It was just after Father’s Day 1996, and I was a few months into my 13th year. The following two-year stretch – my 8th and 9th grade years - would go on to become the best time in my immediate family’s history in my recollection.
My mom had a good paying job as an assistant to the owner of several Pizza Hut franchises in Upstate South Carolina; she wasn’t always working two jobs for once. My two older brothers – then in high school - were still within reach of going to college despite their best attempts not to. And with my first-ever startup business – a neighborhood lawn service – taking off, I actually had enough money to buy my own school clothes and go to the movies with friends. I even paid for my own trip to Washington, D.C., the following spring with Beta Club.
Some sixteen years later, I can now fully recall that summer as the peak of my childhood experience. When most people think of “peaks” in life they think it means the best of times. Well, that’s part of it for me.
I remember living in Berea, spending my afternoons playing with my brothers and neighborhood kids. We’d go hours on end playing basketball, softball, running around the field in our backyard or playing near the pond across the street. I'd gotten my mouth busted open on a concrete porch playing hide-and-go-seek just the summer before. I’d ride around the “hood” of West Greenville with my uncle and see everything from drug deals to cheap prostitution from a gunner’s position (figuratively), but never get involved; it was my street education. I spent many a weekend at my friends’ places; James, Doug and Brian were like my 3rd, 4th and 5th brothers back then, despite them all being white. I was a straight-A student, and had already determined – during my 7th grade year – that the University of Texas at Austin was a place I’d like to go to college. I also ran track that year, and started playing baritone in the high school marching band. Man, those were the days. I still remember being in love with Jennifer Schrader during my choir tour in Daytona Beach, Florida.
My family is a bit of an odd one, but I guess everyone’s is. No one in my family was married at the time; not my grandparents (whom never wed), my mother (who would have her second marriage and divorce less than five years later), not anyone. No one in my family had graduated from college; at least no one I grew up around. Marriage certificates and college degrees were about as scarce as family vacations in my childhood. Still, that summer of ’96 was special…everything just seemed to be clicking for us as a family. Our family bond – extending to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – appeared to be at an all-time high. We even went to Myrtle Beach, the four of us, that year.
To me, though, “peaks” can also mean the hardest times when I learned the most about myself and the world. That’s part of what happened during the summer of ’96. Maybe I didn’t learn it then, but the seeds for life-long lessons were planted.
My dad wasn’t around much during my childhood. When I say “much” I’m talking about my entire childhood after the age of three. My parents got divorced, and my dad took off to New Jersey where he grew up. If he paid child support, I sure as hell don’t remember. If he sent birthday cards, I damn sure didn’t see the words “I love you” inside.
When I was in 7th grade my dad, that guy, got the bright idea to come check in on his three boys down in the South. My mom, perhaps enamored with the idea of having a man in the house when three boys were becoming young men, let him back in our two-bedroom duplex.
He was so cool. I mean, seriously, he was so fucking cool.
He lived in Jersey so he had this way of talking that was so fast and new and fresh; I wanted to be him. I forgave him for all those times he was a shitty dad, even when I was only two and three years old (yes, I can remember him spanking me when I peed myself at 3). I forgave him for all those years lost. I forgave him for the nights my brothers and I would hear my mom go off to her 2nd job or the mornings when she’d be out the door to her first job before we even took the bus to school.
He wore Kangol hats, like LL Cool J. He said “word is bond” like rappers from New York at the time. He talked about Kwame and Kool ‘N The Gang like they were the biggest names in music history. He knew the exact perfect way to tune the sound on a stereo or record player, getting the equalizer just so that we’d be dancing in the house in no time. He was something like a 6th degree black belt in Kung Fu; no joke. He could handle a set of nunchucks the way Bruce Lee did in his flicks. He was young-ish, fit, creative, inspired, and handsome.
But he sucked as a dad; even when he was around. Sucked. He tried to split my brothers up to pit us against one another. He was like a politician trying to get votes from one lobby after another; Mitt Romney knows nothing of lacking a moral compass compared to my dad. I guess he decided my middle brother wasn’t a constituency he cared for, because he usually gave him the silent treatment. As for me, he’d take me to the movies…we saw all the Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis movies even if they were rated R and I wasn’t 13 yet.
He was picky as all hell too. I distinctly remember him yelling at my mother for buying potato salad rather than macaroni salad.
My oldest brother and I got his knack for writing. My middle brother got his music savvyness. I got his conversational skills and fitness bug. We all got a little something genetically. But we didn’t get a real dad.
And I think he realized that, which is why he eventually moved into his own place up the street before moving back to New Jersey altogether. I can’t even tell you the precise months he was with us, that’s how miniscule the time together seemed. But I can tell you this; it laid the foundation for something that has shaped me to this day.
You see, a few months later, during that summer of ’96, my dad called me up. I had this weird way of feeling like the favorite for my grandparents and uncle and I think I was my dad’s favorite, too. I think maybe I’m the most like him, and he saw that.
So he called me up, and said I should come up to New Jersey to visit him. We could spend quality time together, father and youngest son, and I could see how he lived. He planned to buy me a train ticket from Greenville, SC, to Elizabeth, NJ, which sounded absolutely amazing to me. I loved the idea of going somewhere bigger than my hometown; I envisioned Elizabeth was walking distance from New York City. I especially loved the idea of doing this with my dad.
That conversation happened not long after Father’s Day ’96. About a month later, he called me up and said, “I don’t think it’s such a good idea for you to come up right now.”
That was the last time I spoke to him. Sixteen year ago.
Leave me when I’m 3 years old, shame on you; leave me when I’m 13 years old, shame on me, I suppose. Songs like this have always resonated with me since then.
When I turned 29 this year, I realized something. I realized that he was 29 years old when he left us the first time.
Twenty-nine years of age doesn’t seem old to me, but times were different nearly 20 years ago. At 29, I think my dad realized that he wanted to use his strengths, his creativity, his motivation, his talent, his knack for discovery...he wanted to use it away from a family. He had a shot, I guess, and he took it. Only he didn’t take us with him.
He wanted to be young, Black, successful, well-traveled, not hard-up for money, single with no children, and unattached.
He wanted the life that I have today at 29 years of age.
So with Father’s Day coming up, I can’t say I have a father worth speaking of, and definitely not one worth sending a card with a “thank you” to. But I can say I have a father who made sure I missed out on regrets and resentment; at least the kind you direct towards a wife and kids.
Perhaps much of my drive and ambition – to be the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college, to be successful, to see the world, etc. – comes from his failures. I struggle with opening myself up to others, at times, because I don’t need to let anyone else disappoint me that much ever again. Yet I still battle with needing the acceptance of others.
I guess I didn’t want to look up at 29 and see a world for myself that ran in opposition to the world forced upon me by poor, short-sighted and immature decisions. At 29, my dad had a wife and three kids. That’s a mature sounding thing, but the process for him wasn’t that at all. He met my mom when she was a high school senior and they had my brother a few months after she graduated. That was that.
Nor was the process he deployed to remove himself from my life very sound or thoughtful.
Am I angry? Yes. Do I forgive him? I don’t know; he’s never asked for an apology. Have I come to an age where I can understand a little bit of the pressure he may have felt at 29 causing him to resent his family and leave us? I believe I have.
That’s a lesson I’ll definitely chalk up as a “peak” in my life. It’s a lesson I’m proud to have not had to learn the hard way with resentment, deferred dreams and children of my own at this young age.
So Happy Father’s Day, I suppose.