Earlier this year after my Grandmother passed away, my father came to live with me and my girlfriend at the time. We lived in a one bedroom, if you could even call it that. He occupied the “living room”, making our twin sized pull-couch the place he laid his head every night. This lasted about two months. For a lot of you, this may come as a surprise. Those who get to hold the delicacy of my deepest pains, know the details of the complicated relationship my father and I have. For times sake, and for the protection of my most vulnerable state, I’ll keep it summed up for you readers.
My father struggles with a lot of mental health issues. Being most present in my early teen years, now that he is in his early 70’s, it has only continued to decline with what my siblings and I believe are signs of early onset dementia. When I got the call from my father in late December that my Grandmother was dying and I needed to come see her as soon as possible, that was the first I had heard from my father in almost a year. That isn’t a new thing, though. He typically has what my mom and I call episodes. Something in everyday life, usually around the holidays, sometimes something I or one of my siblings — one of his 7 kids– have said, will cause him to shut down. Usually, the first sign of this is his current phone number no longer being in service. This happens every few months. My phone contact list can prove it. I might be the only twenty-five year old I know that has a running list of “Dad, Dad New, Dad Newest, Dad Phone NEW NEW, DaddyO, Dad NEWW” to distinguish all the different numbers, scared to delete any in case he reactivates one and decides to call. The start of every new episode brings with it the same process of coping. First, after receiving the automated message that the number is no longer in service, I feel anger. “AGAIN?!” I throw my phone. Especially if it’s on a day I called to simply hear his voice, or loud belly laugh regarding last night’s Family Feud episode. Then I feel imense sadness. “Why? Why can’t you be healthy. Normal. I just want my dad.”. Then I feel shame, “Why am I so selfish? He can’t control it. It’s not his fault. It’s not mine either”. Then, I feel fear, “What if I never hear from him again? Is he safe? What if he’s lost? What if he forget’s where he is going? What if he get’s pulled over?”. Every scenario you can possibly imagine plays through my head. Then I cry. “I can’t do this”, my mind says. “I’m too young still. He’s MY father”. Yes, he is my father. I’ll be here, still, the next time he calls.
Two weeks before the phone call from him about my Grandmother, I had been up past midnight googling his name, and hers, just to make sure neither of them had died. Let that sink in. Do you know the fear I felt typing each letter of his name? The pit in my stomach? The dryness of my throat? The shallow breath in my chest? I pray to the forces that be that none of you reading this ever have to experience that. It stops time and leaves you frozen with each click of the keyboard. Luckily for me, I found zero results. I was fortunate enough to gain some comfort in those results to sleep the rest of the night. My brother had also called to tell me he notified the police of of our father’s absence in hopes of them helping us locate him. All we had was a PO box number. They said they’d be in touch. We also decided to team up and call all the nursing homes in correspondence to the address of the PO box asking if my grandmother was currently there or had been. No luck. So I moved on. Like I do. Like I always have. Christmas came and passed. So did the New Year. And then, he called.
“Hey Hillie…how ya doing?” This is normal. He usually will call as if he hasn’t been absent the last year of my life.
“Hi Dad, I’m good.” I usually curl my lips and widen my eyes. Just to express my internal feelings of crazy reality that this is my life. “How are you?”
“Well I’m good, I’m good. Anyways, I’m calling because your Grandmother is dying…and you need to come say bye.”
Reader, are you still there? Are you following? Not only am I emotionally digesting that this is the first time I’ve heard from my father in months, and that yes–he is alive and okay, but also, that my 97 year old grandmother is dying.
When I arrived at the hospital I was nervous, scared, sad, but mostly, numb. I held my chest up, shoulders back, head high — but not too high– and erased every sign of emotional distress I could manage to find. When I entered the room the first thing I saw was my grandmother, nothing but skin and bones, covered in layers of blankets, swallowed by the bed and smells and sounds of hospital that scream “this is death” with every breath. “Hi dad”, there he was standing by her side, combing her hair, like he always did.
