Friday, May 10, 2013

An unsung hero of a dad -- "J" is for Jon

Jon Gyldenvand with two daughters -- baby Kelli and me, looking cheery -- in 1967

(Note: This first appeared in the Des Moines Register in June 2011.)

Imagine this: You're 22 and newly married. You and your wife are working hard at your first jobs and trying to make enough money to cover your expenses. Times are tough, but you're in love and you have your whole lives ahead of you, so even on rough days, your optimism tends to trump everything else.

Then one day, you learn that your wife's mother is very ill; so ill, in fact, that she doesn't have long to live. If that weren't sad enough, she'll be leaving behind a 2-year-old daughter -- your wife's little sister. For the next two years, you're juggling working and serving in the Iowa National Guard with helping to care for your mother-in-law and a toddler.

When your wife's little sister is barely 4, your mother-in-law dies. Your father-in-law, in his late 40s, must keep working full-time, so the question arises: Who is going to help raise this little girl?

You and your wife step up, of course. Your father-in-law and the little girl move in with you and your wife in your tiny house. You're 24 -- 24! -- and your life changes forever.

Although you would never admit this, you become the unsung hero. You and your wife go on to have two kids of your own, but for all intents and purposes, you have three. It's you who takes the little girl to Indian Princesses and teaches her to ride a horse. You give her a giant set of professional markers to foster her love of art. To encourage her love of reading and writing, you buy her Big Chief tablets and all the books her shelf can hold.

She's a complicated little girl -- smart, but also sad, withdrawn and socially unsure of herself, and you're the one who hangs in there with her. Her sister -- more of a mother to her now -- and her father become frustrated with her at times, but you see only the positives. You keep your cool during the bad times; you refocus her, teaching her to drive a boat and love the water. School comes easily to her, and her self-esteem grows.

By the time she's a teenager, things are looking up. Your business is thriving, and you build a big house. You're working long hours, but still, your family comes first. You coach ball teams and buy a place at the lake so the kids will be encouraged to value family time as much as you do. You teach the girl about tying sailors' knots; you provide her with books from your own library to challenge her. You teach her to drive.

But still, she has a father. You're relegated to an undefined place. You refer to the little girl as your daughter sometimes in social circles, just to avoid explaining the whole situation.

But what are you, really? "Brother-in-law" doesn't work. The girl goes on family vacations with you, your wife and your kids. She has been brought up as a sibling to your son and daughter. Your parents are her grandparents. But things are what they are, so you sit back and try not to sweat the details.

Fast-forward. Your father-in-law begins working for you; he remarries and leaves your home after 15 years. The girl graduates from college, marries, has kids, divorces, and marries again. During rough times, you're there with open arms and words of wisdom.

The years continue to pass and your father-in-law becomes very ill. Your wife and the girl help his wife care for him. On a Thursday in March, he passes away. The road has been a tough one, and the girl is a little shell-shocked, a little sad, and a little lost.

But she turns around and you're still there, as you've always been.

You're all the father she has left now, but she can let you know this now: You're not the default dad. You're the Indian Princess/horseback-riding dad, the one who had paid the dues and never been rewarded.

I don't know how much of a reward this is, but I'm the girl and it's Father's Day, and its time to thank you, Jon Gyldenvand, for the drying of tears and the reassurances and the refusal to see anyone in anything but the best possible light. Thank you for your generosity and your warmth of spirit and for turning the boat around and around until I finally was brave enough to get up on skis.

Thank you, most of all, from accepting a challenge that would have felled many another man. Thanks in large part to you, the sad, scared little girl -- the one you wouldn't back down from -- has turned out all right.

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