time, I had a few conversations like this:

"So do you guys plan on having any kids of your own?"

"Nope - these are our three boys."

"I hope this doesn't sound rude, but do you think it will bother you if you don't have any kids of your own?"

"Nope. These are my three boys."

Even after the adoption, there were still quizzical looks. Since we were "still young", many thought we would try for kids "of our own". Nope. These are my boys, so "of our own" doesn't even make sense to me. I have a family. It's my wife and I and our three boys.

Actually, it's four now. Our oldest son's best friend lived with us for a while, and our sons started telling people they were one of four boys, and we started telling people we have four sons, and now I never want to have a Christmas without our fourth son and his wife. Sure, it's unconventional, but my personal definition of the word "family" has changed so much over the last 20 years.

And Steve, my father-in-law, was a big part of that. My wife is no more his daughter than my son is my son. There were no genetics involved. But his example of loving someone who wasn't "his" has changed my whole worldview.

This will be hard to write because I don't want to air out the details of my wife's childhood. They're important to the story - you need to understand what he did - but I don't want to write some big long backstory. Just know that when my wife was 7, her birth father long gone and her mother struggling to make ends meet, Steve was Superman. He couldn't see these little girls living like they were so he immediately had them move in with him. He married their mom and immediately moved them halfway around the world to give them a different life.

There's a lot more to the story, but that's the part you need to know. My wife was in a rough spot at age 7 and Superman came along and flew her to safety. You can draw a line directly from that moment to my wedding. When I asked him for permission to marry his daughter - his. daughter. - I stumbled over words thanking him for what he did. I think I even awkwardly said something like "thank you for delivering her to me".

But that's really how I felt. Because he chose her as his daughter - not born into, but chose - he changed the trajectory of her life.

This is not to say that none of this is my wife's doing, of course. Those reading this who have met her know that she's more driven than anyone you'll ever meet. In her 40's she got her MBA at night and kept pushing for better jobs; in my 40's I blogged about Clayton Fejedelem.

But her drive comes from one source: Steve. She'll tell you that. At his funeral in a few days, when people get up to speak, all you'll hear about was his work ethic and drive. He was born and raised in southern Idaho where you either work 19 hours per day or you're lazy (that's Redfish Lake in the photo above, his favorite spot on earth). He was around airplanes and worked for airlines his entire life - a life that included...

  • Making a homemade cannon in his father's shop when he was 16 and accidentally igniting it, blowing off part of his left biceps in the process.
  • Pulling off the greatest senior prank in his high school's history, taking the tires off the principal's small car, somehow putting the car on it's side on a cart, sliding the car through the school's doorway, and re-assembling the car in the school hallway.
  • Flying in air shows all over the west coast.
  • A job at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he 1) had to disassemble Saudia Flight 163 after the horrific accident and 2) assisted with the transport of King Khaled's body from Mecca (where he was taken for funeral prayers after he died of a heart attack in 1982) to Riyadh for immediate burial.
  • Ending up at the airport in St. Louis where he finished out his career (and where my wife, who had gone to 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade in Saudi Arabia, finished high school).

The rest is history. My wife married, had three boys, divorced, and was raising them on her own when I came along. And my story isn't one of Superman like Steve. I simply fell in love, got married, and became an insta-dad.

And at our wedding, on both sides of the aisle, I had great examples. On my side there was my step-dad (my father passed away in 1993 and my mom remarried in 1998) - he had gained two daughters when he married his first wife. On the other side was Steve, who had raised my wife as his own after he married her mom. It struck me that day and remained with me ever since - those two stories pointed to my own.

When you tell people that you married into parenthood, they give you one of two reactions. They either say "that's great that you would do that" (I don't need a cookie) or they look at you funny because you didn't follow the traditional path to 2.2 kids. For me, I've simply come to the realization that this was my path. I was built for these four boys and would do anything to ensure their happiness. Step-dad? Insta-parent? Who cares? These are my kids.

There's this stigma around "well he's not really your child", and honestly, I get it. That feeling you all had when you held your infant daughter for the first time? I'll never have that. There is a purity in the genetics - a connection I'll never truly get to feel.

