There are events that happen in your life that forever mark a 'before and after.' Your life changes in small and large increments, and you are never the same.
More than eight years ago, my mother died. Readers allowed me the privilege of writing about her amazing life, one that inspired me to become an independent journalist and entrepreneur. A free thinker who created her own paths.
My mom had some help.
My step-father Steve Pratt entered our lives when I was about six. Just 18 years older than me, he was in many ways like a very mature big brother. He was an amazing and spirited person who never balked at helping to raise three young children when he himself was still just starting out in life. We were his three children, never any questions asked, no 'step-dad' about it. [ And not to lessen the impact of my birth father, Hal. ]
He died Jan. 21 at age 60 of a massive heart attack, having survived many health problems in his short life. Hundreds of people began to mourn his loss, both in Chicago and in Key West, where he moved after my mother passed away. Wherever he rested and nested, he gathered around him friends from all walks of life. And his attitude of acceptance started at home—while he always wanted my brother, sister and I to do our best, he also wanted us to be happy and do the things we loved.
He put his money where his support was—giving me $1,000 toward starting Outlines newspaper in 1987. He gave me constant moral support and forever boasted about us 'kids' to his friends around the world.
He even helped start my 'original' journalism career, at age 10. He and my mom used copiers at the Chicago Tribune ( where he worked 29 years ) and the Chicago Defender ( where she worked on and off for several years as reporter and managing editor ) to copy my first 'newspaper.' The monthly family publication was my early fulfillment of a desire to just write and write and write about whatever. There might be a support group for people like me, but I haven't found it yet—like my step-dad and my mom, Joy Darrow, who had that similar compelling need to just document life.
They both helped me live my dream, and reminded me that what you do in life is far more important than how much you make.
Steve and Joy's 'family' extended far beyond the five of us. They adopted many misfits along the way, running a commune-like home for most of their lives. Students, alcoholics, unemployed photographers, artists of all kinds, and a few gay folks down on their luck gravitated toward my parents. Maybe it was their outgoing natures, their generous souls, their big parties, their urban pioneer selections for homes. My mom saw an old mansion on Prairie Avenue in 1978, and she immediately knew it was our next home. With the downtown carriage horses in the back, dozens of tenants coming and going, and an art gallery on the first floor, the big mutt house on the Prairie, a mix of dogs, cats and people, was the center of the universe for so many people.
But life was not simply a commune of chaos and unique personalities. There were many trials and tribulations. Both my parents worked hard their whole lives. Steve managed to stay in one place most of that time, covering hard news and features, and eventually food and nutrition, for the Tribune. My mom started out at community papers, hit a hard glass ceiling at the Trib, and then bounced around to a wide variety of human-rights and journalism jobs.
In 1978, our family experienced together one of those 'before/after' moments that left a real mark on all of us. At that moment in time, Memorial Day 1978, my dad became forever my hero. I was 15 at the time. My dad and I usually both awoke our workaholic selves at 5:30 on weekdays to prepare for the day together. I loved to get into the print shop early at Lane Tech High School, training on the hot lead Linotype machines. Steve just loved his job.
But it was Memorial Day, so the dog was let out, but we slept in. At around 6, I was forced awake by a huge man with a knife, stabbing me and trying to do more. I screamed as loud as my little body could, and my brother thankfully heard the cries. He went for my parents, and then for more help. My dad and mom stormed upstairs and into my room. They were in time to save my life, but the man didn't stop his terror. He broke past them by stabbing my mom many times and then my dad 27 times. My dad lost most of his blood, was in the hospital barely alive for three weeks, and then returned home with permanent nerve damage.
But he could still smile, he could still move on. He was my hero and role model. Whatever life would put in front of you—the death of his own father when Steve was in college, the attack on his family, the death of his mom a few years ago, and constant health problems the last two decades of his life—he could still laugh and reach out to help others. He never became bitter or judgmental. When I came out as a lesbian at 18, there was not a moment of doubt that he would still love me. He had so many gay and lesbian friends ( and did he ever love hanging at gay bars and dressing in drag as 'Monique' for Halloween ) , that all he hoped for me was that life would not be too hard. He wasn't religious or particularly spiritual, he just lived by the code of do no harm, and love your family and neighbors.
He was able to do a lot of fun things in Key West, but he also couldn't stray far from his Type A workaholism. He loved to cook, to play his trumpet, and to work. His last work years were spent helping promote the Key West Art & Historical Society. He also sent e-mails to his friends and family around the globe. He lobbied hard for a George Bush defeat in Florida and always stayed current on the news. We exchanged right-wing horror stories and bad lesbian puns. Just two hours before he died he had sent my brother in England a couple of really bad jokes about food.
When someone can morph terror into triumph, when a parent can be your real-life hero, you are forever changed. Nothing anyone does can make you alter your course. You can eventually smile again.
For Steve, our family will continue on. We will laugh for him, smile for him, and always remember him. As will so many other friends, family members and colleagues.
A memorial for Steve Pratt is being held in Key West this Friday, Jan. 28. His Chicago memorial is planned tentatively for March 5. Survivors also include his children Clark and Marcy, their children Eden and Anthony; and Steve's sister Martha, her husband Lee and daughter Sarah. He is also survived by his partner Greer Nolan. Donations: Key West Art & Historical Society.