My daughter, Angie, spent the last few weeks of first grade learning a Native American language of pictures and symbols that tribal members scrawled on cave walls and animal hides many years ago to tell their stories. One evening before bed, Angie showed me how the symbols worked and how they could be linked into simple sentences to depict history. On a sheet of white paper, she drew two squiggly lines to make a river over a teepee, which told the story of a great flood. Then she made two arrows going in opposite directions, to signify a long, terrible war.
And finally, she drew two same-size stick figures holding hands, crossed them out, and replaced them with two more figures, one big and one little.
"This means James isn't just my friend. He's also my dad," she said.
James is the man with whom she and I have been living for more than two years now. No, he is not her father -- not in the biological sense, anyway. And no, he and I are not married. But he does the things fathers do. He makes her chocolate chip waffles on Sunday mornings, shows her how to win at checkers and catches her when she jumps into the deep end of the swimming pool. He goes to her dance recitals, dentist appointments and school plays.
Whenever he goes out of town for work, he leaves two tiny love notes on the bathroom mirror, one high and one low. He keeps every drawing, letter and Valentine she's ever given him in the top drawer of his desk. On the weekends, he watches movies about girl detectives and mermaid princesses, over and over, simply because she asked him to.
Angie found a word for a person who does things like that.
My daughter was just 2-years-old when her real father and I split up. He had fallen in love with another woman. When it became clear that I could not convince him to stay, Angie and I moved from our family home in suburban New Jersey to an apartment in rural Western Maine, in the town where I grew up. I got a part-time job as a pharmacy technician and focused on the things I could control, like paying the bills on time, attending divorce proceedings and taking care of my growing preschooler.
Eventually, I dated a few men, all of them single fathers, but none of them quite right for us. I knew then that any man who came into our lives would have to be a dad, would have to know the love and responsibility of caring for a child. Otherwise, how would he understand my devotion to Angie? How would he understand all that she and I had been through, or all that was at stake?
By the time my divorce was final, Angie had turned 3, old enough to recognize that her family was different from most of the families we saw at our local playground but still too young to understand exactly why. The court granted me child support, along with full custody and parental rights, which meant all the decisions for raising Angie, all the choices about where she would go to school and who her doctor would be, were mine for the making.
For a while, her father was pretty good about keeping in touch. He phoned her two or three times a week, usually before bedtime, to ask how her day went. Some nights she chattered on about who she had played with at daycare and what she had eaten for dinner. Other nights, she just listened to the sound of his voice wishing her good night.
"Sweet dreams, baby girl," he said to her.
"Sweet dreams, Daddy," she said back.
Over time, the frequency of his phone calls diminished. A few times a week became once or twice a month. When she asked to call him, I helped her find his number on my cell phone. Sometimes he answered, and sometimes he didn't. After a while, she stopped asking.
When Angie turned 4, we paid the last month's rent on our apartment, sold most of our belongings and boarded a plane to southern California to start a new life, one with possibilities instead of disappointments. It was a gamble, to be sure, but it was a gamble that paid off in multitudes. I earned a master's degree and got a job as a professor. Angie made friends and discovered a passion for dancing and theater.
And we both fell in love with James.
When Angie started kindergarten in California, she introduced James to her classmates as her "really cool friend." Later on, in first grade, she used the word "step-dad." Then one day, out of the blue, she said "dad."
"This is my mom and my dad," she told a little boy on the playground. The boy nodded. Then they both raced over to the jungle gym.
I have never told Angie what to call James -- or, for that matter, what to call anyone else in her family. My daughter is smart, confident and fully capable of deciding which words to pair with which images. Friend. Father. Mother. Dad. She tells those stories in her own way, in her own time.
Truth is, I'm still not quite sure what to call James. What do you call the person who loves you in your entirety, not just the charming, easy parts but also the hideous parts, the things even you struggle to accept? What do you call a man whose abiding desire is to watch you become the person you were meant to be? How do you describe the person who shows you, finally, what it means to be loved? There doesn't seem to be a word that covers all the facets of our relationship. Boyfriend feels silly, immature. Partner is corny, and friend is wholly inadequate.
James has never been married and never had children of his own. There are things about parenting he didn't know when Angie and I first met him, like how much sleep young children need or how old they must be to ride in the car without a booster seat. But he understands that showing up at soccer practice matters to a little kid, and that a double scoop of rocky road can turn a bad day around.
Our devotion to one another resides not in the words we use, but in the actions and symbols they represent. Homemade waffles. Love notes. Drawings. Valentines. Like the Native Americans she learned about in school, Angie makes meaning from what love looks like, not from what other people tell her it should be.
Angie loves her real father, and I'm thankful for that. I would never want her feelings for him to change just because mine did. My daughter has discovered a language to tell her own story -- a story that includes two men, one who loves her from afar and one who loves her up close, every day, in every way he knows how.
This article was originally published on Role/Reboot.