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I got through the first Father’s Day without my Daddy. It was not easy, and I spent a good deal of the weekend crying.

Unfortunately, too many of my friends are also celebrating the first Father’s Day without their fathers. One of the things that is so tough about it is that you want to try to be happy for your husband or mate, who may have children but, the pain of seeing that empty chair at the table is just almost too much to bear.

I had four men that were father figures to me and, to make matters even worse, they are all gone now.

The situation with my birth father was so difficult. My mother and he had a very contentious relationship and he was verbally and physically abusive, at times, to both my mother and I. Watching my mother cry, basically through her entire twenties and the first seven or eight years of my life, was not fun. He had an affair and started another family with that woman.  He left for good the night before my first day of kindergarten.  Although we tried to reconnect throughout the years, it just never worked out. He passed away five months after my Mom, in January of 2015. Although I didn’t grieve him in the way I would grieve the other men in my life, I was deeply saddened by the thought that we would never be able to mend the fences and have any sort of meaningful relationship. That ship had sailed. He was gone forever. To be fair, despite his shortcomings as a father to me, he was very affectionate. I get that from him. He was also very musical, and my sons and I both get that from him, and he was a very, very good athlete (he was voted “Most Athletic” in his high school senior year), and my son, Jack, gets that athleticism from him. Also, to be fair, despite all of the heartache, the truth of the matter is that if there hadn’t been a Victor Abate, there would never have been a Nicole Abate or a Christine Abate. For those things, I am grateful.

During the times he was away, my Grandpa Mike (or Honey, as I called him) took over as the main man in my life. He would come, in his operating engineer clothes, smelling like hot tar and sun, to my Father-Daughter tea parties, square dances, Brownie Daddy Days. He would always make me feel special – giving me lots of hugs and kisses, coming in to kiss me good night with his big manly hands (they were like baseball mitts) and giving me sweet butterfly kisses. He made me feel like the center of his universe. I used to worry when I was little about who would walk me down the aisle when I got married. Honey always promised me that he would. He would work all day out East, driving his big construction vehicles out in the hot sun all day, and then, go all the way back home to Locust Valley to shower, change and pick up my Grandma and then, turn right back around to pick me up in Commack so that I could sleep at his house for the entire weekend. At that time, my sister, Chrissy was still going on weekends to see my biological father. I refused to go because he wanted me to call his new wife “mom” and I refused. Anyone who knows me knows that if I don’t want to do something – I am not going to do it. Perhaps that is the Calabrese in me (which I get from Honey, by the way!).

In any case, I would spend the weekends at my grandparents, which worked out well for my mom, too, as she was still a beautiful, young and vibrant woman who was able to date on those weekends. I was happy with Honey and Grandma Nickie. We would get to their house late on Friday – Grandma having to keep elbowing him when he nodded off. Saturday I would either get a ride to Kramer’s stationary with Honey, where I was able to pick out pretty much anything I wanted (usually candy, Mad Magazine and the teen magazines that were in vogue at the time.) I would read my magazines and eat my candy in the garage while Honey was in his mechanic pit working on a car, or piddling around doing any number of things in the yard. I’d bring my baton, too, and practice my routines while listening to the Top Forty on the small boom box I kept there. Grandma would cook and the smells would be heavenly. Dinner was always some delicious Italian meal and then, we would cuddle up on the couch and watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. At bedtime, I slept in between them in there bed. I remember feeling so safe and warm and happy when they would reach over my head so that they could hold hands as they fell asleep. On Sunday mornings, Honey’s brother, Uncle Frankie, would come over with fresh tomatoes and they would do a shot (or two or three) or Sambuca. I was always allowed to have a little. We would head for home midday. I also cherished those rides home, sitting in between them, listening to songs from Grease and Saturday Night Fever on the radio of Honey’s Lincoln. He always had a Chevy pickup truck for work and a Lincoln for pleasure.

