One of my best friends just lost two children.
Two little boys. The oldest, 5, and his younger brother, 3.
The kids are still alive.
They weren’t kidnapped.
But he lost them just the same. Because his adult relationship with their mother broke. Because of disagreements and friction and differences and misunderstandings that had absolutely nothing to do with them.
One day, a man had sons. Boys had a father figure.
The next day, they did not.
The five-year-old and my friend Randy were particularly close. The three boys—3, 5, and 34—would pile into bed together at the end of a long day and watch a football game. Or a race. Or a cartoon.
The boys’ mother owned a house adjacent to a golf course. Randy would take the five-year-old out to the 150-yard marker on the hole nearest the house each night, and the two would hit approach shots into the green and putt out, practicing, trying different shots, working on their swings and ball striking.
“He’s a little stud,” Randy told me over breakfast this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio. He beamed with pride talking about how awesome this five-year-old boy could hit a golf ball.
“His dad taught him well.”
How it’s Supposed to Be
I have a stepdad. A good man. A guy that did these EXACT same things with me.
Taught me to read. Taught me to ride a bike. Taught me to swim. Taught me how to kick, punt and catch a football. Taught me how to use follow through on my free throw shots in basketball.
He was the man I sat next to throughout most of my childhood, watching all those ballgames.
My biological father who I wrote about in The Champion is a fan of Chicago sports teams. The Bears. The Bulls. The Cubs.
But I grew up in Ohio since before my fifth birthday. With my mom. And eventually, my stepdad.
And when I was five and six and seven I was sitting on the couch watching the Cleveland Browns—the sports team I still love today above all others.
That was my stepdad’s influence. His doing.
My father probably felt a little knife twist anytime I’d mention my affinity for the Cleveland Browns. He had to know it was because of my stepdad.
I know I wanted to light myself on fire anytime my son mentioned Rich Guy’s name—the man my wife was sleeping with.
But my father respected my stepdad. Because he knew he was a good man. And that he genuinely cared about his son. His only child. Me.
In return, my stepdad never said an unkind word about my father, even though my mother wasn’t afraid to verbalize all of her frustrations with him in front of me.
In their own, unspoken way, these two men—my two fathers—had one another’s backs. On my behalf.
I recognized that same dynamic when my friend Randy spoke fondly of the boys he had spent so much time with, forming that special stepdad-child bond even though he and the mother had yet to make it official.
Life has a way of delivering really important people to us during critical times.
And while these friends, mentors, spiritual guides, guardians play invaluable roles in our life journeys, the end of those relationships can sometimes be a little messy.
Things always get a little messy whenever humans are involved.
The Loss No One Talks About
Divorce and broken homes are more common than ever. And there are more people on Planet Earth today than ever.
Which means this loss is being experienced by more and more people all the time.
I won’t insult the all-important biological bond that binds parents and children. My stepdad is one of the most-important people in my life. But he can’t replace my father.
On the flip side, I believe strongly that we choose our families. That some people are so important and special and spiritually connected to us that a new kind of family relationship is born.
You see it in relationships between adopted children and their new parents.
You see it in best friends.
You see it between coaches and players. Teachers and students. Soldiers. People united in crisis or tragedy.
Losing children this way must be horrible.
My home is broken. And I miss my son every day he’s not here. And I didn’t deserve to lose him. But I still get to see him. Half the time.
And, I must feel gratitude for that. No matter how bitter that pill is to swallow. No matter how screwed over I feel from my wife’s exodus the day after Easter just a little more than six months ago. I need to maintain perspective.
Because my friend Randy loved two children. Unselfishly embracing the role of stepfather. And doing a great job.
And now he lives alone again. No warm body in his bed. No children to tuck in at night or greet in the morning.
I stood on the deck behind Randy’s townhome last weekend. The one he had to take off the market and move back into after vacating the house where his ex-girlfriend and two sons live. A bunch of people were at Randy’s with me, drinking beer, eating delicious food, telling jokes.
A lady named Molly and I were talking. She’s good friends with both Randy and his ex-girlfriend. On the wall of the little boys’ home hang photos of their little league teams.
Randy coached those teams and is in all the photos.
“There’s Randy! There’s Randy!” the boys always say, excitedly when they spot him in the photos.
“Those boys miss him so much,” Molly said to me in a quiet moment. “They love him.”
“We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to,” I said to Randy over breakfast. “Believe me, I know how unpleasant rehashing everything can be.”
“No, it’s fine,” he said. “You know, it’s funny. Not being with her isn’t nearly as hard as not getting to see those boys.
“I really miss them. They’re the best.”
“Do you think there’s any chance for reconciliation?” I asked Molly outside Randy’s house.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But there’s always hope.”
Author’s Note: A special thank you to any stepparents who might be reading. You’re doing God’s work. And I appreciate you. And for those of you who have lost children you love because of broken relationships with the kids’ biological parents, my heart breaks for you. God bless all of you.