I still remember that hug as if not a single moment has passed since the years now that it was given me. It was the kind that you need only close your eyes and you can still feel the imprint upon your body and muscles. That warm and ever tightening loving embrace that his mother gave me. It was the first and last time we would meet. When she looked into my eyes with the most endearing smile holding both of my hands saying, “thank you for finishing raising my son”.
I didn’t quite understand what she meant at the time. The young man whom I had come to befriend, mentor, and housemate was in his final years of a PhD program. To me, he had been raised quite well already- perhaps the sincerest, well meaning, and responsible 20 something I had ever met, who had maintained the conscience of his character even while having his own place; attending one of the most renown party schools in the nation.
I was proud of him from the moment I first met him. And upon meeting his mother, I immediately recognized where he got his heart. Not unlike myself, he was brought up in his teen years between divorced parents who had remarried but stayed committed to the children even from their respective new relationships.
That part of him who would later become a professor, he got honest from a father who taught at a predominately black southern college. His music, he got from his mom. She was a cancer survivor who lived a shorter driving distance than his dad who was then divorced from the second woman he had grown up also calling mom. Still, one by one, we would entertain each faction of the family for a short stay where they would enjoy my cooking, which they had heard so much about. But his biological mom and her husband were the first to visit.
It was Thanksgiving eve. So the house was filled with the fragrance of the things I had already baked. Nutmeg and cinnamon and ginger would soon be joined by cloves and allspice in the glaze over the ham and the sage from the turkey stuffing. It was all part of the all night ritual I would do Thanksgiving eve- something I used to do for my own family before my divorce. And it felt nice to have a family to do it for again.
We offered them one of the two bedrooms but they wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, she and her husband just wanted to camp out on the living room floor. And so with only the ambient light from the kitchen partially reaching the living room we all sat that evening talking. She shared stories of her raising her son and she listened intently to my stories of him. Of how I got so sick of him going into the kitchen every five minutes and using a new cup or spoon or plate and never washing anything until the sink was full… and then taking forever to wash the dishes until they were so dry and smelly that I couldn’t take it anymore.
She laughed hysterically when I told her how I hid all the dishes and set a shelf for both of us with 1 cup 1 saucer, 1 bowl, and 1 plate, 1 fork, 1 spoon, and 1 knife until he showed enough discipline to wash his dishes every day. And how he had to explain to the other students when they visited why there was only one cup they could use when they asked for water. So I guess, in a way, I had already begun to treat him like a son.
After everyone retired for the night, I would tiptoe past she and her husband on the living room floor with their blanket pads and pillows on my way to the kitchen to baste the turkey which I would cook on very low heat overnight keeping it moist while later searing it with a honey butter and herb glaze just before taking it out to rest.
Each time I emerged from my room, she would get up and follow me to the kitchen, always asking me more questions about her son. I sensed she wasn’t asking from a friend or housemate perspective. She clearly perceived that my relationship with him was that of an accepted mentor and, based upon the discipline I freely exercised, she knew I also had his respect. And from the way his life went from eating pizza and mac and cheese to home cooked meals, she also knew he had my care- as also evidenced by me being up at 2 AM cooking for all of them.
I really didn’t give it much thought at the time. Because what I was doing was as much for me as it did also benefit him. I have always been a dad at heart. But I have never been good at accepting or acquiescing to other people’s perception of who I should be. Me and his mom chatted quite a bit about that when she would visit with me as I prepped each part of the coming meal.
She heard me out, through all of my unorthodox views about religion, race, and relationships and listened with great interest when I talked about how much it cost me in family and fatherhood to be who I am.
She smiled because she had also learned just as much married once before to his dad with them being a white liberal couple surrounded by closet and overt racist friends and acquaintances and teaching her kids to be different from the parents of their friends.
The endearing nature of her spirit never once criticized my challenge to her life long held traditional religious views, nor was she threatened by me mentioning a compelling need to write my thoughts in books. Instead, she rationally listened in earnest as I presented my thesis and outlines and asked about the things that she had learned differently.