Other weekends, especially in the summer, I would go to my Aunt Angela and Uncle Neal’s, who lived in Bayville, about ten minutes away. I would spend time with my cousins Neal and David.  We had so many good times. Riding out bikes and roller skating, fishing, playing Charlie’s Angels or The Dukes of Hazzard. Unfortunately, Neal is the cousin I lost just a day and half before my step father (my REAL father) this past January. I miss him, too, every single day. Sometimes Neal and David would sleep at Grandma and Honey’s with me. We would eat Jello pudding pops, play Chinese jump rope, watch Nickelodeon and generally drive my grandparents crazy. These were good times. I thank God every day, still, that I had Honey as my pseudo daddy for those years. I know I was very special to him. He didn’t let me forget it, ever.

He started asking me when I was around ten what I wanted from him for my sixteenth birthday. He wanted to get me something special. My Aunt Angela had a beautiful rabbit fur coat and I remember I told him that I wanted that, for sure! By the time I turned sixteen, though, and Honey asked me if I decided what I wanted, I decided I wanted a piece of Jewelry – a ring. He brought me Squires in the Sears mall and let me pick out anything I wanted. I ended up picking up a ruby ring, that I still have and treasure to this day.

When my wedding day was approaching, I was very torn. My mom had been married to my Daddy (who most of you know as my “real dad”) and, of course, I wanted him to walk me down the aisle. I never forgot all of the times I had begged my Honey to do it, though so, I talked to Daddy, and explained to him my feelings and, of course, understood completely. We decided that Honey would walk me halfway down the aisle, to where Daddy was waiting, and Daddy would walk me the rest of the way and give me away. It was truly beautiful. I’ll never forget when I walked down the spiral staircase in my wedding gown, ready to get started. My Honey was waiting at the bottom of the stairs and his eyes immediately welled up with tears. He was able to get out “you look beautiful, Nicole”. It was a very special moment for us. I swear it was like people say they go through before their death – with the entire life flashing before their eyes. At that moment, I remembered all of the love and support that Honey had given me growing up and, I had to try very, very hard to not break down and mess up my professionally done make up.

The most amazing thing about my Honey was that although he was a “tough guy” –  a Marine who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima, a mechanic, a heavy machinery operator. A big man – and one of the strongest men I have ever known with the exception of my husband, he was also able to give a little girl all of the sweet, loving things she needed. It wasn’t until I got older until I understood just how special that was. Honey passed away in January of 2009, to join my Grandma Nickie in heaven. I miss him each and every single day. And, I suspect, I always will. Losing him was so much more than losing a grandparent; it was like losing a father. And, although it hurt more because of that, I wouldn’t change a thing about having been so close to him. He was truly one of a kind.

When I was nine and a half, my Mom married my Daddy. Big Bob. When I think of the hard time I gave him when they were dating and, even when they first got married. You see, I was used to it just being my Mom, Chrissy and I. My Mom worked so much that she was pretty laid back as a parent. There weren’t that many rules. As long as I was in bed, it didn’t really matter how late I stayed up reading (I was resting, she would say!), we were able to sleep with her whenever the mood hit us (watching her little black and white TV until we eventually fell asleep), running out of the house with no hat when it was snowing was no big deal (you get sick from germs, not from the cold, she would say), we were always allowed to have all of our friends in our house, dinner time was a different time every night, depending on how late she had to work. We were one of the first generation of “latch key” kids and, that was perfectly alright. Chrissy and I had so much fun coming home by ourselves. Mom didn’t say “no” often. She was so busy making a living. Survival was the key at that time. I remember her patching our jeans and even rolling pennies once in a while so that she would run to Pathmark and buy macaroni and cheese for dinner.

When “Big Bob”, my Daddy, came into our lives, there was a huge learning curve for all of us. Daddy was stricter than Mom had been and, of course, being nine and six, we rebelled against this. WHY can’t we put our feet up on our chairs when we were eating dinner (and why did we have to be home for dinner at the same time every night?), why in the world did we need a bed time? A real one where when the lights went out, we actually had to go to sleep. Why in the world did we have to wear hats in the snow? You get the idea. There was a lot of fighting – between me and Chrissy and Daddy, between Mom and Daddy. Mom had to teach Daddy to pick his battles and to not expect us to change overnight. Daddy had to teach Mom that kids need some structure in their lives. And, he was right. But, it was hard going at the beginning.

