“Father forgive me, we got some issues.”- Jay Z
It was a few days after my father’s 50th birthday, and I still struggled with what it meant to call the man who’s name I carry dad. I climbed into the dust and cracks of my black leather seat and headed to his apartment. The truth is I had no gifts. Over the years, my own mistakes had taught me that a man can wrong every one close to him with what he can do with his hands, and spend the rest of his life trying to redeem himself only to fail. And yet whatever forgiveness my dad needed I’d held it back. I’d become a master at using distance to push away hard truths like I wanted a father to teach me how to throw a left hand, how to rumble in the streets even when afraid, how to multiply fractions, choose the ripest watermelons.
My father lives in the kind of place people call rough, a neighborhood where young black boys can be seen posted up on corners through all hours of the day trafficking death; where police officers suspect you first – suspect you of drug dealing, of being a felony waiting to happen, of just be wrong, in the wrong skin, on the wrong block, with the wrong intentions – before anything else. Each time I bend the corner to drive up his street part of me is thankful I’ve never rested my head in a place so heavy with violence, with bootleg schools and so many folks who seem to suffer from the want of more. And then I catch myself recycling stereotypes, catch myself forgetting the stories of the folks I know who live on these streets, catch myself forgetting my father. This is why I drive to see the man who bought Similac for me as a child, who left the possibility of a college degree to be a father, the man who lost woman he says he still loves in the insanity of a DC street and those hard 80s: he reminds me of what it means to be a survivor, and what it means to grasp the kind of redemption that never appears in newspapers or television.
In my head I’m thinking I should have brought a gift, but know it’s too late as I turn the corner empty handed. My first trip up the street I didn’t notice the bearded man standing on the stoop talking to the younger cat. I drove past him standing on a nearby stoop twice, his bear thick and a grayish white reminding me on Frederick Douglass but not reminding me of the man I know as dad. As I drove past the second time he walked to the curb, and I could see his eyes, see that clear hard look of knowing something the world is just catching up too. He walked towards my car as I slowed, “Son, you didn’t recognize your old man did you?” And this is the thing, ever since the day I first walked into a county jail, ever since the day I first greeted a generation of black men behind bars, since the day I walked out of a prison for the last time as inmate, I’ve been searching for my father, and even on that day, just in the wake of his 50th birthday, I was still trying to recognize him.
“Pop I miss you, God help me forgive him I got some issues,” Jay Z rhymes on his track “Momma Loves Me.” I should have told my father I missed him. Told him that in this life measured by the breaks that we’ve both lived through it has taken me this long, nearly thirty years, to recognize that you don’t judge your father by his successes or failure, but by what people remember. And I miss the gaps in my own memory, the spaces where a thrown football should be, where a whooping should be – where his hands calloused from work and danger tucking me in at night should be. I realized I’m chasing memories, something new to define my dad by. I thought about my little brother, and how at 50 years old my father was doing a better job by him, as a single father, than he’d ever done with my sisters or me. I realized that today he was the kind of father I’m trying to be. He once told me that if anything ever went wrong with my wife and me it was my fault. “Son, if something ain’t right, it’s your responsibility to fix it.” He tells me personal responsibility is a standard to live by, and when my son is old enough to get it, I imagine me telling him this same mantra. When I walked up to the spot on the curb where he stood, I gave him a hug. Asked him to let me buy him a drink, figured brown liquor has always been good for burying hard memories and planting new ones.
R. Dwayne Betts is the author of the memoir, A Question of Freedom. And most recently, an award-winning collection of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm.