My mom started dating Doug in early 1986, when I was eight years old. They were married that November. 1986 was also the year that my half-brother, my dad's son, was born. One afternoon that year, I remember sitting in an empty cubicle in the strip mall computer store called Microage in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, waiting for my mom to finish work so we could go home. I was bored, probably, so I drew a picture of a new baby, a broken heart, and the words "my dad doesn't love me anymore" underneath them.

As I knew it would, that drawing got an immediate reaction from my mom, who called my dad in Pennsylvania to talk about it as soon as we got home. I remember feeling guilty even as I drew the picture, because I didn't really have any doubts that my dad loved me, and I couldn't have been more excited about my new brother --- I'd included "baby sister or brother" on my lists for Santa for the previous 3 years. I drew the picture because it seemed like I should be upset. It seemed like the sort of thing a kid in an after-school special about divorce would do in a desperate attempt to tell her parents how she felt, and after she did it her parents would comfort her and assure her that divorce and remarriage have nothing to do with the kids. I knew all of that and believed it, but I still drew the picture anyway.

If I was nervous about anything that year, it was probably my mom's remarriage. My dad lived in Pittsburgh, a good eight-hour drive away, and I only got to see him during school vacations. Each vacation, though, was an adventure. At age 8, my dad embodied everything fun that my mom wasn't: each time I visited him, he lived in a new house, he had a motorcycle and a leather motorcycle jacket, he could do push-ups with me and my two friends sitting on his back, and he always lived right in the middle of a big city.

When my mom got ready to marry Doug, I tried, in tiny little passive-aggressive ways to make it clear to him that there was no empty father-space in my life for him to fill. Around Halloween, he bought my friends and I pumpkin shaped cookies with orange frosting, and I refused to eat mine for at least twenty minutes. Ho ho, I thought, I've seen this on TV. You're trying to buy my love. Not so fast, mister.

It was hard to make it clear to Doug that I didn't want him to be my dad because he never tried to do that. Instead, he supported me without ever trying to replace my dad. He respected my relationship with my father, but he didn't let that stop him from stepping in and making me chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast every Saturday, or doing any of the mundane little tasks that a parent in the home needs to do to support a growing kid. When I was in middle school, he spent all his weekends with my mom and I, driving across Michigan to sit on bleacher seats for six-hour gymnastics meets, only to spend the evening eating wretched meals of lukewarm fettucine alfredo with seven other sets of gymnastics parents in awful hotel restaurants, while 8 twelve-year old girls sat at the next table over, making a mess with the paper wrappers from their straws and daring each other to run out to the pool and back, wearing only a leotard. You know, because that would be so embarrassing. A leotard! at the pool! It doesn't get much crazier than that.

I got even more territorial about the dad stuff when I was a teenager, and I'm not proud of it. I don't remember saying or doing anything cruel, but I'm sure I acted like a typical high school stepdaughter: standoffish, cold, and ungrateful. Doug never acted like the stereotypical stepparent, all pushy and annoying. He certainly never acted like I would act if I was confronted with a snotty 14 year-old: he didn't demand that I love him, and he didn't even demand that I act more respectful towards my mother when I acted like a punk. He just cooked a lot for me. It wasn't until I was in college that I realized that for years, he'd been carefully watching what I left sitting on the side of my plate, and that he had a running list in his head of vegetables my picky teenage self didn't like to eat but wouldn't admit, like mushrooms, tomatoes, and green peppers. I didn't know he was keeping track, because he never mentioned it, he just stopped including those vegetables in everything he made for me.

Now that I'm an adult, I have become aware of a great many more things that Doug did for me beyond cooking, but like his recognition of my picky eating, they were silent things. They were not done for attention or recognition. They were done simply because he was a good man who loved my mother. I may be a child of divorce, but I did not grow up in a household without a model of a healthy relationship. Doug has always loved my mother deeply, and whether I was aware of it or not, that taught me a lot about how good relationships work. My mom and Doug celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary last fall. When my mom told me over the phone a little over a week ago that he'd been diagnosed with leukemia, it wasn't until she said, "I just want another thirty years with him," that she started to sob.

I sobbed along with her, but not just because I loved my mother and she was hurting. I cried because I realized I wanted another thirty years with this wonderful man, too.