We found our rhythm pretty quickly, though, and he was our “Daddy”. He was there for us, unconditionally, all of the time. Chrissy and I also both look a lot like our biological father so, it must not have been easy to take on these two little wildlings that look like the man that he knew caused the woman he loved so much so much pain.

Daddy was there for us when we were sick at night, had our horrendous bloody noses from the forced hot air in the house, when we were heartbroken over the loss of a “love”, when we needed advice about everything (Daddy, having been a hippie before marrying Mom, had a wealth of knowledge about most things teenager struggle with); we were able to talk to him about drugs, boyfriends, even sex. He was cool and blasted Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in the house, along with anything Dylan, Beatles, Joplin and Hendrix. We loved listening to his stories about Woodstock, driving across country on his motorcycle, and basically living life in a way that Mom never got the chance to. He opened his own photography business and named it “Chris-Cole” after my sister and I. We were so touched that he would do that. He was still strict but, we started to feel as though it was because he loved us so much and was concerned about our well-being.

Daddy taught us that anything was possible, that if you work hard there was nothing you couldn’t accomplish. I know he was so proud that I own my own business. He felt as though I took that chance because I had watched him do it. And, of course, he gave us the greatest gift of all – our little sister, Lori, a year after he and Mom got married.

And, here’s the thing that made him not only our “step” father but our “Daddy”. When Lori was born – his own flesh and blood, I have to admit I was a little worried that he would love her more. That’s just the truth. But, the real truth is that never, even for a second, did Chrissy or I feel as though he loved us any less than his own “natural” daughter. We were all special to him, in different ways. He called me #1, Chrissy #2 and Lori #3.

He made our house a home. We could depend on his love unconditionally. Even when he was angry (and, believe me – Chrissy and I gave him a real run for his money), we never doubted for one second how much he loved us. We were his “girls”.

And, when we had children, he was a wonderful grandfather. My kids didn’t realize, until much, much later, that his blood didn’t run through my veins. It was a very important lesson for them in that it taught them that it is people’s actions that count, and not whether you are technically “related” to that person. It’s a very important lesson and I’m glad my children learned it early. It will help them when they navigate the complicated world of relationships in the future. My kids loved their Papa and, it was a joy for him to have boy children to love, after having had three girls himself.

It was clear from the very, very beginning how much he loved us and was ready to be our Daddy. When my parents went on their honeymoon, they were gone for about ten days. Honey and Grandma Nickie came and stayed at our house to watch Chrissy and I. They got in late – we were able to stay up and wait for them. They weren’t home for more than maybe fifteen minutes, just starting to show us some pictures and talk about their time, when Chrissy and I, at the same time, got those terrible bloody noses. It was bad. No matter what they did, they couldn’t get them to stop. Grandma and Honey were still there and they were helping to but, to no avail. It got so bad, and Chrissy swallowed so much blood, that she ended up vomiting it up. This is when Mom passed out (she was known to do that in times of great stress! LOL!). There we were, in the kitchen that looked like a gruesome murder had taken place because of all of the blood all over the place, with my parent’s luggage still in the doorway, when they finally had to call an ambulance. We spent the entire night at the hospital where they were eventually able to cauterize our noses and get the bleeding to stop. Imagine, this is the first night in his new “home” and a precursor for how difficult it was to raise children, which he had never done before. He stayed cool, calm and collected, spoke softly and kindly to us to calm us down, took care of my Mom, who was freaking out, and basically took charge of the entire situation. We didn’t get home until around dawn. Some men, I’m sure, would have taken the luggage and run (or at least thought of doing that) but, not Daddy. From the day he became our father, he was our father 100 percent.

