I couldn’t look at his shoes. White sneakers, untied and waiting for their owner, sat to the right the living room couch. They were clean but broken in, wrinkles in the sides where the toes had bent with every step. Around the yard. To the station before his shift. To baseball games and track meets.
My stepfather, Michael, died in the early morning hours of May 26, 2007. Numb with the phone in my hand, I sank into the couch listening to my uneven breathing. My chest ached.
Sometime later, my mother returned from the hospital. She sat with me on the couch, avoiding the rubber soled reminders that he wasn’t coming home again. I hugged her. We wept together.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. I didn’t know either.
Our living room filled with people, carrying trays of deli meat and giving tearful hugs. They were trying, they really were, to do something – anything – to soothe the shock of an unexpected death.
“I’m so sorry, honey.”
“Take care of your mother.”
“He was such a great man.”
About a year before, Mike and I sat in our kitchen talking about colleges. I hadn’t decided on where to go.
“I don’t know if you want to hear this, but I’m going to tell you anyway,” he said, folding his hands on the table. He laughed, his eyes becoming small smiles of their own. He reminded me of the Dad in “A Christmas Story” when smiled.
“It really doesn’t matter where you go to school, so long as you’re a good person. Doesn’t matter what you major in, do for a job, or whatever. Just be a good person. That’s what really counts. You’ll do it.”
Good people came to my aid that afternoon. Classmates I barely knew. The friendships I didn’t keep up with. People I didn’t appreciate as much as they deserved. They came to my house. Hugged me. Brought me iced tea. Told me to try to sleep. Smiled when my red rimmed eyes and nose dripped on their shirts.
Three weeks later, his shoes were moved to the closet. I don’t know where they are now, but I still look for them when I visit my mother. I think of him often. He may not have been my father, but he was a Dad to three: Krista, Michael, and me.
Every time I’m reminded that I have a choice to be someone good, to offer comfort or encouragement, I remember. I see his badge number on houses and in phone records. I remember to drive slower and stand up for myself. I hear his humming and palm tapping on the steering wheel in the car from time to time – especially if it’s a Chicago song – and find myself doing it, too.