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A Stepfather's Prize on Graduation Day

LAST night was graduation. I've been through this three times now, once in Illinois with the first of my three stepdaughters, and here, in Florida, with the last two. Twelve years from now I will be back again for my daughter's graduation. But that will be another century, and I am sure it will feel just that way - and the memories of last night will be much more dim than they are today. (Will I remember, for example, Kristine's valedictory words about compassion as the measure of success? I hope so. I w rite them here to remember them.)

These days mark a closure of sorts, and it all started yesterday when I realized that a check just wouldn't make a completed gift. So I went to the bookstore to get something else.

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I found a book that could be well inscribed and that she would probably read. I also got a tape of soothing piano music for her to take to the intellectual sweatlodge that I know Yale to be. But then I remembered I needed a card.

I asked the man about the cards, and he pointed me to the spinning rack set aside for graduation. I expected the goofy grocery-store variety, something funny to help me deflect for a moment that fact that this is the beginning of the end to the predictable daily presence of one who has been there by me since that day when I showed up for an at-home business meeting over breakfast with her mom. She, a six-year-old whose mom worked early and whose dad was no longer there, climbed bleary-eyed up a chair to the cupboard to get her cereal, all of the time bleary-eyeing me and the weirdness of my presence at such an hour.

There were no goofy cards. But there were lovely, thoughtful ones (never go to a nice bookstore for a graduation card unless you want a heart tug) and, kneeling by the rack and reading them, I began to lose it.

The overspill of the years of work in this one's behalf, of care given and received, came out of my eyes. I went, head down and card in hand, to pay the man and to get outside, fast.

He looked at me and then looked away, a small kindness in not asking about the tears. But I said it anyway. "Your graduation cards are beautiful, and they made me cry." He turned away, said some words I don't remember, and handed me a letter opener with a painted duck on the end, a stepfather's prize. I took it gratefully as a sign to give up control of the day, just to receive whatever would come - feelings and tears, ducks and memories.

Which is just to say that stepparents have memories, too.

Not of the beginning, perhaps. But of the work that either does or does not happen to help someone else's flesh-and-blood keep growing, and the love that either does or does not emerge in that special space between being "flesh-and-blood" and being just another adult. That space has become special for me with each of my stepdaughters, as much by things done (my extra job to buy them clothes and curling irons ... their care for my two babies who came along out of synch with their adolescence) as by things

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But there was something special said a while back by this year's graduate, something I keep up in my office with the family pictures. And I offer it as words that sum up for me the best potential in the in-between space where "step" relationships happen. Kristine wrote on a birthday card to me, "Well, in a while you won't be able to watch `thirtysomething' unless they change it to `fortysomething.' Soon Estelle and I will be in college, assuming I get in somewhere. So this is the last birthday that I can

be here to thank you for all you have done for us. You treated us as well as a father would treat his children, but you did not try to take the place of ours. I really appreciate our family, even though I still think it's crazy. Have a great birthday!"

Oops. Tears. Here I go again. Oh well, who says that this is anything other than just the beginning of the process of saying goodbye? One night, even graduation, can't do it all. Has anyone got another ducky letter opener (or whatever it takes) to help a stepdad to let go?

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