Dad was the only man in my life from the time I was seven.
My "real" father hadn't even stuck around to see me born, and Mom had done whatever it took to raise me. She had a decent job working as a legal secretary, so she was home in the evenings and on weekends. She always found time to spend with me and I was never lacking in the love department.
Mom never said anything about men, and I don't think she ever went out. I gave up asking about my father early because she didn't have much to say about him. They knew each other, they made a baby and he left. It was just as well because they were both too young and they wouldn't have gotten along together, anyway. He was a gift from God, sent to help make her little girl, and once that job was finished, he went away to live the rest of his life. I never saw her shed a tear for him or the life they could have had.
I'm the reason Dad and Mom met. Mom took me to the park one Saturday and we were throwing a ball back and forth. There was a lot of laughing and running because I hadn't quite learned how to catch the ball or throw it straight. We were having a blast, both of us doing more chasing than catching.
Dad had gone for a run and was resting for a while when I threw a particularly wild pitch to Mom. It went almost sideways and hit Dad in the back of the head. The ball was about the size of a softball, a quarter inch thick rubberized plastic shell filled with air, so it didn't do any major damage.
I told him I was sorry and Mom made a big fuss over him, apologizing as if I'd almost killed him and she was afraid he was going to sue or have me arrested. He thought it was funny and started laughing.
He worked with me on my throwing that day and actually taught me a lot. He pushed me in a swing, higher than Mom had ever pushed me and he sat on one side of the see-saw while Mom and I sat on the other. He took us out for ice cream that afternoon and I think Mom fell in love with him that day. I know I did.
We found that he was a civil engineer and worked for the city. He'd been married for three years but he wanted kids and she didn't, even though she seemed agreeable to the idea before they got married. He had a vintage three bedroom house that he got for a steal. An older couple had fallen on hard times and they sold it for twenty thousand over what they owed on it. One generation of kids had grown up in that house and it was his dream to father and raise another.
He became a fixture in our lives after that. One of the problems most single mothers face is that single men are interested in women but don't have a lot of patience for their children. Dad was different (he was Mr. Art, back then). He accepted us as two individuals who went together. Not a package so much as a unit. He and Mom were intimate, of course, but I never felt pushed aside or left out. There were plenty of times I'd sit on his lap or we'd play a game together while Mom did the dishes or made dinner, just as there were times when they went off to do what lovers do while I played with other kids or got looked after by a neighbor.
They'd been going together for a little over a year when he sat us down on the couch, got down on one knee and asked us to marry him.
I looked at Mom. She smiled and nodded her head and I accepted for the two of us.
He gave Mom a ring and they kissed. After they separated, she held her hand out for me to see and the three of us hugged each other.
I don't know if it was jealousy or concern about the future now that they were engaged, but there was something in the back of my mind gnawing at me. Dad pulled another box from his pocket, similar to the one Mom's ring had come in, and held it out to me.
I opened it to see a beautiful gold heart on a chain. I had tears in his eyes as I hugged him. He put it around my neck and told me it was to remind me that whatever happened, I'd always be in his heart. I've worn it ever since.
We moved into his house and Mom and Dad married three months later. For my ninth birthday, Mom and Dad took me to the shelter and I was allowed to pick out my own puppy. His mother was in the cage with him and four other puppies and it was love at first sight for both of us. I named him Rocky.
They also did their best to make a little brother or sister for me. Alas, that was not to be.
Mom got sick when I was twelve. She tried to shrug it off at first, then blame it on something going around the office but after several months Dad forced her to go to the doctor. He sent her to see a specialist and three months later she was in the hospital for chemo. She saw me turn fourteen but it was from her bed. It was difficult for her to talk but nothing could wipe that smile and the look of pride off her face.
She died a couple of weeks later. She made me promise that Rocky and I would watch over Dad. He came in the room, then Mom told me she needed to talk to him privately. That was the last time I saw her.
When it happened, Dad came out after being alone with her for over a half an hour. He was crying and it was obvious he had been for quite a while. "She's gone, Honey," he told me.
We stood there holding each other, giving what little comfort we could provide. We had been a group of three for the past seven years. I was the one who was supposed to grow up and leave the family, although none of us had been looking forward to that day.
We all took her death hard. Rocky would still be alert, listening for her car in the driveway about the time she got home for several weeks. I caught him searching for her in her bed several times.
We were lost for a couple of months until Dad slapped his hand down on the kitchen table one Saturday morning, after breakfast.
"This is crazy," he said. "Put on a pair of shorts and your sneakers. We're going to the park."
We had kept up our weekly trips to the park where we met at until Mom became sick. It wasn't the same for Dad, me and Rocky to play without her. But Dad was right; it was time to start living again.
We didn't throw my hollow rubber ball these days. Rocky didn't mind but they didn't stay inflated for long once he got hold of them. He'd tire us all out, then lie down with a flattened ball between his front feet and proceed to rip it apart. He'd grin at whoever came over to him, extremely proud of the job he'd done on it.
These days we took a Frisbee. It would have teeth marks after the first day but at least it made it through in one piece. He would still gnaw on it when everyone was relaxing, though.
Rocky put his heart and soul into it and before long Dad and I were laughing, playing a game of keep away with Rocky, who was running back and forth between us, barking his fool head off, occasionally timing a jump right and snatching it out of the air. At that point, turnabout was fair play and he'd make us chase him around the park as he pranced around with the Frisbee in his mouth.
That was the first day either of us was able to talk about Mom and not cry. In fact, we were both smiling and hugging as we recalled the good times we'd had. Because they were just about all good times.
We settled in to a life without Mom. Dad gave her clothes to the church along with some things that she'd collected over the years. We didn't get rid of everything that would remind us of her, but we didn't maintain a shrine to her, either.
Mom had started teaching me how to cook, do the laundry and other things that were needed around the house. I was able to take over most of the housekeeping duties but Dad wouldn't let me do everything by myself. I did some things, he did others and we worked as a team a lot. He was happy for the help but he wasn't going to keep me from growing up because he couldn't take care of himself.
I still sat on his lap on occasion but I also sat at the kitchen table and across from him in the living room and talked over things he and Mom used to talk over. If he needed someone to rant at about something going on at work, I was the one he came to now.