Gary P. Smoke, 1956-2013

I agreed to fly south to attend my step-Gary’s funeral mainly to support my Mom. I hadn’t realized it would be so healing for me, too.

I once told Gary (and he delighted in repeating this) that we met under possibly the worst possible circumstances. I was taking a semester off from college, as I was under Academic Suspension, so I had to come back home to live with my Mom after having tasted a bit of freedom on campus. I had no job, no computer (this was 1995), and my Mom had this new boyfriend who (when he was around, anyway) wanted to be my new Dad or something. Mom had gotten used to going out to his place most nights while I was off at school… so I was home alone, depressed and resentful.

After a while, Gary and his dog moved in with us, which was almost worse — especially since our cat was permitted according to the lease, but dogs were not. In my mind, Gary essentially got us evicted from the sweet apartment my Mom had finally managed to score after living in “the projects” during my high school years.

That didn’t happen until I went back to college, though. In the meantime, Gary convinced Mom that I needed to get a job if I was going to live at home, so I applied for and landed a seasonal gig at Target, stocking the Christmas aisles during third shift. That, at least, meant that I was asleep during the day and didn’t have to deal with Gary much. I don’t do third shift well, though, as I discovered, so it also felt like all I was doing was working and sleeping.

After I returned to college, Mom and Gary moved to Parma (partially because they were evicted for violating the lease, but partially because Gary wanted to be closer to his son). Not only did I have to memorize a new “home” address, but I also discovered that they’d left a couple pieces of my furniture behind.

I was pissed. Granted, they were old and ratty pieces of furniture… but they were mine!

When I went “home” for Spring Break, they hadn’t quite gotten settled into their new two-bedroom duplex apartment. The back bedroom was full of boxes; I don’t recall if the bed was set up yet, but it was so full of stuff that it didn’t matter.

I slept on the couch during all of Spring Break, and felt like an interloper in my own home. I’d just met Aaron, and spent all my time listening to the mixtape he’d made me and calling him on the phone and wishing I didn’t have to leave campus for breaks.

Not the best start to a step-parent-child relationship.

Over the years, the negative aspects of our relationship tended to be more memorable than the positive. He convinced Aaron to meet him “halfway” to drive me back to school… except it ended up being more like 2/3 of the way for Aaron. When I was home for breaks, Gary insisted that I had to have a job, even if it was only for a few weeks, and even if I worked with him at his factory job (and had to get up at 4am to carpool with him and his early-morning beer slushies). The first time Aaron came to visit during a break, Gary had a talk with him and declared that he was, spiritually speaking, an “empty walking shell.”

Even the positive things got skewed; when he tried to start his own business, he hired me as his graphic designer, then called me at all hours to get the designs for business cards and stationery overnighted to Kinko’s for printing. Once I graduated and married Aaron, Mom would come to visit once a year… and Gary would call at 4am to tell her to come home because he turned his ankle on a curb in the dark.

I was convinced for years that Gary was just an asshole.

This weekend, I spent a good deal of time not only with my Mom, but with Gary’s four siblings, and his parents, and his friends. And I was reminded that bad things happen to good people, and that sometimes life doesn’t go according to plan. Sure, Gary was manipulative — but he was also outgoing, and loving, and helpful (albeit in a backhanded way), and driven.

He would talk to complete strangers; it was what he was known for. It was embarrassing for those who were with him; Mom’s common phrase was, “Here he goes again…” Gary would often spend more time talking to strangers than his own family when we went out to eat. He’d get up and wander around, talking to people at the bar or at other tables, and would often skip the meal entirely.

He would delegate, and get people out of their comfort zones. Being his graphic designer was the first real paying gig I had, and he insisted on paying me $10 an hour, more than I was making at my college student supervisory position.

He was intelligent, and he knew a lot about the Bible; that was his bread and butter. He had shelves upon shelves of reference books and concordances, and would consult them frequently. We had differing opinions and beliefs — I actually deconverted from Mormon to “spiritual” to atheist over the years — but we always had civil and intelligent conversations about religion and theology and the Bible, and frequently talked long into the night when I was home for break (and didn’t have to work in the morning).

He liked to laugh, and he liked to make people laugh. He was irreverent, which was definitely part of his charm.

He was charismatic. That’s the positive word for what he was, I suppose. If you’re being more critical, you might say he was manipulative — but that’s two sides of the same coin, and it all depends on what side of his charisma you perceived. Aaron was one of only a few people who seemed immune to his charm; everyone else seemed to find it impressive, if sometimes infuriating.

Spending time with his family and friends this weekend helped me understand him a little more, I think, and come to terms with my own relationship with him. Over the years, my memories had begun to focus only on the assholery; I’d honestly forgotten that we had some genuine moments.

Gary called me recently — just before Christmas, actually — with a couple of requests over a couple of calls. First, he wanted to know how to make my Mom happy again, since she’d gotten so frustrated with him of late. Second, he wanted to see his grandson in person before it was too late. The first request I helped with as much as I could: I suggested that he listen more than demand, take her out to dinner, let her get a full night of sleep, be more considerate and courteous. It was difficult to know what their dynamic was like since he’d fallen ill, and I hadn’t seen their living situation (they were living with his parents, in two rooms of their house). As for the second request… it just wasn’t feasible for me to bring Connor on a plane, with carseat and diapers and him not sleeping in a real bed yet. I had hoped that Gary would remain well enough for long enough to come north to see Connor, but it wasn’t to be.

Regret is a strong word, with a specific meaning. I don’t necessarily regret not making it work — if I could go back in time, I still wouldn’t hop on a plane with Connor as soon as Gary asked — but I am sorry that it didn’t happen. I do feel bad about that.

I feel like I’m at peace with my relationship with Gary, more so than I would have been had I not gone to Texas for the visitation and the funeral. I feel like I better understand who he was, both before and after I met him.

I never thought I’d say this… but I do miss him.

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