Her relationship with her father had been strained her whole life. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Tammi Leader Fuller felt called to stay with her dad in Florida and keep him safe. As their weeks together at Jerry Leader's home turned to months, the tensions between them simmered — until one argument unexpectedly sparked a loving new understanding.
Tammi Leader Fuller: It infuriated my father when I ditched my 34-year career as a television news producer in 2013 to create a weekend sleepaway-camp program for grown women. Even worse, that I started the business with my mother, Joan, who became a beloved fixture at camp.
Jerry Leader: To leave a career where she had won Emmys? For camp? I thought she was nuts! And that she took my wife away from me made it worse. It drove us apart.
Tammi: My dad was always very hard on me, more so than on my two younger sisters. We loved each other, but we clashed — a lot.
Jerry: I was tougher on her because she was the firstborn and I had expectations for her that I didn't have for anyone else. Why? I have no idea.
Tammi: And I always pushed past him to get to my mom. She was my mentor, my cheerleader, my rock. Unfortunately, in June 2019, my mom had a fall at a camp in Pennsylvania, and the accident triggered her immune system to crash. She was in the hospital for five months before she died last November. Dad blamed me for taking her away when she should have been home taking care of him.
Jerry: Yep. I'm old-school.
Tammi: I felt like I'd lost both parents at once. But when COVID-19 hit, I was visiting Florida. My dad lives alone, and I couldn't leave him, even though one of my sisters lives around the corner. So I moved in to Dad's house. I cooked a feast every night, and after dinner, we'd set up the Bluetooth speaker on the patio and …
Jerry: … We'd listen to Sinatra, and I'd lead the band. And we'd laugh and share memories.
Tammi: He started telling amazing stories I'd never heard before; it was like a softening. I think the music and the laughter are really what started to heal us.
Jerry: It was fun!
Tammi: But we still fought as I was pivoting my business to online, offering donation-based classes. He would ask: “How much money did you make today?” He's a CPA who's all about the 401(k). And I just want to give back. A few weeks in, we got into a huge argument about it, and he said, “Get the hell out!” And I packed up to go. But then he came downstairs and said, “Your mother kicked my ass while I was in the shower.”
Jerry: I felt like I heard my wife say to me, “What's wrong with you? Why are you pushing her away?” I came back to Tammi and said, “I'm sorry."
Tammi: Until that day, I had never heard him say, “I'm sorry.” Ever. At that moment, everything changed. I really do think my mom brought us back together. Now, late at night, we cuddle up together and watch TV.
Jerry: And we tell each other how much we love each other. I think my wife's probably smiling over us, thinking, I finally did it.
Tammi: Staying with him no longer feels like an obligation. He's just Daddy now, and my best friend. Being with him has really helped me grow. I never felt I could live without my mother, but now I feel her with the two of us every day. She's clearly still making magic from wherever she is.
— As told to Andrea Atkins