We were ten rows up from the ice, sitting almost directly behind the goalie. There were 18,000-plus people sitting around us screaming and yelling for the home team, but I was most focused on the young woman sitting next to me. I have known her since she was three; we have been part of the same family since she was ten. It has been a rough 30-plus year relationship, but one I wouldn’t give up for the world.
The one common bond my stepdaughter and I have always shared is the love of sports. When she was growing up, she was always willing to go to a sporting event with me. Most of the time, we went to see baseball games, but this time it was hockey. Over the years, we have shared some meaningful moments over sports. The year she became a teenager, my wife and I took her and some of her friends to see the Minnesota Twins. On her 21st birthday, her mother and I took her to watch the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver. There have been Mother’s Days observed and new jobs celebrated watching our local Triple-A team. Usually it has been me suggesting we go and I pay for the tickets, parking, and concessions. This time, to my great surprise, it was her idea, and she took me. Even writing this down brings tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. She has never done anything like this before, and I have been overwhelmed with the emotions of gratitude, elation, joy, and sacrifice by her action toward me.
Her mother and I married when she was ten, and she moved away with us…away from her biological father and all that was familiar. The move was really difficult for her, and for years she resented the fact that I had taken her away from her “real” home. I knew she needed to be angry at someone, and I did my best to accept her wrath and resentment over these changes. As she moved through junior high and high school, the contact with her dad started to diminish. He wanted her for shorter periods of time in the summer, the weekly phone calls became more sporadic, and she would have to initiate more of the contacts. The pain of the rejection and deteriorating relationship fueled her fury, and the chasm between her and I grew ever bigger.
During all this time, I focused on being supportive and caring toward her and of her. She played soccer, basketball, and volleyball in high school, and I took her and picked her up from her practices. I made it a point to attend as many of her games as I could. During her senior year, I went to every home and away game, and assisted with transporting her teammates to and from the games. I wanted her to see my presence and encouragement.
It wasn’t until the end of her first year in college that our relationship had a breakthrough. She had come home for the summer. At first, she thought she had a flu bug that she just couldn’t shake, but at her mother’s suggestion, she took a pregnancy test. The test was positive, and she was scared. In the days and weeks that followed, I would repeatedly tell her that I would love her no matter what choices she made, and that she had my support. There have been a number of difficult and life-altering events since then, and each time I reminded her of my unconditional love, acceptance, and support.
The chasm between us has not completely disappeared, but today it is more like a nuisance crack in the sidewalk. Today she will come ask for my advice, or want to talk about decision she needs to make. Today when I tell her I have her back, she says, “I know” in a tone of appreciation. Today she will invite her mother and I to participate in a family photo, or to come over for dinner, or take me to hockey game (her mom isn’t crazy about hockey).
I don’t share this to brag or draw attention to myself, because I know that tomorrow our relationship could fall apart and the process would start all over again. Our years as stepfather and stepdaughter have taught me that important reality. I share it because of all the lessons I have learned thus far in my life, one of the most important has been the lesson of unconditional love. My stepdaughter has been both my teacher and my student. Together, we have learned to love one another unconditionally—sometimes at the same tempo, but most of the time in a herky-jerky fashion.
Together we are learning how to love without expectation. We are learning how to be together and how to be separate. And we are learning more completely how to treat each other with dignity and respect. I am learning from her the importance of remaining humble and accepting the limitations of what I can or cannot control. There are things she is learning from me, some she has taken as her own, others she has rejected and chosen to be and act differently.
This learning together would not have happened if we had not shared the common bond of sports. That love of sports served as the tie that bound us together until we were able to create the more significant ties of unconditional love and acceptance. Had we left our connection at just enjoying sports together, we would not have the bond we have today. But without that simple interest in sports, the relationship we enjoy today would never have happened.
Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers fame) once said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Love is as much a verb, as it is a noun. But, it seems our world has stopped looking for those simple connections that might serve as the basis of binding us together until we learn how to love one another. Whether it is our government, our neighborhood, or our family there is more focus on our differences, on identifying who is right and who is wrong. The ability to acknowledge with enthusiasm the rich diversity of our communities is being devoured by an indifference to love and acceptance.
To love is to struggle. To love is to work at connecting and caring. To love is to demonstrate compassion. To love is to treat one another with dignity and respect. To love is to learn that one never stops learning to love. I hope our world learns that soon!
— Steve Fehl