I asked Aja Carr, a colleague and editor of mine, to write a post for the blog. She’s a faithful coach and encourager in my own life, though the best word that describes her is friend. I’m glad to offer you this post, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
Dreams For My Father
When I was a kid, I dreaded those days when the teacher asked everyone in the class to stand up and talk about their parents’ occupation. I was proud of my mom, a nurse who’d worked long hours and double shifts to cover our mortgage and private school tuition. But, I was in no ways proud of my father, a man who’d been only a few points away from the intellectual label of, “genius”—when he was forced to undergo that sort of testing prior to his incarceration.
Everyone knew my father was smart. So smart, in fact, that he’d earned a Bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia College and nearly finished a Master’s degree prior to leaving the penitentiary. As a child, I had no frame of reference for his intellectual abilities. Up until the age of twelve, I’d only known him through letters and occasional phone calls. I’d seen him maybe 4 or 5 times before I went to high school…that was it.
I rarely received gifts from my father. The very first thing he’d ever given me was a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It had no value to me back then. But, when I weigh it’s worth in the life of someone who has since spent 11 years in publishing—its value is tremendous. Sometimes, I think of what it must have cost him—how he might have had to barter or save in order to buy a book and then mail it from prison, and what the gesture predicted about who I’d become.
When my father left prison, I had hoped it would mean that my parents would get back together. My hopes daunted, my mother re-married (my step-father is the most remarkable man you’ll ever meet). However, what I would learn (later in life) was that my father had beat my mother in times past. Armed with this knowledge, I was a little embarrassed to have hope for their reconciliation.
My father was released from prison in 1995. It was a bittersweet reunion. Bitter, because I had no desire to know him. Sweet, because the little I had come to know about him answered so many questions I had about myself. His love for books. his love for desserts, his genuine need to be in charge—all things I’d mimicked—even without fully knowing him.
I will never forget sitting at my desk, preparing to work on some pressing project, when I received a call that my father was in the hospital. That was a Monday night. By the next Sunday, I had watched him lay in bed unable to breathe on his own. He was unconscious, unaware, unmoved.
This was last November, and by that time, we’d become friends. By that time, I knew that he loved me, and he knew that I loved him. Still, it didn’t hurt any less. The most I’d ever done for my father happened in the 7 days leading up to his death. I was his next of kin (his wife had taken ill the same day he was admitted to the hospital). In those moments, I began to dream about all the things my father could have been and could have done—things he will now never be and never do. I’d come to learn that he was a high-ranking member of the Masonic Order in our city (something I knew nothing about). Watching those Masons keep a vigil at his bedside—one after the other— I knew he had been well loved by them.
My dreams for my father involved being loved in that way by his own children. We loved him, but not the way they loved him. We’d experienced too many absences on his part, too many lost moments, and too many missed birthdays to love him the way that they loved him.
I can’t remember what pressing matters had captured my attention the day I received the call to come to Roseland Hospital. But, I do remember how my father looked in that hospital bed. I remember all the things I wanted to say. I remember the things that went unsaid. I remember the things that would have likely gone unheard even if they had been spoken.
When I was a kid, I dreaded those days when other kids would talk about their parents’ occupation. My father went on to become an adjunct English instructor at several city colleges. He even received awards for excellence in the classroom. These awards and his recognition were good for him and for me.
In my dreams, my father was a real father—one who came home everyday. One who wondered what we might be having for dinner and how he could juggle his work assignments so he could be at my dance recitals.
I still dream about him. I still stop in my tracks when someone mentions the Elements of Style. I still brace myself before passing the hospital where he died. I’m still challenged by the thought of his passing. Now, I’ve come to realize that I love him they way they loved him. I just realized it too late.