The Unconditional Step

“Everyone will know you’re my dad.”

A Plus' Project Dad content is inspired by Chicken Soup for the Soul's Project Dad, a television series about the joy of fatherhood and family.

I didn't just marry their mother. She had two young teenage daughters whom I loved dearly. For several years, I watched them grow from little girls into beautiful young ladies. We got along great, but I worried that things would change once I married their mom.

Having never been married before, with no children of my own, I was concerned about taking on the role of "father." I read several articles on the subject -- all contradicting one another and leaving me nothing but confused. I don't think I ever made a conscious decision on just "what" to be to the girls. Luckily I didn't have to -- they made that decision for me.

Something wonderful happened. Without any encouragement from my wife or myself, the girls began to call me "Dad." Such a simple word, but an unfamiliar one that filled my heart with even more love for these amazing girls. By them reaching out, I realized that they needed a dad in their lives. And so the decision was made -- I would be "Dad."

Several years passed and we made it through life with no major catastrophes. My marriage to their mother was a happy one and I was delighted that the girls and I had a strong relationship.

The older of the two, Veneta, was now eighteen and legally old enough to make her own decisions -- and a big one she made!

On my birthday she presented me with a beautiful frame. This wasn't a picture or a piece of art, but a legal document protected by a beautiful casing. Veneta had given me the most precious gift -- she had changed her last name to mine.

She told me that something was missing when she heard her name being called at her high school graduation. "It wasn't my father's name," she explained.

She continued by promising that the next time I was in a room where her name was announced, that it would be mine. "Everyone will know you're my dad."

I know grown men aren't supposed to cry, but I'll admit I did that day. This wasn't the last time she would make me cry.

Veneta graduated college, and along the way fell in love with a great guy who would become her husband.

After months of planning, the big day arrived and I would walk her down the aisle. I couldn't have been more proud of my daughter, who looked radiant.

As the music started, Veneta took my arm. "Are you ready, Dad?" she asked with poise.

I looked at her, trying to smile but feeling like I needed to cry. My quivering lips struggled with a humble, "Yes."

I kissed the top of her head -- right through the veil -- smiled and walked her proudly down the aisle. The ceremony was perfect.

At the reception, I heard the DJ announce the infamous father-daughter dance. Dancing not being one of my better attributes, I became consumed with nervousness. Scared to death, I put on a brave face, took my daughter's hand and led her to the empty dance floor.

While preparing to relax by taking a deep breath, I noticed someone hand Veneta a microphone and something in a frame. Another framed gift? Is this déjà vu? Not knowing what she was up to, Veneta kissed me on the cheek and stepped back. In front of everyone, she began to read a touching poem she wrote about our relationship. She called it "Something Special," and something special it was.

As she continued, I tried to block out everyone around us so I could just listen to her. Tears filled my eyes when I heard her voice quiver:

"Daddy, it is because of you and your love that I have the confidence and courage to stand here today as Mrs. Jeremy Veneta Novakovich Leonard. I hope that as you look upon me at this moment, it is with the same pride and unconditional love that I have always felt for you. As I begin my new life as Jeremy's wife, I hope you will continue to hold my hand 'in your heart,' offer me your guidance and advice, and continue to be my best friend. I will always be your little girl -- and in your heart is where I always want to be. I am proud to be your daughter."

Mrs. Veneta Novakovich Leonard -- always a Novakovich, I thought.

When my daughter finished, I thought about her promise to me years before. Hearing my name next to her new name took away all my insecurities from the past.

Then she took my hand for our father-daughter dance, and I suddenly realized that my fear of dancing had disappeared. As we swayed to the music with Veneta in my arms, she laid her head on my chest in a childlike manner. I told her I loved her and she simply replied, "I love you, too, Daddy."

Cover image via EpicStockMedia I Shutterstock

This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dads & Daughters: Stories about the Special Relationship between Fathers and Daughters © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.