Why you should care
Because sometimes your father isn’t who you thought he’d be.
I often wonder if God knows how much a young soul can withstand. And just how broken one can get before he or she has no way back.
Growing up in Dallas with my mother, father, brother and two sisters, the worst place for me to be was … home. Because home was always cold, no matter the temperature outside. My father could make the pictures on the walls shiver, and even now, at 56, I can hear him saying, “Anthony, bring your ass here. You ain’t got a bit of sense. You’re stupid.” The rest of us would scatter like roaches when his rage started to build.
The door to my father’s emotions had been bolted from the inside, and it remains a mystery to this day. He never tossed a ball with me or shared stories about his childhood. Instead, I remember him as a chain-smoker who chased the smoke with a bottle of Crown Royal. I’d stare at him through the nicotine cloud, wishing he’d let his guard down long enough to reach for me. But he didn’t seem to have it in him.
I began acting out in school, coming home angry and waking up in a rage. I was mad because my father didn’t teach me how to fix a flat on a bike — or even how to ride it. People thought I was just a bad kid, but what they couldn’t see was I needed someone in the shape of my father to mold me. My mind, and everything inside me, was splintered, and no one was there to help me put it together.
My mother could have stepped in, stopped the beatings, but rather than upset my father, she turned her back. He would say, “I’m gonna beat you so you will learn to do what I say. Son, you are stupid and need to learn.” The word “stupid” was my cue to go numb, and with every swing of the belt I grew more numb.
I was doing terribly in school, getting into more fights than I dare to remember. At 12, they placed me in a class with mentally challenged students, and I was a labeled a troubled child who could not be taught. That sent me to the darkest place I would come to know — a place where even my hopes for a brighter day were shut out.
And then, somehow, I called for help. Over the years I’d heard my mother speak about her only sibling, my Uncle James, and her voice would change when she mentioned him. At 19, I remember asking if it would be OK if I called her brother. She smiled and gave me his phone number. Scared and unsure, I dialed the number and, after two rings, Uncle James picked up.
His voice was unfamiliar and had a calmness I had never known before. We talked about family and my interests, and he seemed excited — no one had ever sounded excited just to speak to me. So I asked if I could come to California and live with him and he said yes. He bought me a ticket, and I flew out four days later. At the airport, I looked for a man I’d never met, recognizing him instantly because of his vibrant smile. Then he hugged me, a hug I had longed for all my life.
Uncle James was overweight and balding and dressed conservatively. And while he may not have had many possessions, he was at peace with himself. By the time we met, he was taking heavy medication for his diabetes, and I couldn’t believe in the midst of fighting for his life, he had opened a space and welcomed me.
For me, Uncle James was that much-needed bridge young boys must cross to become men. He was my very own mentor; he gave me choices rather than telling me what to do. As I told him about my life, I knew he was listening because I saw tears in his eyes. I lived with Uncle James for two and a half years — not long enough, but I learned so much. It was as though we were in a race and he was handing the baton to me, so I could finish the race in my life.
When I got the call to come to the hospital, his wife, daughters and I were escorted to a small room and the doctor came to see us. “You must be Anthony,” he said. I must’ve looked surprised because he added, “In my notes, it states you are the only one who can turn off the machine that’s keeping him alive.” Not knowing how to respond to my uncle’s decision, I asked if I could see him. Entering his room, I saw his all too familiar smile, but I also saw a ring around his eyes my elders had said was the ring of death. He knew what I needed to talk about. I began, “Unc, I want to thank you for teaching me how to become a man.” He said knowing me had helped him become the man I knew. “I love you and I’m so proud of you,” he said. “But I will not leave until you are ready for me to go.”
I was stunned that a man I’d grown to love dearly was willing to hurt until I decided to let him go. For so long I had waited for a father to invite me into his world. And now I stood in the center of my uncle’s life, ready to ease his passage from it. I leaned over, placing my hands on both sides of his face, and kissed him on his forehead. “Unc, I wish you could stay, but I don’t want you to suffer because you ended my suffering.” He said, “Neph, I’ll see you again. Take care of yourself.” That’s when I knew it was time to step out of the way so he could find rest. I headed downstairs to find my uncle’s doctor. “Let him go,” I said.
Uncle James passed away a few days later. Hearing the news, I thought about all he’d given me: an opportunity to see, love and be loved by a man in the form of a father.
Audio produced by Meradith Hoddinott