When I was 12 years old, I lost my father to cancer. It was one of the most devastating moments in my life, even if I had fair warning it was going to happen. Death, no matter the amount of warning, is always a sucker punch to the gut.
But this isn’t about Keith Murray. This is about James Ledbetter, my step-father.
My mom and dad divorced when I was four, and she remarried a few years after. Sonny—the name everyone knows him by—came into my life as a father figure when I still had a father. He never tried to replace my dad in any way, but what child doesn’t think a new step-father isn’t some sort of paternal interloper? Needless to say, I had issues with Sonny.
I never really gave him a fair shake. Actually, I was quite petulant towards him, which was overlooked on the basis of my age. When my father died, things didn’t quite change for the better with Sonny. In fact, I became more headstrong, unwilling to flinch on my insistence that I already had a father, even though he was currently buried within the Earth.
The thing you need to know about Sonny is that even though he has one of the greatest senses of humor you’ll encounter, he’s still very much the strong, silent type. The man worked with rock for the majority of his life, digging it out and blowing it to smithereens in order to make roadways and concrete. He was, by all accounts, the quintessential blue collar man, living by the mantra of doing one’s job and doing it right. I mistook his quiet resolve as inaction and an inability to empathize (these are things every 12 year old thinks about, right?), thereby widening the rift between the two of us occupied by the ghost of my father.
Over the years as I grew more independent and less willing to take advice, I avoided having much of a relationship with him. We didn’t talk. We never got together outside family events, unless I needed money/help. He’s the type of man that will admit fault as equally in all this as I do, but if I’m being completely honest with myself and you, I was a twerp. A little twerp who feigned not knowing any better, but actually knew quite well what he was doing. I held so much resentment toward him for a number of things, the biggest of which was completely beyond his control: he wasn’t Keith Murray.
My family moved to Arizona in 2006, and in 2011 I did something that would have been unthinkable to a younger me: I followed them.
I was dealing with my own demons, and knew that the support system I always wanted was only going to be available to me if I allowed it to be. In the years since moving, I’ve come to understand Sonny in ways I never thought possible. A light on my past has been shed that puts things into far better perspective.
He was a man who showed up.
Through all the basketball games, all the Taekwondo tournaments (more than we can count), all the car troubles, all the financial difficulties. He was there, cheering me on or picking me up off the ground. The more I learn about myself, the more I see his indelible fingerprint on who I am. My sense of humor. My newfound willingness to quiet my mouth and listen, sometimes not even saying anything at all.
No, we didn’t go out in the backyard and toss the pigskin around; although I think he tried doing that with me one time, but I brushed him off with some remark about him not being my dad. Yes, I was that cliche.
Nobody would mistake us for activity partners. Nobody would look at us—him standing 5’7″ with the build of a manual laborer, me standing 6’2″ with the build of a human-sized pencil —and mistake us for father and son. Yet, that’s exactly what we are. He’s been a part of my life longer than he hasn’t.
Keith Murray is my father, the man who gave me life, my name, and a ridiculous nose. A man I will forever love, miss, and hope to one day have the honor of passing on his name to my children.
But James “Sonny” Ledbetter is my dad. He always has been, and always will be.
Happy Father’s Day, Sonny. I love you.