It was 2007, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I walked into the funeral home for my beloved step-father’s visitation. He’d married my mother a few years after my father died, when I was in my late twenties. Needing to work up courage before I viewed his body, I read the cards on the potted flowers and vases. The sheer volume proved what I’d know, that Harold had been a true friend and generous neighbor, always ready to share anything, from his garden tools to a cup of coffee.
The family flower spray included the word Grandfather. Besides taking an interest in his biological grandchildren, Harold became close to my husband’s and my children, especially our youngest, who lived nearby at the time. Harold helped her and her husband search want ads for jobs and apartments. He had a gentle way of offering advice, which they often took.
The word Husband on Harold’s spray made me recall what a devoted partner and caregiver he’d been to my mother. He kept meticulous records of her medications and appointments. His love for her kept her going through long illnesses. Harold’s wish was to die on the one-year anniversary of her death, and he only missed it by a few days.
I shifted my focus to another spray of flowers with the word Father. It must have been hard for Harold to move into the house another man had built. Only my youngest sister was still living at home then, but Harold once told me how stressful it was for him to be at family gatherings because he wasn’t sure we wanted him there. How I wished I could have those times back. I would have welcomed him with open arms.
As people started to enter, I knew this was my last chance to share a private moment with Harold. I caught sight of a frame on the end of the casket. I walked over to look. Inside was a picture of me and a column I’d written, back when I used a byline. Entitled “Human Fathers Mirror Nature,” it was a Father’s Day piece in which I’d compared my biological father to a prairie dog, always on alert. I wrote, “My family wasn’t the type to say I love you, and my father and I never exchanged those precious words.” It said I was fortunate enough to acquire a wonderful step-father, “One who is as steadfast and devoted to my mother as the gander standing by his mate’s side, protecting her from danger. Harold and I grow closer every time we’re together.” It ended with, “I hope you spend time with your father, biological or otherwise, and that you have the chance to tell him ‘I love you.’”
A pink sticky note on the upper right-hand side of the frame caught my eye. I recognized Harold’s neat handwriting. The note said: “This framed article is to be placed on my casket. This is the best gift that I have ever received.”
I choked with emotion, barely able to breathe. I searched my mind, recalling giving Harold a copy of that column years ago.
Harold’s son joined me. “I found this with Dad’s important papers,” he said. “It must have meant a great deal to Dad.” I opened my arms, gave him a hug, and he gave me one in return.
The frame with the sticky note sits on my office shelf. It reminds me of how a person can bring joy through simple expressions of love and acceptance. We just have to open our arms.