Yesterday would have been my dad’s 59th birthday.  He’s been celebrating his birthdays in Heaven now for 13 years. The fact that he’s gone still hits me on a very regular basis, but I don’t want to talk about that today.  Today, I want to tell you about a real-life hero.  I want to tell you about the man that I am proud to call my dad.

I met Paul Belmarez when he started dating my mom, I really don’t remember when that was.  I do know that when he married my mom in 1984 he not only got a wife, but he also took on the responsibility of an almost five-year-old girl and almost two-year-old boy.  They gave us the choice of calling him “Paul” or “dad” and since we didn’t know any better we called him Paul.  I’ve always regretted that decision.  The funniest thing is that whenever I referred to him while talking to other people I always said “my dad”.  Unless, of course, I was talking to my bio dad or his side of the family.  On a side-note, having all sides of my family active in my life was one of the biggest blessings of my childhood.  I had so many grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I was always very loved and very blessed!  It’s not often when broken and blended families can get along, but mine did!  Paul never once said anything bad about my bio dad.  That’s something I wish for every “step-family”.  Don’t badmouth the “other” parent, whichever side that is.  Even if there’s a list a mile-long of legitimate things to criticize, just don’t.  Kids recognize that and it shapes them.

He became a Fire-Fighter when I was little, so I spent my child-hood and early adult years hanging out at whichever station he was assigned to.  I always felt so cool when he would come to the neighborhood with his crew and truck on days he worked.  All the neighborhood kids loved to see the truck and talk to the guys, and it just made me feel so proud.  Like, “Yep!  That’s my dad!  Super cool fire-fighter.”  My kids loved going to see grandpa at the station too.  That was a tradition I definitely wanted to share with them!  My dad was my real-life hero in more ways than I can even count.  Sure, he was a hero already because he risked his life every time he had to go fight a fire.  One of the things I miss so much about him is hearing all the stories of bravery after he returned from a call.  I loved seeing him in the newspaper when he was part of a team that was someone’s hero that day.  He served our city very well, working his way eventually to a captain of the South Bend Fire Department.  All of the good he did, all the bravery others saw, pale in comparison to the hero he was in my own life. 

I have so many memories that flood my mind when I think back to my childhood with him.  He LOVED to play in the snow with us.  We would get all bundled up and go out to build igloo forts, have snowball fights, bury each other in the snow, and of course play football.  Guess what I learned when I got older?  He hated snow!  As an adult I would always call him on the day of the first snow-fall of the season just to announce to him that it was snowing and hear him groan about it.  He wanted snow at Christmas, and that was it.  Why on earth would someone spend so much time out in the snow with his kids if he hated snow?  That’s what hero’s do.  He loved football too.  So many memories of watching football and playing out in the yard.  When we moved into our house on Douglas St., it had a combined room for the living/dining room as soon as you walked in the front door.  It sported a very dark green carpet, so of course my dad didn’t want to put any furniture in.  He wanted to paint white lines on it and have our own mini-football field!  Mom veto’d that one pretty quickly.  We never just “watched” any sport, we always had to play it too.  Including WWF.  We LOVED having little wrestling matches in the house!  Macho Man, Hulk Holgan, the Bushwackers… we had fun!  Of course, a lot of my memories revolve around my time at the fire-station.  Playing basketball out back at Central.  Running away from the “boogie man” (one of his fire-fighter friends who loved when we came to visit).  Watching them all jump up and get in their gear taking off for a fire.  We learned how to recognize the tones and dispatcher’s codes to know if we should stay and wait because they’d be right back, or if there was a real fire and we should just head home.  I loved being the daughter of a fire-fighter.

I’ll never forget the day I broke my arm.  It was bad, we thought that I had broken both of them but the left hand turned out to just be a sprain. I was like 10 or 11 years old, and I was trying to be a gymnast.  With a thick metal clothesline pole and a cement ground beneath me.  Yup, I was that dumb.  I was going SO high, swinging from my hands back and forth.  I remember being up in the air, feet and legs stretched out behind me, still gripping the pole with my hands.  I looked down and realized I was parallel with the ground below and thought I was so awesome!  Maybe I could actually do a flip!  Except, before my legs began their descent, my hands slipped and I fell straight down and met that cement ground HARD.  In an attempt to protect my face, I put both hands straight down to hit the ground before my face and body.  I still stand by my split-second choice that the alternative would have been way worse.  Anyway, you’ll have to ask my mom what happened after that.  All I remember is that my dad came home from the fire station with the ambulance to take me to the hospital.  (I don’t know if I needed the ambulance, but those are the perks of having a dad who’s a fire-fighter and I felt super cool!)

It’s funny how life and experience changes how you view things.  I would have NEVER been able to recognize and articulate how important his actions were when I was actually living through it.  When you’re a kid, nothing’s fair and everyone hates you.  You don’t like having chores, you hate discipline.  Every kid goes through phases of attitude and I definitely had more than my fair share of that.  Now that I’m almost 40 and I have seen a lot of families throughout my years of ministry and life, I recognize the pivotal moments in my relationship with my dad.  There are certain moments in your history that you can point to as a sort of “landmark.”  That’s not the right word, but since I can’t think of the right one I’m sticking with it!  It’s like these points in time that you can clearly see now how they changed your life.  It could be an act that takes place in a matter of minutes, or it could be a life change that drags on for a while.  They can be either good or bad, and sometimes are both.  One particular landmark for me was between the ages of 13-16.  That was how long the separation lasted leading up to the divorce of my parents.  For three years, we lived primarily with my dad although both parents and the rest of our family were actively involved in our lives still.  What really makes my dad stand out as a real-life hero in my mind, is that he didn’t change one bit during that time.  He was my dad before the separation, he was my dad during the separation, and the most remarkable thing was that he was my dad after the divorce.  Of course, a kid is going to worry about that, especially with where my emotions were at during that time.  There are so many days that I wish I could go back to my childhood and tell him all these things I recognize now.  Looking back, I can see that moment in my history eradicate any kind of doubt I might have had about how much he loved me.  No one takes on someone else’s kids after the divorce unless they truly love those kids.  I know he loved me and my brother just as much as he did my little sisters that came along after he married my mom.

I can’t wait until I get to see him in Heaven so I can tell him how much I love and appreciate him and all he did for me.  I just want to know, did he know?  Did he know how much I loved him?  Did he know how proud I was of him?  Did he know I called him “dad” to everyone else except him?  Did he know how desperately I wanted to call him “dad”?  Did he know what kind of impact he made on my life?  Does he know how deeply I miss him? Every. Single. Day.

I could share so many more thoughts and stories.  They are endless, but I’m sitting in McAllister’s trying to hold back a huge flood of tears (quite unsuccessfully I might add.) So for today, I will leave it here.  Tell the people you love that you love them.  Make sure they know they are appreciated.  Recognize the hero’s in your life and be a hero to someone else.  I promise you that he would say he didn’t really do anything special.  He would tell you he made lots of mistakes.  It doesn’t take a lot to be someone’s hero.  Just love them unconditionally, support them, encourage them.  Be there for them, spend time with them even if it means making sacrifices.  You have no idea how you will change someone’s life.