During the period of transition I spoke of above, I was also lucky enough to also have my best friend’s dad, Jim, to act as another strong father figure in my life. I watched how he was with his girls and knew that I wanted what they had.  Jim (or Mr. Jim, or Poppa Jim, which I also called him) was always there for me; he and his wife would talk to me when I would come over crying about how “strict” our new father was, how he didn’t understand how we had lived and how he couldn’t expect us to change overnight. They were always there to let me know that things would get better. That my new Daddy was a good man and would adjust to having kids of his own – that he just needed some time. I was always welcome there – to eat, to sleep over, to swim, to just hand around in a house I felt comfortable in while adjusting to my new situation at home. And, my new father wasn’t very affectionate. It’s just how he was raised and how he was wired. Jim was affectionate. And, that helped me. That helped me in a very profound way. I stayed close to Jim up until his death in August of last year. So, this is really my first Father’s Day without my Daddy and without the man who was so instrumental in making my new home situation go that much more smoothly, just by being there. He did this by loving me and by encouraging me that my new Daddy was a great man and things would get easier with time. Boy, was he was right.

To make matters worse, not only am I grieving for these men who meant so much to me that were lost this year, my best friend is grieving as much as I am. She lost her father and as often as I was at her home growing up, she was at mine and had a very special relationship with my Daddy. He used to call her his fourth daughter. I was so blessed that Daddy ended up in a rehab facility the last two months of his life that Jill worked in. She was able to look in on him several times a day, advocate for him, and just her presence gave him some comfort. The thing is, because we are grieving together, it is so hard to help each other. We do, don’t get me wrong but, it is incredibly hard to try and comfort someone who is grieving for the same people you are.

I thought of all of these men this weekend, what they meant to me, how they affected my life and what they all brought to it. Although, of course, it was Daddy’s empty chair at my sister Lori’s house that broke my heart the most. He was a wonderful man. He took my mother and us kids in and was there for us always and unconditionally. People who didn’t realize he was really my “step” father (and there were many, for he always referred to all three of us as his “daughters” and gave us all equal time – whether he was bragging about us, or complaining about us), would often tell him that Chrissy or I looked like him and we would get a chuckle out of that. But, it’s true. When someone means so much to you and has such a profound impact on your life, you do start to resemble them; physically, in the way that you act, in your expressions and so on.

As is often the case, when I started writing this, I did it to get my thoughts out on paper, where they hurt less than when they are in my mind. I always end up taking something away from them, though, and this is where this particular blog led me.

It’s unfortunate the way that my biological father’s relationship with me ended up. But, again, if there was no him there would be no me.

More importantly, I was so incredibly lucky to have three other men in my life that stepped up and filled that void that any little girl who has been left by a father feels. It warms my heart that Honey and Jim were there for me in such important and meaningful ways. I will always remember them as father figures and, they deserve that title. I was honored to be able to do the eulogies at both of their funerals. I loved them both very much and, more importantly, they loved me very much. They made me feel worthy of the unconditional love of a man. They made me feel beautiful and good.  They will always hold a very special place in my heart.

And, what can I say about the man who came into our lives and made us his own? He was an incredibly giving, loving, caring, funny, dependable man who would lie down his life for any one of ours. He was a wonderful husband to my mother and taught me so much about how a healthy marriage should look. With all of the horror stories you hear about “step” fathers, ours was the best. In all respects, the “step” was just not an issue from day one. He was our Daddy. And, although it was so very hard, I am so glad that we were there, by his bedside, at the end. We told him how wonderful he was, how great he did with all of us – that we are all happy, fulfilled, independent woman, and that we would be ok if he left, in large part because of all he had taught us.

So, although I am without these men on this Father’s Day, I am incredibly blessed to have had them in my life. I had more love from these men than a lot of people have in a lifetime. I know that there is a heaven, and I hope that there is no pain there; I hope that there is forgiveness and only good feelings. I hope that they look down and realize that it is the sum total of all that they did for me, which made me the woman I am today.

I like that woman. She is loving and generous, strong and resilient, forgiving and kind. She loves her husband, her kids, sisters, brother in laws, nephews, friends and pets with all of her heart.  She cares for her employees, treats people with respect and stands up for herself, when necessary.  These are lessons taken from these men.

And, as much as I love them and miss them, I know that there love is eternal – and that they will be looking down on me, guiding me and protecting me – all the days of my life.

Happy Father’s Day in heaven. All of my love – always.

xoxoxo

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