By Gabe Howard
On the surface, my dad, Gary Howard, is an uninteresting man.
Before retiring, he was a semi-truck driver and now spends his days doing what can best be described as pissing off my mother. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and enjoys playing on his computer and amassing DVDs like squirrels amass nuts.
When I was younger, my dad had the coolest job.
I would brag to those around me that my dad could drive—and I would motion toward a giant semi-truck barreling down the freeway—one of those. Once when I was in high school, I met him at a truck stop and watched him arrive in his 12-ton truck, felt the ground shake and the rumble of the diesel engine through my body, and watched his extremely average-sized body jump out of the cab onto the concrete.
Maybe it was the diesel fumes I was breathing in, but I believe I caught a glimpse of what my mother must have seen in him all those years ago.
My dad didn’t teach me much on purpose. He certainly tried, but failed almost every time. He tried to teach me to play baseball, but hit me in the face with the ball; tried to teach me to ride a bike without training wheels, and I ran into the back of a parked car.
Once, after realizing my teenage obsession with Cindy Crawford, he sat me down and explained that “most women don’t look like that.” I am certain this set off my desire to prove him wrong by dating only supermodels.
As I grew up, he became easier and easier to ignore.
I wanted to be nothing like him. He didn’t have the intelligence I had, the money I wanted or the respect I demanded. His job was laughable, his station in life meaningless. He was unexceptional, unassuming, and boring.
When I was in high school, my dad set out to improve his education by working with a tutor to learn the skills he never acquired during his childhood. At one point, I openly mocked him to my friends, to him and to the tutor. His hard work allowed me an education, and this was the very thing I took for granted to level my judgment.
By the time I graduated high school, I was positive of only one thing: I still wanted to be nothing like him.
While maturity did give me a different perspective on his life, it didn’t change the core belief that his life would be unsatisfying, even if only to me. I wanted people to pay attention to me and he, simply, didn’t care what other people were doing.
He wasn’t my “Real” Dad…
My dad was not present on the day I was born. To this day, no one is really certain where he was, or what he was doing. November 24, 1976, is not a day that had any significant meaning to him until a couple years later.
Call it fate, call it karma, call it a broken CB radio and the adventurous spirit of a trio of twenty-something sisters and you end up with my father—a truck driver from Ohio—meeting my mother—a single woman with a redheaded child living in a small town in Pennsylvania.
Apparently, a red-headed toddler wasn’t a deal-breaker because, less than two months later, my mother married the only man I have ever known to be my father. This was never a secret to me. My parents were open about this, and at six feet, three inches tall, with a large frame and bright red hair, they couldn’t have kept it a secret if they tried.
However, unbeknownst to me, the man I thought of as unexceptionable, unassuming (and boring) somehow managed to intertwine with my life in such a way that him not being my biological dad is an utterly insignificant fact. My family is not blended, my brother and sister are not “halves,” I am not a stepchild, or the adopted one.
The choices he made in his life taught me to stand my ground, to defend those who can’t defend themselves and to love people. His belief that people were basically good became my own belief and his refusal to give up inspires me to do the same.
The man, for all his many faults and even more failures, never once failed to try.
More than anything, he taught me that some details that we see as big are wholly insignificant.
Imagine if he had let the seemingly significant detail that he wasn’t my biological father stop him from being my real dad.
Gabe Howard is a motivational speaker, mental illness blogger and writer, as well a person living with severe mental illness. Over ten years ago, Gabe was diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety disorders after being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Later, he would be terminated from his job with a Fortune 100 company, giving him firsthand experience of discrimination against the mentally ill. Realizing that ignorance of mental illness was a direct cause of the fear, discrimination, and stigmatization people with mental illness face, he has made it his mission to raise the level of people’s understanding about these disorders. See more of Gabe’s writing on his blog and connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
Editor: Dana Gornall