I woke at 6 a.m. and started cooking: spinach and mushroom quiche, bacon-egg scramble, even chocolate-dipped strawberries.
What if they don't like the food? What if they notice the poorly hidden clutter? What if our sons act like brats?
My husband, Brandon, stumbled into the kitchen a few hours later, as I was pulling out serving trays, his eyes still crusty with sleep. "Do you think Roger will recognize Noelle's serving trays?" I asked, concerned.
"I doubt it; and if he does, it won't bother him," said Brandon. "It's not like he's scouring our house for remnants of Noelle."
Roger is Brandon's former father-in-law. His daughter Noelle was only 33 when she died in a car accident six months after marrying Brandon. Now her serving trays, her loyal beagle Charlie, even her amazing husband had been bequeathed to me.
Despite my best efforts, those realities would be thrust in Roger's face during his first visit to our home.
I tried to put myself in Roger's shoes. How would it feel to spend an afternoon at his former son-in-law's house with his new family? A family that, if things were different, might have belonged to his daughter.
The doorbell rang interrupting my thoughts. Before answering, Brandon kissed me on the forehead, "Relax, Aim, it's going to be great!"
Roger waited at the door holding a bouquet of flowers in one hand and his second wife Chris's hand in the other. Charlie went wild with excitement, running circles around him, and the two greeted each other like old friends. As they made their way into our home, I pulled out a tall, green vase (Noelle's, of course). Roger expertly arranged the flowers, beaming upon hearing that Brandon and I were expecting our third child.
From the moment I met Roger and Chris five years earlier, they were warm, welcoming and kind. Even though I'd only seen pictures of Noelle, I could see she inherited Roger's playful blue-green eyes. The physical resemblance was striking.
Roger isn't just Noelle's dad. He's one of Brandon's biggest fans.
After Noelle died, Brandon spent weekends grieving with her family members, dividing his time among her mom, her dad and her sister—each in separate homes. A native of Detroit, he didn't have family or friends in California. He moved here for Noelle.
Three years later, Brandon began gushing about me to her dad. "If she makes you this happy," said Roger, "I want to meet her!"
The meeting could have been awkward, uncomfortable, even nerve-wracking, but Roger and Chris, made me feel at ease. We went for stroll on the beach, Brandon and Roger walking ahead while Chris and I lingered behind. Then we had dinner and drinks at a seaside restaurant, talking easily about travel, life and love. Noelle's name never came up.
As we were driving home after dinner, I asked Brandon how Roger felt about me—about me dating his daughter's husband.
"He loved you," said Brandon. "He said you were warm, intelligent, sweet, and he told me not to wait too long before snapping you up." When Brandon and I married a year later, Roger and Chris gave us our most memorable wedding gift during a tour of their home. We meandered down a long hallway displaying artwork—everything from hand-painted oils to Disney caricatures. The crowning jewel at the end of the hallway: an original Batman lithograph.
Brandon was visibly awe-struck. A die-hard Batman fan with a garage full of Bat-related memorabilia, a work of art like this was his "Mona Lisa." He studied every line, every detail, every accouterment in the Dark Knight's tool belt.
As my mind started churning about how to surprise Brandon with a similar masterpiece on our wedding day, Roger said, "Well, I'm glad you like it because it's your wedding gift."
Our jaws dropped like characters in a comic rendered speechless from a hero's random acts of kindness.
Two years later, when Brandon and I were expecting twin boys, Roger and Chris sent a bouquet of daisies to our house. They shared in our excitement, inquiring about every detail—due dates, names, plans and doctor's appointments. Like loving relatives, they celebrated every milestone in our lives, from our wedding day to our boys' baptisms.
When we're together, Roger delights in our children, playfully lifting each of them up while both boys continue clambering for his attention, raising their arms pleading "my turn, my turn."
I think about Noelle, about what she would give to have this moment with her dad, her husband and any children she and Brandon might have had.
During our visits, there are always ephemeral moments when I feel her with us. Maybe Brandon is returning some of her belongings to Roger or reminiscing about a family event. Roger never lingers in those conversations long, handling them matter-of-factly while I silence my desire to ask a million questions about his first daughter and why he has chosen to love what she left behind.
Maybe spending time with Brandon keeps Noelle's memory alive? Maybe I remind him of Noelle? I share her love of books, writing and creative thinking. Maybe he does it for Noelle, believing she would want him to continue his relationship with Brandon—the man who reportedly made her the happiest she had ever been?
Whatever the reason, Roger handles his loss by surrounding himself with people Noelle loved rather than hoping against the truth of her death. He didn't recede into the background, leaving Brandon on his own to pursue a new life. Instead, he has been a pillar of support, embracing me and Brandon in our journey to become a family.
What a gift. To Brandon. To me. To our boys. My children get another grandfather-like figure because of a tragedy.
Roger has become a shining example of how to take pleasure in the current moment, knowing how quickly it can all change. His continued presence in our lives reminds us to hold our children more closely, cherish difficult moments with grace and humility and aspire to be more loving and forgiving to each other, in Noelle's memory.
After brunch, as they said their goodbyes and stepped into their car, Roger looked at my husband, "You have a beautiful family, Brandon."
I felt a pang in my heart, as I realized that Roger, Chris and Noelle are all part of that "beautiful family."
One day, our children will understand who "Uncle Roger" and "Aunt Chris" are. They'll know we have no blood ties. They'll also know Uncle Roger and Aunt Chris supported all five of us despite the gaping hole in their hearts, and they'll understand that's the real meaning of family.
A version of this story was originally published in Spirituality & Health.