I didn’t know my father very well. Because of factors I didn’t understand as a child, which in fact I didn’t know until about five years ago, he couldn’t be a real part of my life. And that absence left a hole in my life that took a dozen other men to fill: teachers, martial artists, mentors, therapists, friends. And my son, Jason.
I’m not even sure if some of my memories of him are real or synthesized or combined. I’m VERY sure I saw him perform at the Greek Theater with Nat King Cole. And meeting Nat backstage afterward. His hands were broad and warm, his smile huge and engaging.
I’m VERY sure of laying on a couch in a recording studio as my father recorded a song. About five years old. Was that song the back-up to “Ramblin’ Rose”? I can’t be totally certain. It’s a great story, though. Might be true. There is no way to be sure, now. It’s much, much too late.
So that’s what I say. I was there, in the studio, when the back-up to at least one version of that song was recorded. And every time I hear it on the radio, I believe I can hear my Dad’s voice.
I swore when my daughter was born that she would know me. It wouldn’t be like it was with my Dad. And have done my very best to live up to that. So I abandoned my career in Hollywood and traveled to the NW when my first marriage crashed and burned, and Toni decided she had had enough of Los Angeles. I wanted to be sure that Nicki had memories that were sharp and clear and unique, so I took her with me to Tanzania when researching GREAT SKY WOMAN, in search of a memory she would treasure, of her and her dad together. I think she was fifteen. We had a wonderful time, but on the very last day we got the memory that trumped them all: an idiot Floridian tourist lady, against the advice of all our guides, insisted on teasing an elephant, and it charged our camp. Nicki and I scrambled for our lives, the adrenal BOOM like something out of a cartoon.
Afterward, it was funny. Funny. Hah hah. Somehow I managed not to kill that @#$$. I was proud of my control. And happy that Nicki had that memory I craved.
When Jason was born, I literally did the ROOTS thing, held him up to the sky and said “Behold! The only thing greater than yourself!” and swore to God that I would deliver him safely to his manhood.
So when Tananarive’s mother fell ill, and T knew she had to be there to help her passage, I had no choice: I had to give up my career in Hollywood (I’d just started getting it back together, dammit) and go out to Atlanta. The Hollywood thing may never recover. I don’t know, and it hurts.
But…it would hurt a LOT more if I’d not gone. I would have betrayed that little boy inside me. How hurt was he? I remember after my mother and father got divorced, and my mother finally started dating again. There was a man sitting on the couch. I was about six years old. Maybe seven. And I missed my father horribly, and curled up on the loveseat behind the couch, praying that he would reach back and tousle my hair. Rub my shoulder.
Be a Dad to me. What was wrong with me? I remember thinking. Was I so stupid, so ugly, so twisted that no one wanted to be my Dad..?
It was horrible. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone. And as it is with all old memories, if I focus I can make contact with it again, and it is a wound that nothing can fully heal. I couldn’t be the person I would have been had my father been there. I’m another man. A man I love being.
But I wonder who that other man would have been. I’ll never know.
I think that the task we have to be excellent is to seek to make every day just a little better than the day before. As parents, we try to give our children lives just a little better than ours were. For both my son and daughter, that means that they have to know who I am. I have to BE there. I’ve heard too many stories of people whose fathers were adventurers, sailors, soldiers, salesmen…off doing other things in other places with other people, but not there when they woke up in the morning…went to bed at night…not there to help them learn to walk, and talk, and ride bikes, and to answer the questions and hold them when they cry…or laugh.
I don’t know about other men. But that is what I feel I need to do to be a good father. Because that is what I prayed for as a boy. I never, ever wanted Nicki to seek from other men the love and attention she should have gotten from me. Never wanted Jason to curl up on a couch wondering why no one wanted to be his father. Wonder why he might be such a twisted thing that no one would protect and nurture him and teach him to be a man.
No. Nicki and Jason will have different challenges. My job, at the most basic level, is to be the kind of father I wish I’d had. It is a gift to the little boy inside me.
You had a father, I can tell him, honestly. One who was there for you every day. Who loved his children more than anything in the world and showed it by BEING there.
That father is me.
And that little boy smiles at me. And hugs me. And kisses my cheek. And whispers: “Happy Father’s Day.”
And all is well.