One early June afternoon, I got a call from my big sister. She told me that she had something to tell me, her voice growing shakier with each word. She took a breath and told me that my father was dead.
The memory of that day just drifted in last Wednesday, rolling over my thoughts about what to make for dinner that night and how to respond to some work emails. It wasn’t even the anniversary of his death, or his birthday — nothing like that. In the five years between that phone call and last week, I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve thought of him, with some digits left to spare.
My parents were young lovers who split up when I was about six years old. Looking back on it, I never thought I went through any of the typical trauma of a “broken home.” I never felt abandoned or unloved. There was no ugly custody battles or the “who do you want to live with” conversations with a judge, like on TV. My dad just went from living with us, to just being around on the weekends, to then living with my Grandma at her house. I never thought of him as being “gone.” He just lived somewhere else, and that meant that I could go over to his house, hang out with my cousins and stay up late. And don’t even get me started about having TWO Christmases, birthdays, Easters, and Honor Roll celebration dinners! Being a kid was the best, and my dad was a big part — if not the creator — of the best memories of my childhood.
As I moved into middle and through high school, weekends turned into Saturday or Sunday afternoons. It made sense to me; I was more interested in hanging out with my friends, so being up under my dad like a little kid just didn’t appeal to me. I was fine with him calling less, not showing up to everything at school, and giving cards with cash instead of cool presents.
When I left for college, his appearances were even more scarce. Every visit or phone call was powered by that awkward energy used in large group icebreaker games. This guy that used to host these bomb-ass sleepovers on blankets in front of the TV was now a stranger to me. But, these encounters always ended with one or the other proclaiming that we had to be better about hanging out, or whatever.
And the years went by.
The calls started to replace the Christmases and birthdays. Soon calls were replaced by updates received second or third hand, each of us most certainly responding with the same gentle, quiet “tell that dude to call me when you see him.”
Dad was in and out of the hospital for the last decade, battling heart disease and scaring me every couple years with another attack or stint operation. I’d come up from Cincinnati, and grip my big sister’s or my mom’s hand as they dragged me into hospital rooms to sit with him. But after the pleasantries, the promises that he was “ok,” and the obligatory, “we have to talk more” promises, there was nothing to say. He knew nothing about me, and I knew nothing about him. We’d had become strangers, bound together by blood but worlds apart.
When I moved back home to Columbus, I made the effort to reach out and invite him to see me perform. After the show, I found him still in the theater, sitting at his seat, his eyes twinkling and his soft voice saying, “all right man!”
It made my heart burst.
He came to a few other shows after that. He brought his friends, my grandpa, his great nieces. He became a fan. It wasn’t the relationship I thought we’d have by that time in my life, but it was something. it was good.
The last time I saw him was around Memorial Day, 2015. I gave him a lift home from my aunt’s funeral. It was a long drive from the cemetery back to the center of town, but that didn’t stop us from keeping our conversations to its usual minimum. Small talk about my job and the upcoming softball season, me teasing him about turning 61 the following month … nothing big. I promised I call him the next week (i didn’t). He told me he loved me and strode into his apartment. I watched him go in and close the door behind him. And that was it. The next time I thought of him was when Tiffany rang my phone two weeks later.
He died alone, from another heart attack, in an apartment less than a mile from my own.
I was so angry for so long. I never told him how it was for me without him. I wished I was able to explain how hard it was to learn how to be a Black man in a world that stacks deck after deck against you. I wanted to tell him how he failed at raising me. Aside from crying a couple of times as I comforted my sister, that anger numbed the grief of his loss.
Sometimes the anger weakens, and there are moments of reflection. Like that cold Wednesday morning. I remembered fishing trips to Buckeye Lake, adventures at Cedar Point, and those times we’d hop in the car to just go for a drive.
Some guys get to have a dad that teaches them how to change motor oil and throw a spiral. I had one that taught me — in his own way, i guess — that the world owes you nothing, and every human connection gives you an opportunity to change someone’s life.
After the funeral, I went to clean out his apartment. I found a binder on the top shelf of his bedroom closet. As I reached for it, it slipped out of my hand and opened, spilling the contents on the floor. In it was every program of every show he’d seen me in. It wasn’t a scrapbook and baby booties, but it was enough. It was enough to know that he loved me, he was proud of me, and that he was quietly — yet always — in my corner.