For a time in my life, I was a husband. Those years turned out to be the most adventurous I’ve ever lived, since I opened my eyes to the world and to life itself for the very first time. My wife Persefone, a woman with a far larger experience than mine even being just one year older than me, taught me a lot about the essentiality of life and the feelings that define us most. For that time, I was also a father. That is, a stepfather. Since the moment I met Persefone’s three children and started to live with them, every time I talked about my new status to friends of mine and above all, about the difficulties it implied in the first place, I got used to hear this:
“Parents are not the ones who make children, but the ones who raise them.”
In the beginning I was a little skeptical about it, but time refuted me.
A new player in the family.
I was a single man and in less than three months, I was engaged and father of three. Their names are Eloise, Jurema and Júlio. While the relationship with the two girls was clear since the beginning and they mostly referred to their mother for the majority of life matters and problems, Júlio turned to me almost instantly, me being the only male figure in the family.
Over time, our relationship fluctuated between love and rivalry; I was the only father figure he had, but also another man in his mother’s life. Since Júlio’s father had passed away when he was just six years old, he simply got lost and coped with death in his own way, so when I showed up, he had just come out of a long and stressful period of mourning. Kids mourn differently from adults. Júlio stuttered a lot, but Perse told me his father stuttered as well, sometimes, but since his passing, Júlio’s stuttering got worse. Júlio used to ask Perse where his father had gone, why he went away. First, she told him he had to travel far, but he would soon be back and take him for a bike ride, like they used to do in the old days. But weeks passed and daddy didn’t show up, so Júlio grew impatient and began asking again, more and more. So in her widening despair, Persefone told her son that his father had become an angel and now was watching over him every single day. That turned out to be the worst idea ever. Júlio started to feel uncomfortable at the idea that an invisible presence was always with him, even if he was his father. He grew so terrified of the idea that he wasn’t even able to go to the bathroom anymore, for fear daddy was in there too, spying on him. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Perse thought. That was a hard time in her life, but somehow, she managed to put an end to what had become Júlio’s little obsession. She moved to Italy to support her kids, since poverty had become again her reality and without the help of her husband, she couldn’t afford to pay the rent, buy new clothes and make a decent meal for them. So Perse left the inland of Brazil, a world that stayed behind and flew into the First World. She arrived in Italy and there she embarked on new adventures, found a job, learnt a new language, culture and a different way to live her life. She had become a modern woman and one day she brought over her kids and when they finally were reunited with her mother after four, long years and in a strange, new land, she was not alone anymore. They found me.
Who is this stranger and what does he want with our mother? This is the question I saw in their eyes, mainly in Eloise’s. She was the one who experienced more pain among the three; at thirteen years of age, she had suffered and seen more than me, who was thirty at the time. But Júlio was different, he kept searching my hand while walking on the street, always called upon me to show what he had found, invented or seen. Every time I got back from work, he stormed out of the apartment and ran, jumped and landed on me. We hugged strong. Nobody had ever shown me all this love. It was something pure that I was not accustomed to.
“You are daddy number two, now.” Júlio said once.
I remained speechless. That simple sentence, told by a high and ringing voice which knew nothing of life had the power to destroy all my certainties. My heart sank while I heard that and soon Perse reprehended him.
“Please, Júlio, Alex does not like being told such things.”
It was not exact. The fact is I was not ready. But I worked hard to be. I cooked for them every day, made their bed, kept the house in order and helped Júlio with his homework; he was the only one needing help. I ended up doing homework for him and every time was like the first time, because he had forgot what he had learnt the day before. Plus, he kept talking all the time, kids’ talking, that is talking about nothing or simple things, corny things to adults, but very important and amazing things to him. From time to time, I grew frustrated and while I was cooking and at the same time trying to prevent him from falling down the chair he had climbed on to take a glass; I grabbed him and had him sat down and reproached him hard.
This is an isolated and quite ordinary example of my routine back then. In three months, I never stopped a second, I did everything for them, even unnecessary chores; I did it more in order to demostrate to myself I could do it than out of true necessity, until I fell down and got ill, stranded in bed for two days.