My father was an only child. He was born to my grandmother and grandfather in New Orleans, Louisiana the year of 1944. Before Martin Luther King Jr. had his dream. Before JFK announced his presidential run. Before Rosa sat on the bus. Most importantly, before Emmett Till became a household name. My father’s father passed away 3 years later. I don’t know much about him, but of what I do know: he drove big rigs for a living, Coca-Cola trucks, to be exact. He had lighter skin and red hair, so people called him Red. He carried a strand of my father’s hair, tied with a bow, in his wallet (which we still have). He was madly in love with my grandmother, and she with him (she never remarried). And when he died, he was thrown in an unmarked plot because blacks were unworthy of a proper burial. To this day, we have no idea where he rests. I just know it’s NOLA that has his remains. My grandmother worked full-time as “the help”, for a wealthy white family in town. My dad spent most his days being raised by his six uncles and two aunts, who are, without a doubt, character’s from a movie you just can’t fathom to believe are real. Those stories are for another time. My father would often tell me of the few times my grandmother had to take him to work with her. He considers the two of them lucky, because the white family she worked for had kids his age and allowed him to play with them. They owned horses, and for fun, they’d all get to ride them. One time, around the age of ten, my father decided he didn’t like school and wanted to go to work with his uncle’s instead. My grandmother agreed, and let him join his uncles. My father claims he lasted less than half a day out in the fields, bent over, knees dirty, sweat dripping from his brow, hands torn, before he decided “my life will be more than this. I’ll go back to school”. Still there, reader? Do you conceptualize the bond I am trying to build through my words? The bond of an only child and widow, in the south during the late forties? My father would turn eleven years-old the day after Emmett Till had been murdered. The day, I claim, forever changed my father’s life and everything that came after. Emmett Till was a 14 year-old black boy from Chicago, visiting family in Mississippi, who was brutally murdered by white men for attempting to flirt with a white girl at a grocery store. He was wrapped in barbed wire, beaten, and dragged behind a truck before being dumped.
A week later, my grandmother put my eleven year-old father on a greyhound bus, all alone, across the country, to Los Angeles to live with his aunt. Scared for her sons life, because a white girl at his school had given him a note exclaiming she liked him. Are you still there, reader? Let that sink in.
“How long does she have, Dad?” I could barely get the words out.
“Well, I mean, I don’t know. They aren’t really sure. The nurse is going to come back to talk to me about hospice…but I’m scared to move her!”
“Okay…where will you take her? Wait, where are you even living now?” The last time I heard from my father personally, he and my grandmother had been living in a suburb outside of LA. But, last I heard from my brother, he had moved out. Which relates back to us only having a PO Box number to reference, earlier in this story.
“Well, I’ve been living in my car while she’s here. But before she got sick we were just in hotels.”
I stared at my hands. Palm to palm, fingers intertwined. I noted how my left thumb always rests over my right. How weird, I thought. All while feeling the rhythm of my heart beat, trying my best to pace each new breath off of each new beat. Trying to prevent the thump of each pulse from internalizing in my head through each of my ears. I blink. This is the part where I am the adult and I have to remember which words to choose and which words to say and which words are emotion and which word are logic.
“Dad…why didn’t you call me? We need to get you somewhere safe. It’s cold out.” It is very important to stay calm, monotone, and non-expressive or emotional when talking to my father about something that holds a lot of emotion.
“Haha! I know. But, my car has seat warmers! I’ve been good. It’s a lot comfier than this hospital room chair thing…I can tell you that.” There is a positive that is also a negative about my father. He takes everything so lighthearted.
My grandmother passed away a few days later, with my father, her only son and best friend for the last 73 years of life, by her side. When my father arrived at our place, he had nothing but a toothbrush, a pillow, and two sets of clothes. I put new sheets on the makeshift bed, while my girlfriend at the time showed him the bathroom and where to find the things he might need. It was raining, so hard that night. As if the world could feel the heaviness in my chest and the confusion of heartbreak and anger and peace felt within my heart. I was so sad my grandmother had passed, but so mad my father was here, but so happy that he was with me. I went to bed numb.
***This isn’t a part of the story, but it more than deserves it’s part. Or as I should say, she does. My girlfriend at the time is the only thing that helped me keep my sanity. Keep myself together. She never once questioned my father coming to live with us. She never once complained. She never once held anger, frustration, annoyance, or bitterness towards either of us. Yes, you’re probably thinking, of course she didn’t. No. Don’t think that. Because I can guarantee a large margin of you would have been annoyed. Would have been impatient. Would have wanted your space back. Especially when financially my father was not helping and we were already barely making ends meet. Especially in a one bedroom the size of a studio. She has forever won a place in my heart that will never ever, ever be replaced because she gave me two months with my father that gave him shelter, gave us time together, and gave me time to mourn and live through this season. If I could give her a trophy or award for human of the century it would be hers. That is the most selfless love I have ever witnessed, and my God, I will never forget it. She loved him like her own and she had only met him once before.