When I was done, she grabbed both my hands, once again, and with a gleam said “you have to promise me you will finish those books. Promise me now. Because it is important to who you are. You have sacrificed too much to not finish the work.” She hugged me once more then went to lay down. It had been a long drive and she still seemed a little frail albeit so spiritually vibrant.
The next day came- Thanksgiving. We were joined by other students from the university who had not gone home for the holiday. It had become a tradition that would last 5 years as the legend of my holiday meals grew on campus.
Day turned to evening as the students returned to campus and it was the four of us again. Her eyes came alive when her son told the story of how I helped him get his car and the deal he got because I wouldn’t let the dealership get away with anything, and about all the other situations I taught him to be assertive about that saved him money.
I guess, once again, I didn’t realize that it was true- that I never allowed him to take no for an answer when I felt he was being taken advantage of. I would wait until he got off the phone and make him call back after explaining how he needed to handle the situation. And he was always amazed that it worked. He went on telling story after story of each thing he got a better deal on because I never let him settle. And his mom just smiled.
After talking for quite a while, she asked about my keyboard in the corner. I told her it was a full 88 key weighted one and she asked if she could play it. I took it from the corner along with the bench and sat it in the middle of the living room.
I retreated to my room to change into some sweats for the evening while the sound of her playing filled the condo. I emerged to a familiar tune from my days of high school choir and in full baritone entering the living room I bellowed in Latin as she played… “Cantata Domino Ca a a a a – a a a taaate, Cantate, Cantate Domino, canticum novum.”
Her spirit leaped across the keys as her fingers found increased strength and we finished the song together. I was amazed that I had remembered all of the Latin of a song I had not sung in almost 25 years. She looked happy but I saw that the day for her had been long, though she was reluctant to say, having enjoyed it so. But we all knew it was time to rest. And so we did.
Morning came. I was packing up leftovers for them to take on their trip home when she found a moment to visit me once more in the kitchen. It was there where she gave me her private goodbye. That ever lingering hug that still imprints upon my soul, the encouraging words to stay the course of who I am, the promise to write my books, and the sincere thanks for completing the raising of her son saying “I am so happy to see he is in good hands.”
I was in awe of the responsibility I felt she was placing upon my shoulders, at the time, not realizing that I had already embraced it long before it was spoken aloud. I just didn’t understand why she would speak it. I didn’t understand why she spent so much time with me. I didn’t understand why she felt it was so important for me to finish my own race as well. So my simple reply was “I can only hope to do as good a job as you have.”
Honestly, at the time I just thought she was the stereotypical Nosy Nellie white woman sizing up who this black guy was living with her son. I had no idea that before the coming new year, she would be hospitalized.
In the time that we lived together, me and her son were the typical males having long conversations about intellectual matters, politics, and sports and other topics. Men don’t generally have the same emotional conversations as women. The bonds men share remain largely unspoken.
But, weeks later, as I got up early the next morning, after the news of her illness, to see him out the door to go visit his mom in the hospital and wish him well, I heard his phone ring. A few moments later he knocked on my door, his face ashen white, bearing the news that, in the less than 24 hours his mom was admitted, she had just died.
Instinctively, I grabbed him in a way I had never held another human being. It was like the spirit of his mom’s embrace to me took over my body and his towering height leaned upon my shoulder and just sobbed.
We were both stunned at the news. After composing ourselves we did what men do. We talked about plans and responsibilities.
Her funeral came and went and time passed. We entertained other family for some holidays while others he would drive back home to visit. Without really realizing it, we had settled deeper into what his mom saw.
He sought my advice at each new juncture in his life. Everything from handling situations on campus, to his eventual love life, the clothes he should pack for interviews, and how to prepare. He allowed me to become everything I always wanted to be to my own children.
And he became the son who knew me so well that when I had a long day coming back from an event where I could hardly walk up the steps to come home, he would meet me in the parking lot even at 2 AM and carry whatever I needed to bring in. He would already have my bath drawn scalding hot to relax my back knowing that sometimes it was where I would fall asleep.
