Leilani was the first woman to open my eyes to the profound difference a stepfather can make. She was a single mother raising two children when we met, tall and striking, of Hawaiian, Portuguese, and Scots Irish ancestry.
Her biological parents met in 1962. Her father was an artist, her mother an aspiring lawyer with little interest in children. “She was told she could never have them,” Leilani told me. “So she was studying to go to law school, and was focused on politics and living an intellectual life with an artistic husband. My mom, to this day, says, ‘I don’t do babies. I don’t like little kids.’ And it’s true.”
Soon, the woman who couldn’t have kids was pregnant with twins.
“That absolutely changed the course of the life she had planned,” Leilani said. “To try to save the marriage, they decided to move to Hawaii. They thought it would help if they were with my mom’s family, with the additional family support that comes with large extended families.”
That attempt didn’t work, and Leilani’s parents divorced within a few years. Leilani grew further from her father, uncomfortable with his idiosyncratic ways, and angry with him for leaving.
Shortly after the divorce, Leilani’s mother married a man she had known since childhood. He had children from his first marriage, and the families melded easily. “I was in fourth grade when they married,” Leilani told me. “He never treated us any differently than he treated his own kids. I was the only girl and so I got a lot of extra attention. I think he was happy to have a daughter around.”
One of her earliest memories is of her dad laying down the law.
“I remember my mom saying I couldn’t have this pair of shorts and so I asked him for them and he got them for me. And then, it was a big blowup about it and he came to me and said, ‘You can’t do that again. It was not fair, because she had said no. I am here for you, but you cannot set us up like that again. I’m not going to allow it.’ That was the end of it. He set the ground rules really clearly. And I never crossed them again. It made me feel like I could talk to him about anything, anything at all.
“There wasn’t one thing I couldn’t tell him or didn’t tell him. I told him, not my mom, when I got pregnant on accident when I was just out of college and I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I had a place.
“He always wanted my mom to have the best of everything, and just doted on me and adored me as the girl; he’d gleam with pride and he was always so encouraging and just a dad. He taught the hard lessons that needed to be taught, but was also the soft place to land when I needed the soft place to land, the protector.
“He participated in our sports, was there for every swim meet. And when my mom couldn’t be bothered with my track meets, my dad came to every single one of them.”
“He was a really fun guy. He had this sort of grumpy old man personality to him, and was sort of gruff. His dad was verbally awful and was ridiculously hard on my dad. They grew up pretty poor, and my dad was the provider and caretaker for his siblings. But he had this real soft side to him when it came to me. And he was really hard-working but didn’t always succeed.
“He owned his own insurance agency. He ended up with a gambling problem and he lost his business to it. But I think it was the constant pressure to live up to my mom’s expectations of what providing looked like. I think it got to feel impossible.”
Leilani cried as she spoke of her dad walking her down the aisle when she got married. He was ill, his remaining years numbered. Leilani watched his health, finances, and marriage deteriorate. “My mom actually kicked him out. She divorced him, because she didn’t want to be financially responsible for him, though they only lived apart for about eight months. Then they lived back together again and he always wanted to get remarried, but she never would.
“He went door-to-door selling mouthwash and pantyhose that don’t run and tried selling cell phone card plans before those were really a thing and doing multi-level marketing and tried any number of things to make something go. And he never could make it go. I think that stress was the catalyst for him getting sick. That loss was humiliating and I don’t think he ever recovered from it.
“I put a credit card in both of our names to try to help, and tried to be there for him in all those ways he was there for me. He never used the credit card. But I just couldn’t imagine him not having a safety net, because my mom wouldn’t help him and she was like, ‘Tough luck, it’s your fault.’”
Leilani broke down as she thought back to the last time she saw the man who refused to shrink as her father, even if he was selling mouthwash and pantyhose door-to-door.
“I took my son home when he was three months old to see my dad. And he was 80 pounds, but getting up and walking, accomplishing something every day. When it was time for my mom to take us to the airport, he was standing at the front door waving and smiling. And I got back in and out of the car five or six times, because I knew when I left I would never see him again.
“And the last time, he said, ‘Baby, you have to go. You’re going to miss your plane.’ And I said, ‘But if I go, then this is the last time I’m going to hug you, the last time I’m going to hold you.’ And I knew it and he knew it. And I’m just crying and he started to cry. And he said, ‘It’s not the last time. We’ll see each other again.’ He was a very spiritual person, and that’s what he was referring to. And he had tears running down his face.
“Right before my daddy died he asked me to give my father another chance. He said, ‘Just get to know him as a man and a person and let him be a grandfather.’
“My dad knew my kids would need a grandpa and he saw my father’s positives. I think he also saw where my father and I have a lot of similarities and knew that the emotional connection that I didn’t have with my mom could be found in my father. And because my dad asked, I’ve given my father another chance. And I have a pretty remarkable relationship with him that is growing in understanding and depth.”
Today Leilani celebrated what would have been her dad’s seventy first birthday.