Dad, a late thanks

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I think maybe it’s time to say something about my father. As of this Sunday, 29 Father’s Days will have come and gone since Dad died of pancreatic cancer, and I don’t think I have ever written more than a few sentences about the one man who influenced me more than any other man ever has or ever will. All that ink I’ve spilled, and barely a drop about my own father.

No, I don’t know why. And no, this is not one of those columns about the poor little black kid who grew up without a father, or whose father beat his mother, or whose father drank himself to sleep at night. None of that. Dad didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he very rarely cursed, he never laid so much as a fingernail on my mother, never cheated on my mother (to my knowledge), and the money he earned went toward the household. For a man who never met his own father and was raised as an only child by a mother who, at age 12, gave birth to him in Red Jacket, W.Va., I don’t imagine that was an easy thing to figure out how to do.

I suspect some readers already think that I’m trying to portray my father as some sort of saint. Hardly. He definitely had his flaws, some of which I didn’t find out about until years after his death during heart-to-heart discussions with my mother who eventually decided it was time that I knew everything. I will always be grateful to her for that.

But here’s the thing: Anyone who has ever watched more than 15 minutes of television news, or read the news in their local paper on even a semi-regular regular basis, should surely be aware that the real life media images of decent, hard-working African-American men with families that they faithfully support and love are far and few between.

My father was far from invisible to me, and men like him shouldn’t be so invisible to the world. We need to acknowledge the black fathers out there, including my father-in-law, Stratford Hilliard, who simply calls me his son, who may not be famous but deserve applause.

Listen, I am fully aware of the statistics. I know all about the appalling number of black families without fathers and of the disproportionate number of black men — and fathers — who are in prison. I am well aware of what AIDS and the drug epidemic has done and is doing to our communities, and what role the men have played in all of this. I’m not blind and I don’t wear rose-colored glasses. I know about all of our problems as black men and as black people because no matter where I turn, no matter what time of day or night, I’m sure to be reminded of all that is going wrong at least several times a day.

But I also know that I had a father who loved me and who loved my mother. I had a father who stayed up all night with my mother every year on Christmas Eve wrapping my presents after I pretended to be sleep. I had a father who encouraged my aspirations to be a guitar player on those days when I was in the garage making noises that sounded more like six cats drowning in boiling oil than anything remotely resembling a song. I still remember the Halloween when Dad chased after two kids who had poked me in the eye and punched me during a trick-or-treat stop. I remember wrestling with him on the floor a bunch of times until that one day I made the mistake of bench-pressing him off of me. He gave me a funny kind of grin and said I was getting a bit too big for him to wrestle anymore. We slap-boxed for awhile until I made the mistake of jumping up and catching him with a slap-box punch right across the jaw. After watching his eyes flare up and then seeing my life passing before my eyes, Dad simmered down, forced a chuckle, and declared an end to the slap-boxing too. Sure was fun while it lasted, though.

I also had a father who found it difficult to express his feelings and who oftentimes would come home from work and go straight downstairs to the basement to put on his headphones and listen to his jazz before he ever got around to saying “hello” to my mother and me. I had a father who rarely opened up about what his life had been like as a poor, struggling only child of a mother who was a child herself during his formative years. I had a father who sometimes didn’t seem to be paying attention when I tried to tell him what my life was like — or even what my day had been like. Because of his job, he was gone a lot and I never really got a chance to ask him the questions every son entering adulthood needs to ask his father. About a month before he died— even before his diagnosis — we talked during a long walk and he opened up more than ever before. But we were never able to finish the conversation as we should have.

The man I knew as my father was president of the Colorado Urban League, a position he held for more than a quarter century before he died. He had large hands with long, piano-player fingers that he frequently used to perform brilliant solos on an imaginary keyboard. He had a handshake that could crumble cement. He had a quiet voice that skyrocketed into high register when he got angry and his very dark eyes narrowed. But when he laughed? I swear I could count every last one of those large white teeth of his that he brushed so religiously. Pictures of him in uniform during World War II show an extremely thin young man who definitely became better-looking with age. Pictures of him laughing and holding my mother tight showed me a father who really was once young and very much in love.

Dad died about 10:45 p.m. on Aug. 6, 1975. I was wearing his watch when my mother shook me awake to deliver the news, and hours later when I checked the time I noticed the watch had stopped just when my mother had told me that Dad was dead.

It’s never easy losing a parent, and it’s definitely not easy for a son to lose his father at that age, but my father left me with his example of what a man should be — which means he left me with no excuses to fail. Whenever I needed to consider what a man would do in any given situation, I only had to consider what my father would have done. Sometimes I’ve lived up to the standard that his example has set, and other times I have fallen woefully short of that standard. I’m still reaching for it today, some days coming closer than others.

But I will always have that example. I love you, Dad.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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