On Sunday morning, December 7th, I received a concerning phone call about my step-father. (His name is Robert, but decades ago the nickname Ro was given to and seamlessly stuck with him.) Ro was in the ICU with renal failure. The situation looked grim. I was in a sickly state myself, but felt a tug at my heart to venture to Cleveland, so we went. Brian and I were greeted at the hospital by my brothers and mom, and we all waited for Ro to return from a surgical procedure.
The nurse finally gave us the go ahead to see him, two at a time. Brian and I went first. Ro was tired but alert. I tucked my hand into his clenched fist and used my other hand to stroke his hair. I tried to lean over the bed rail to plant a kiss on his cheek, but my torso wasn’t long enough. I stretched onto my tip toes and puckered out my lips as far as they could go. The three of us chuckled as I worked my lips out a nanometer at a time. It didn’t work, so I went flat on my feet and took a step back, ready to attempt this again with more momentum at the start. Lips ready, the second attempt was successful. Ro nodded and smiled in approval. We had a short conversation, exchanged I love yous, and then Brian and I returned to the waiting room to tag in the next pair. The visit wasn’t easy, but the strength of family together made all the difference.
After exhausting Ro, we watched football in the waiting room and dined in the cafeteria so he could rest. A couple hours later, Brian and I went with my mom to see Ro one last time before returning to Pittsburgh. I took the same position at bedside, gripping his hand and petting his hair. I once again leaned over the bed rail for a kiss, and once again we laughed as I found myself trying to reach his cheek by straining my puckered lips. Didn’t work. Just as I was about to lean back in a failed attempt, Ro turned his head and puckered his own lips to bridge the gap. Such a sweet kiss. Eye to eye we both said I love you to one another.
The week to follow was a whirlwind of emotion and turmoil. I was struggling with my own health, which was deteriorating by the day, but that seemed so irrelevant compared to Ro’s fight for life. For us, it was this roller coaster of feeling hopeless about his outcome one moment, but then in the next moment getting an encouraging update that maybe the next procedure they attempt will make all the difference and he’ll improve. Ultimately, procedure after procedure failed, and by Thursday Ro was unresponsive and in transition to hospice. Over the years, he had fought his way through so many ailments, but this time the battle was too great.
Saturday morning he started singing again…in heaven’s choir.
I struggle with the word “step-father” because it sounds so second rate, like when you put the word ‘step’ in front of ‘father’ it somehow lessens the parent-child relationship. Sure, I have a father who I know and love, and sure, my mom tended to make the big decisions for me and my brothers during our childhood, and sure, Ro was closer in age to a grandparent than to a parent, but there is nothing ‘step’ about the relationship that I had with and the love that I have for my step-father. He has been a father figure in my life from about the age of four. There aren’t many memories that I have of my life before he entered in to our family.
He did all of those parenty things, like make me eat my vegetables, drive me to extracurricular activities or to friends’ houses, encourage me, love me. He was my tooth fairy and my teacher at the piano bench. He would watch me swim in our pool when I was so desperate to get in the water, but wasn’t old enough to swim alone. When we went camping and I had a distraught look on my face as I took my first bite of sour cereal one summer morning, he told me that I shouldn’t eat that because the milk sat out on the picnic table all night. He mowed, he raked, he buried our dead pets in the backyard. He teased that I always had to be on center stage, but I knew he loved it when I sang, danced, or raised my voice louder than anyone else in order to be heard at the dinner table.
He helped me learn to ride a bike and was the chaperone of my very first drive with a learner’s permit. In my high school days, I joked with Ro – though it’s true – that one of the most important lessons I learned from him is that, when in a bind, your socks can be used to wipe dirty hands. I still laugh about the one morning when he served as my alarm clock – he opened the bedroom door, threw a shoe at me, and left. So random. But just as randomly, one day he walked through my bedroom door and gave me a watch that he had bought for me earlier that day, just because he was thinking about me. I don’t know how old I was or the day it happened, but I remember the moment when I recognized that he had stopped pushing me to study and instead reminded me to make sure I didn’t overdo it. All along he encouraged me to pray and to read my Bible, and most certainly led by example in this regard.
Do you see this theme of me, me, me, what he did for me? Yes, kids are needy little creatures, and Ro was such a big part of meeting those needs and wants during my childhood. It’s such an unselfish act and he did it willingly as any loving father would do for their child. There was nothing second rate or ‘step’ about any of this.
For the past decade he had grown dependent and in need of increasing care and I have long been married off, but even still there was a special bond between the two of us. And even though we have lived a state apart for many years, there has been a comfort in knowing that my roots are just…there. They are a constant in my life; they ground me. Ro is part of my history and has had a hand in who I’ve become. I miss the comfort of this root just being there. I miss him. I will miss our breakfast dates where we talk about politics, current events, the end times, and the Bible. He always listened when I shared about my most recent adventures and believed that I could succeed in whatever I was doing. I will miss his laughter and his song.
Ro had so many wonderful attributes – he was a great listener, humble, a prayer warrior, hard-working, encouraging, supportive, and patriotic, to name a few. Jesus was on the throne of his life, and because of the relationship he had with God he studied the Bible like crazy. My mom found a note that he had written from a devotional referencing Psalm 98:1-3. He wrote: “Victories in sports, business, or politics must be won again and again, year after year, but there is a victory that was won once for all. The psalmist celebrates the victory of God’s power and holiness, beautifully prefiguring the final victory of Christ over sin and death. Our greatest victory is receiving God’s gift of salvation, and this victory need never be won again.” Ro lived in the light of this victory.
There’s no mistaking – his God-given gift was his voice. He studied music, taught music, and had music seeping from his pores. He performed in a multitude of choirs and was a professional soloist. As he would practice at the piano in our living room, I always felt this great privilege of being serenaded on any given day. Beyond all this, his music was an offering and helped people connect with God. I remember sitting in church during a duet he sang, “Household of Faith.” I was not even a teenager, but still recall the power of the two voices – not only did they have the chill factor, where my arm hair was on end and I was pushed back in my seat breathless, but those voices also invoked a connection to the lyrics and a call to respond. I remember this same response as Ro sang “He is No Fool” and “He’s Alive” as well. This was not just a talent, but a powerful spiritual gift.
At Ro’s memorial service, my mom did such a beautiful job honoring Ro’s life. At the end of her reflections, she shared a story about Ro auditioning for a choir in the Cleveland area about 17-18 years ago, the Singer’s Club. She didn’t think he should have to audition given his ability; he humbly shrugged his shoulders and went to the audition. When he returned, my mom asked him how it went. He sheepishly replied, “They said, ‘To what do we owe this honor?’”
I echo my mom’s words: It has been an honor to listen to this man, to know this man, to love this man. But Robert would say, “To whom do we owe any honor?” To his Lord and our Lord, Jesus Christ, who won that greatest victory.
(Click here to hear an excerpt from “God’s Great Grace,” Ro’s last public solo in 2001, age 76.)