My father continued his stay for another two months. During that time I worked two jobs, full time, 7 days a week to barely be making enough to get by. Any second of free time I had, I was helping him find a place to live. The frustrations I felt grew stronger by his lack of urgency and selfish behavior when viewing places. “This one’s too small, Hill! I can’t even fit my couch!”, “I don’t like this location”, “I don’t like LA anymore, I want to move to Sacramento”, “No nevermind I hate Sacramento it is too hot, I’m an LA guy there’s lots going on there”. This was constant. Every day. Every day his decline in health was more apparent. By the way he’d forget what he did that morning, to the way he’d get lost on the one road that led between the store and my house. Sometimes my only escape was to sit in my car and cry. Cry because I don’t know how to help him. Cry because I’m scared of what might happen. Cry because I feel like I can barely stay afloat, yet life is moving faster than it ever has.
His last day with me is the one that inspired this post, for you, my reader. We started out with breakfast. I made us bacon and scrambled eggs, with sourdough toast on the side. We drank our coffee black, his stirred with a fresh cinnamon stick. It was my only day off that week and I had decided I’d spend it with him going to open houses of all the apartments we had looked at online. Breakfast had ended and we were now lounged on the couch finishing up his morning ritual of Price is Right. Drew Carey is no Bob Barker, but my father still loves it all the same. As it finished, we started reminiscing on old stories. Stories of my grandmother. Stories of how much he missed her. Stories of his childhood and things he still remembers. Most the stories I had heard before. My favorite past time as a teen was sitting with my father and grandmother and asking them stories about their lives during the events I learned about in my history books. This one though, was new.
My father was in the third grade at the time. Which means he was around the age of eight or nine. He generally took a certain route too and from school, but on this particular day, he decided to take another route. Without knowing, this path was taking him past another school, one he hadn’t been by before. As he approach, he noticed all the kids outside, playing in the school yard. He also noticed the colors he saw; white. He was approaching an all white school. He said it looked fun, all the kids playing and laughing. He continued on the sidewalk, head down, worn out loafers kicking a pebble down the path, avoiding stepping on the cracks not to break his grandma’s back. As he drew closer to the school, he noticed the kids were now looking his direction. By then, a group of them were now headed his way. Fence in between them, the white kids bodies flew against it, fingers gripped on the metal that kept their worlds separated. Confused by this action he paused to look up at them, their eyes staring at my father with anger he did not understand, and as if rehearsed they screamed, “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!”.
He was a child. A child all alone on a sidewalk, walking home from school. Are you there, reader? Can you feel the weight of that, reader? Do you have kids, reader?
My father still carries this moment, and every other moment just like this that has yet to be spoken, with him. What do you remember about hate when you were eight? Do you remember someone making fun of your shoes? Your braces? Your hair? Come on, reader. What do you feel? Now imagine that hate being directed at who you are. For no reason other than the color of your skin.
I am not going to pretend and say I have suffered like my black father. My black brothers. My black sisters. My black grandmother and grandfather and all those before me. But I will acknowledge that I have suffered in others ways and I suffer next to them. For them. I carry their pain as I see it in their eyes. On the lines of my late grandmothers hands. The lines that tell me the stories of her being born a slave that escaped in the dark of the night by the hand of her elder brother, with mother by her side. I carry their pain in the stories that my father and grandmother share with the numb tone of their voice that somehow manages to raise every hair on my body, leaving me just as numb as they neglect to feel. In the same way they numb their pain from the memories of unwarranted hate, I numb the words that roll off your tongue telling me I am not black. Telling me I am less than the stories of my bloods past because my skin tone is lighter, because I am also white. If I am not only white and not only black it does not mean I have to choose one or the other. Telling me I am more white or less black because my hair is finer, does not omit the truth of my blood that pulses through my veins. Telling me I am more my mother because the hint of blue in my eyes is to disregard the other part of me that makes me whole and who I am. My father. I am not half, but whole. I am not one, but both. I don’t have to choose one or claim one. I have always felt white enough, but never black enough, in the eyes of you, my reader. By the words that roll off your tongue and the laughs that follow your ‘playful’ jokes or your inconsiderate ‘nonoffensive’ remarks. I am black and act black and look black and talk black. There is no right or wrong way to simply be. To exist. My history is deep and my history is strong. My history is as black as black can come and I claim it to the highest because he is my father.
He is my father. I am his daughter. Am I black enough yet?