But it's just something I'm ignorant of. And I'm OK never knowing. Parenting is doing whatever it takes so that your child's future is limitless, even if "whatever it takes" includes "you're grounded from the car for two weeks". That new-parent-holding-an-infant "I'd do anything for this human" feeling? Oh, I know that one.

And so did Steve. He had two sons from his first marriage - both, unfortunately, preceding him in death. And he also had my wife, his pride and joy, his little girl. He spent his life making sure her future was limitless, and he succeeded. I'm not sure there's anything better I could say about any man.

So thanks, Steve, and rest in peace. I promise that your example will carry forward in my life. Thank you for being the rock that my wife needed when she was 7 (and when she was 27). Thank you for, to use my awkward phrase from earlier, delivering her to me.

And thanks for teaching me that "kids of my own" isn't really a thing.


Hoppy on September 4, 2020 @ 03:26 AM

RIP Steve and my condolences to your wife and you, Robert. It sounds like he was an incredible man with an incredible life.

I’m happy that he impacted you all so much! Thank you for sharing this piece of your family with us.

Was Steve an Illini fan? Or did you ever try to convert him if he wasn’t??

ktcesw on September 4, 2020 @ 04:40 AM

My condolences for your family's loss, Robert! That is a magnificent memory!

uilaw71 on September 4, 2020 @ 05:16 AM

This alone was worth the subscription price, and beyond. Thanks for sharing.

Gadwallgetter on September 4, 2020 @ 08:06 AM

Prayers for you and your family Robert that’s a great story my Steve RIP. I have 2 biological kids and 2 foster kids that have lived with us for 6 years...I don’t think I could ever imagine loving either one of them more or less. Your story is a great on me Robert like all of us it’s what makes us...us! Thanks for sharing!

illini08 on September 4, 2020 @ 08:14 AM

Beautifully written, Robert. My sympathies to you and your family

Sweetchuck13 on September 4, 2020 @ 08:25 AM

Robert, I'm so sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing this - what a wonderful tribute to Steve. I'll be thinking about you and your whole family.

taz on September 4, 2020 @ 08:50 AM

I'm so sorry. Please tell your wife the same.

FYI, as a "not biologically related to my two wonderfully children" parent, this post made me shed a few tears. Beautiful, my friend.

stuone19 on September 4, 2020 @ 09:03 AM

So sorry for your loss, Robert. Didn’t think I’d be tearing up at 9am on the toilet today...

deadguy on September 4, 2020 @ 09:17 AM

Sorry for your loss Robert.

IBFan on September 5, 2020 @ 07:47 AM

Prayers and props for you and Steve

TRC on September 5, 2020 @ 10:34 AM

Robert, my condolences to you and your family for your loss. I am so glad that you took the time to pause from sports to share this heart-felt piece. Thank you. As a father of 2 adopted and wholly beloved children, I can attest to the fact that family need not have anything to do with blood, and your words above proof of that truth.

Eagle on September 6, 2020 @ 11:08 AM

What a beautiful story Robert. Thank you for sharing that. My condolences on your family’s loss. Both your story and Steve’s are examples of what happens when people love others for who they are and give unselfishly. Steve created a loving family that set the stage for another loving family that leads to other loving families.

My perspective of family has changed over the years as well. We raised four of our own and started adopting and we now have 9 and a rainbow of colors. The rewards and blessings are immeasurable.

Joe Edge on September 7, 2020 @ 11:38 AM

I know where you are - more than you realize - and I feel your loss and your pain... Keep your chin up and always look for the sunrise !

Brave Illini on September 7, 2020 @ 01:01 PM

That's quite a tribute. A good read, with some valuable life lessons applicable to everyone. Thank you for composing and posting that. I hope it was more enjoyable than painful for you.

sixthandwhite on September 9, 2020 @ 10:44 AM

May his memory be eternal. Thank you for sharing, Robert.

Robdmd on September 10, 2020 @ 07:49 AM

Thank you Robert for sharing the story of your family. This comforts me in a way I’m not willing to share right now. All I can say is thank you.

trotterisaac on September 12, 2020 @ 07:51 AM

This was incredible, Robert. Thank you. Prayers for you and your family.

illinizeeman on September 19, 2020 @ 11:05 AM

Wow, beautiful words.. As a father of 4, and an adoptive father, families are definitely formed in the manner that you described.

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