It is hard for me to write about Júlio in the years that followed my recovery, because as his personality changed, evolving from the kid into the teenager, he simply started to escape me. I was not capable to relate to him anymore; he showed laziness, lack of interest in helping in the daily chores, carelessness for the future, for school and for any activity, be it academic or playful. Nothing seemed to have a meaning to him. He didn’t care what his mother and I said, he just nodded and replied with a shallow “yes” and then went on as if nobody had spoken to him. He became passive at the point he had his sisters and mother shouting at him to get a life. He just kept silent during the scene the women of the house put up, staring into space and when everything was over, he just resumed doing what he was doing, which most of the times was nothing. I tried to motivate him somehow, asking him what kind of activity he would like to do, like soccer, basket, swimming or dancing. He had the swing; what Brazilian does not have it? But he simply didn’t care. I got so frustrated that many times I found myself raising my voice, shouting at him he would go nowhere if he went on like that. It was like shouting at the wall.
I saw no way out. So I looked back and started to see the failure I was as a father. Maybe I was not fit for that role. Persefone and I were about to split up and she had talked to the kids about this, she told them we would stay good friends, but we were not a couple anymore. The kids understood the point. Nothing had changed in Eloise and Jurema’s attitude towards me. But Júlio was another planet. I thought this occurrence had put more distance between me and him.
Finding your teenage self again.
Last year, when we came back to Italy after a three-year period spent in Brazil, we moved to my hometown to start fresh. Even if not as husband and wife, Persefone and I would carry on being mother and stepfather and since we were going through a hard time, we decided to support each other in order to grant ourselves each one its own life. While I was putting order in my parent’s attic, I stumbled upon a pile of manga books I used to collect when I was a teen. One of Júlio’s passtimes was watching Japanese cartoons, the animes, which he shared with his schoolmates. He also liked to read manga books, so I selected a series I knew he could like and came up to him. I would have sold them or given them away, so I was happy if he could have them. He read the books avidly and came back talking about it; we exchanged opinions about which characters we liked, plot twists and so on. He was brightened up by the conversation and so was I. We sounded like two nerdies. I told him he could keep the entire series and he was so happy to hear that; he read it three times in less than a year and there were more than sixty volumes of that. After that episode, Júlio turned to me several other times, either for showing me what he was reading or watching or for helping him doing some English homework. I helped him and listened to him with great joy and all that happened when I was about to leave their house for good. Instead of criticizing him, I had adjusted to his world, which had been mine too, a long time before. I simply had forgot about that. I had forgot how it was to be a kid.
Júlio is now a well-built, seven-feet tall guy, has a black and huge afro that conquered a lot of girls at school and the respect of his male friends. Each time I see him, he smiles and grabs my hand firmly and we hug. This time I could run and jump, landing on him with the certainty he would hold me without even blinking. So much time has passed and still, it seems it happened only yesterday. Looking back, I see I could have spent my time with him in a different way, a better one. There’s always ground to do better things, but when life does not turn out the way we wanted, all we have to do is learn from the wrongs, in order to do right the next time.
One night, I sat with the two on them, Jurema and Júlio (Eloise had remained in Brazil, where she had married and had a son) and decided I would talk to them about how important they had been and still were to me. It took me five minutes to start talking; five minutes necessary to fight back the tears.
“I know I was not the best father you could wish for, but you have to know I tried hard. And I really love you. And I’ll miss you deeply.”
Jurema smiled, caressed my head and said: “You succeeded.”
I rambled a lot on the importance of the years we had passed together, telling them they had taught me a lot about humanity, simplicity and love; three main aspects of life and human existence I had overlooked for the majority of my years. I could not contain myself anymore and my face grew hot, my eyes burning with tears; I was already feeling alone in the perspective of not having them around anymore.
“You are my family and I’ll always be back to you.” I said.
They closed around me and hugged me. Júlio rubbed his eyes with one arm.
Once, when we were still living in Brazil, Jurema, his then boyfriend and I were sitting on the table in front of the courtyard of the little house we were living in. They were talking about family and, in particular, of stepfathers. It is very common in Brazil to see families composed by a single mother and her kids and sometimes coupled with another man who is not the actual father. Jurema’s former boyfriend grew up with her mother and his stepfather.
“I owe a lot more to my stepfather than to my father.” he said. “My father doesn’t even want to see me, he doesn’t care.”
“I have a lovely memory of my father.” Jurema said. “But my stepfather did a lot more for me than my actual father did.”
I was sitting across them and listening to this. When you hear something like that, your search for meaning met its end.