I started off newlywed life on the wrong foot, as it were, by telling an innocent lie. If there is such a thing. My first misstep as a new stepdad was telling my enchantingly gullible stepchildren (Reed, 5, and Chloe, 8), that I taught the Backstreet Boys how to dance. Why? I don’t know why. As a (then) Learjet pilot to movie and rock stars — in a nation in the throes of 9/11 — I had bigger worries at hand. But, suddenly, my worries were in my feet.
The year was 2001. I was 39 years old. Our day started out quietly enough, with a family drive. We were all singing to the radio, and carrying on as if in celebration of family life. Then, when I hesitantly offered one of my favorite jokes, about what happens when you play Country Western songs backwards (you get your old dog back, your ex-wife, etc.), even the kids doubled over in laughter. And I can’t explain it, but at that very moment, I appreciated family life, my newfound family life, more than ever.
Unfortunately, a news break — with updates from Afghanistan — broke our modern-day Norman Rockwellian spell. And the light-hearted refrains of the day took on an unexpected tone. Without missing a beat, Reed launched into rapid-fire questioning, about the war that he thought was taking place in New York. “What is war?” “How can you tell who ‘wins’?” “Which ‘team’ do you want to win?” “Are they going to bomb the Space Needle?”
But, before my wife, Kerrie, or I could respond, Chloe offered some of her 8-year-old deductive reasoning: “War means going to ‘battle,’ right? So, that means that there will never be a war in Seattle because there’s no room to put in a battlefield.” Thankfully, Reed accepted this as so, and they went back to fighting over a “Jose and the Pussycats” CD, now playing at the loudest volume possible.
It was sometime during that mix, as I fervently tried to recapture the early-morning rapture, that I said, “Did you know I taught the Backstreet Boys to dance?” The children’s awestruck silence made me realize that I’d just struck the biggest chord with them of all time.
Up to this point, I’d grown somewhat accustomed to feeling like they tuned me out. I tried my very best to fit in, but it was always, “We want Mommy to read us a book…” “We want Mommy to pour our cereal….” One time I had to restrain myself from telling Reed, “Listen, pal, I want Mommy, too.”
But I didn’t, partially because I didn’t want to give in to the “wisdom” of my Blue Angel/fighter pilot friend, who told me before I got married: “Just you wait… You think you’ve got the world by its tail. That only lasts until you become a parent. Then, you’ll be humbled beyond belief and you’ll find yourself doing and saying things you never dreamed possible.” He then reveled in telling battle story after battle story, all kid-related in theme.
This also reminded me of a parenting article I’d just read that stated that the “mentality” of any given household is somehow reduced to the average age of the children inhabiting it. At the time, I thought that was absurd. But before I knew it, here I was, a pilot with a (formerly) conservative nature, reflexively slugging my wife’s arm, trying to be the first to yell out “Yellow Slug Bug… No take backs!” and high- and low-fiving my kids in the backseat.
And now I was trying to figure out how to sustain a ridiculous story about a former career I had working with the Backstreet Boys. The kids wouldn’t stop taunting me about it, so when Kerrie and I were on a trip to San Francisco, I had my photo superimposed on one of The Backstreet Boys. When we returned home, we framed these photos, with handwritten messages that read, “Dear Pat, thanks for teaching us everything we know!” and put them in the children’s rooms.
End of story? Nope. Unbeknownst to us, they had brought the photos to school the next day, and by mid-morning, the story of Chloe and Reed’s “famous new stepdad” had picked up speed. When Kerrie arrived to volunteer in Chloe’s classroom and another mom asked if the rumors were “true,” she said yes because Chloe’s friends were standing nearby. With that, even the other mother started jumping up and down, screaming, and wanting to come over after school, to get — of all things — my autograph! I was then quickly scheduled to “perform” at Chloe’s upcoming 9th birthday slumber party! (Had I forgotten to mention that I would be out of town that day?)
The meaning of my new life became clear to me one day when Reed, out of the blue, climbed into my lap and said, “I love you so much, I’ll write it in the sky.” And later, when Chloe came bounding through the door, seeking comfort from me about her skinned knee. And then that night, asking me questions about her writing, instead of her journalist mother. I understood then that, yes, part of being a parent is being profoundly humbled, but I also realized that children build up their parents in a way that’s beyond belief.
As I resigned myself to learning a complicated dance routine for Chloe’s upcoming birthday party (thankfully, I really was flying that weekend), I realized, humbly, that it was a very small price to pay for the privilege of being her and Reed’s dad, and for a chance to step boldly…where I’d never gone before.
Chloe and Reed are now grown, and we also have a 16-year-old son, Tanner, of our own.They all still love me, even though they know I didn’t teach the Backstreet Boys how to dance. Nevertheless, Chloe is getting married in August, and I plan to make good on my promise and come up with a solo dance routine for her reception.
Captain Patrick K. Reightley is a stepfather of two, biological father of one, and husband to Kerrie Houston Reightley, who co-authored this piece. He flies around the world as a corporate pilot and calls Bainbridge Island, Washington, home.