Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mom & Pop Story (Part II of IV)

Dad never cried; at least not in front of me. Mom and Dad were separated even before I was born, from what I understand. I was sort of a product of reconciliation, but that didn’t last long. He was a strong, powerfully built man nearing forty when I was born, just like Mom who was a few months older in fact. He was not uneducated, though he never went to high school and lived much of his teen life raised by either his grandparents in North Carolina or his aunt in Long Island. At one point he was an amateur boxer, but killed a man in the ring and naturally decided to stop. He spent the rest of his life building in-ground pools; once having built one for Willie Upshaw, a major-league baseball player who gave him an autographed baseball card to give to me.

Dad went from state to state building pools during the warm seasons, and doing who-knows-what during the cold seasons. He would visit fairly often, sometimes he’d stay for a weekend, sometimes he only drop in for a few hours, sometimes he’d stay longer and sometimes we’d not see him for weeks or even months. Apparently, he didn’t get along with his own relatives; he was the oldest of a large clan of siblings living either in the greater New York area or in Wake Forest, NC. He ran away when he was young, and though he seemed to stay in touch, they never seem to regard him with any favor.

However, I regarded the times Dad would visit as fun times. He would take my other older sister Dorothy and me on road trips throughout the Hudson Valley, and even one time to his aunt’s house in Long Island. He spent a lot of money on us, or would give us money to spend on whatever we wanted. Mom and him got along well enough as friends, and though there were points of bitterness that would flair up from time to time, they would always show us love when together.

Dad continued that tradition of sending me money when I went away to Howard, sending me what he called an allowance once a week or once a month, depending on what he had. I would spend it on food, mostly, and to say the least I was not quite responsible, which he knew about and was unhappy with me for, but tolerated nonetheless. He even sent money to me on the weekend I spent at that same room I had lived in after coming off the streets, nearby the campus off of Florida Avenue. I was ostensibly there to see old friends I would be leaving behind, but in my mind and heart I was trying to decide whether I should stay or go.

I took the Amtrak back to New York; a trip that always fascinated me because of the scenery we would pass through, but we were stuck outside of Dee Cee at the train station in New Carrollton for almost an hour. It was during this time that I was struck by a premonition, and I found myself on the floor of the car sobbing uncontrollably. I was alone and apparently no one saw me crying so fiercely, or at least they did not find this strange. The train finally started moving again, but I could not shake the grief that struck me so hard at that time, and for the rest of the ride home to Wappingers Falls, I worried for Dad. It had occurred to me about month previously, on the occasion of his 58th birthday, that he was growing old and that I may never see him again. He was now walking with a cane, having lost two or three of his toes on his right foot to diabetes. His hair, which always had a streak of gray, which Dorothy and I inherited at birth, was now graying at the temples and making him look grandfatherly. The strong build had shrunken and bowed somewhat to that of a man who was once great. Dorothy planned a surprise birthday party for him, in a big tent that he had set up himself in the backyard. She bought a special cake for him and a gift; a nice watch if I recall. But what was special about the whole day was when we left the house (Mom teased us about how we both walked alike; a side-to-side shuffle) and when we reached the car for me to take him to the train, I looked at him deep in the eyes and said, “I’m glad you came.”

When I got back home, I immediately asked if Dad had called, but he hadn’t. I then spent the next four hours talking long-distance with my ex-fiancĂ©e in Texas, telling her about the awful experience I had on the train. When I had tried telling Mom, she brushed it off and refused to hear it. Still, she was very mad when the phone bill came.

A week later, I had a strange nightmare, where a giant cobra had gotten into the house and was terrorizing my family. As I was the designated snake-killer, I leaped between my family and the snake, fending it off with a sword and battling until I finally killed it, but not before it had managed to strike me. As I lay dying in front of my Mom, sisters and niece (my brother was absent as he lived in California), I gave them instructions to not worry, and to do something else, but I never finished it because I was awoken by noise from upstairs. My bedroom was on the very bottom floor of our house, connected to what we used as a formal dining room, my brother’s bedroom and the laundry/furnace room. I wandered upstairs to talk over the dream with Mom, as I normally did when I had strange dreams, but saw Dorothy bounding inside the house and upstairs to the upper bedrooms in a fit of tears. By now, Dorothy was living on her own in Connecticut to be closer to her job. Seeing her this early in the day and at such an odd time during the week was jarring, but seeing her and Mom embracing in the hallway and Dorothy sobbing as she was, I figured that she had broken up with her boyfriend, whom Mom and the rest of us had some slight issues with. Dorothy composed herself and they both came downstairs. They approached me gingerly and their wary expressions told me something was really wrong. “Weo,” Mom started, “sit down, we have something to tell you. “

“Dad had a heart attack,” Dorothy continued. “He didn’t make it.”


What’s important about having a father? I didn’t really have one growing up. Of course, I had my Mom, plus my older siblings and a host of male relatives and others who filled in for my own wayward father. And somehow, I’d never held that against him, like he owed me something or that I was too angry at him to have anything to do with him. Somehow I trusted him enough. He did see me do things, he did call, and he did come to spend time with us. He wasn’t a full-time father, but he was either Bill or Dad. He was proud of me, he showed me things that he knew, told me things and told me not to do things.

Half of what I learned about myself was by observing him, even if I never knew much about him. I learned much about what not to do just by seeing what he did. He wasn’t always nice, and sometimes you didn’t want him around. But the role he played in my life was important enough. I got to see what it would be like for a black man with a family to be on his own. He only had two friends that I knew of, his work buddy Jose and his estranged wife. They, along with Terry, Dorothy, my niece Nikki and I were the only ones to come to his wake. We had missed Jose by an hour, and would never see him again. We sat in an otherwise empty hall and stared at the coffin, which contained this once-giant, sleeping figure.

No one said anything.

I looked around hopelessly at the vast array of empty seats. I was at once overwhelmed with pity, confusion and anger. His own relatives refused to come, or even acknowledge his death. Apparently, we were the only people who had any kind of feelings for him.

I saw what it was like for a black woman to raise children on her own. Mom had been doing it for quite some time, but now she was really alone. To her credit, she rallied very well from it, though it was more of a blow to her than any of us would know. She started smoking again, the only real sign that his passing had an effect on her.

I was not going to be the same as my father. Dad made a lot of mistakes, but that didn’t mean I had to as well. In reality, I couldn’t blame him that much, as it seemed to me that he was dealt a very bad hand from the start and didn’t know what to do with it. But I realized after some time that as I tried hard not to be like him, I was becoming more like him. I’ve seen similar patterns of bad luck and poor choices in my own life. Still and all, it’s not such a bad thing to have a lot in common with him, especially if I can bring out the things in him that others didn’t see. Life is longer than it seems to be...

(To Be Continued in Mom & Pop Story, Part III very soon...)

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