Even with all that, at the time, I did not really see what we had become. Not until a friend visited and saw me come out of my room with a half-eaten plate of food and before I could reach the kitchen, he grabbed it from my hand on his way to his room without a blink saying “I’ll finish it.”
My friend laughed and said, “Oh my god now I know for sure that white boy is your son.”
I said “how you figure?”
My friend went on to say “that boy took your plate, fork, spit and slobber and all and went straight to his room with it. Don’t nobody but your kids will do that.”
It was such an obvious observation that I couldn’t do anything but laugh.
But my most vivid memory of him is the day my ex contacted me online. He is one of the few individuals who know the depth of pain and treachery and chaos of that relationship. When we met, I was fresh out of it and he saw the evolution of me turning that experience into a tool to help others.
After years of stepping back from the madness of that situation, I accepted an online voice connection from her. At the time I had no headset so it was on open speaker in my room one early morning. All I can remember, upon hearing her voice, was just sobbing and telling her how much I forgave her. It was a necessary cleansing.
When I stepped out of my room he had left his bedroom door open and met me in the hallway and his eyes were full. And he said to me “I don’t want you to think I was being disrespectful listening to your conversation but I have never heard you that emotional before. I mean I have always known that you have very deep feelings by the way you treat your friends. And I have heard in your voice how deep the pain is when anybody even gets close to the topic of that relationship. But what amazes me the most is how easily you forgave her and how easy you were willing to offer help and advice even knowing that you will probably get burned again. I mean I have seen you go through this and you just keep giving. But hearing you forgive her… I mean, wow… I want to believe I can be that kind of person.”
My eyes also became full when I replied to him “You know; forgiveness is not really just for the other person. You have to forgive in order to set your own self free. Otherwise you remain permanently bound to a situation that you are giving someone else control over. It doesn’t really matter to me if she is sincere or if she is in denial or if she is still suffering from the same issues that caused us to divorce or ensnared us into a marriage that should have never happened in the first place. I am now spiritually free to see clear through to the truth. And I may well get hurt exposing myself to her again or getting my hopes up that she will actually live in truth for a change. But this time, I know enough for it to be my choice and whatever happens, my spirit will lead me and heal me as needed.”
The reason that it became such a teachable moment between us is because he had previously witnessed how I gave my time to another situation that turned out to involve unstable people who flat out lied to cover themselves and scapegoated me. He literally had to come bail me out. The only other time I ever had to be bailed out was from the lies of my ex. So while still litigating that present situation, knowing what I had just sacrificed and suffered, hearing me extend forgiveness to her while he was still angry about what he had witnessed done to me was overwhelming.
But this is what the bond of fathers and sons are supposed to be about. Learning and sharing from the humanity of successes, faults, and failings. We tend to forget about that when we emotionalize the circumstances of separation or divorce and give way to demonizing.
There are no saints in any relationship- be it child, parent, siblings, or marital. Neither is there absolution just because one or another walks into a building one Sunday and is convinced by some other unaccountable escapist that their responsibility to their sins end by telling it to Jesus.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Until you tell the truth to all who are affected by your lies, whose beliefs rest upon an untruth, the sins of their UNrighteous indignation remain a stain upon the glass darkly and the light unto your spiritual path will remain dim.
For five years I had the honor of being a trustee to his growth- imparting to him everything that coursed through my veins. And although my blood does not flow through his, I never realized before how immaterial to him that had become.
Funny thing is, I should know better. Because I am the product of a man whose blood never coursed through my veins. And yet I spent more time with him as a child during his years alive than all of my other siblings combined. And for as flawed and as demonized as he so often was, there are elements of manhood that can only be quantified through the bond of fatherhood.
There is something that changes in a man who bears through that experience. Unlike what he could never say in the combative emotional presence of a woman, my father freely admitted his flaws to me in hopes that I would not repeat them.
I recall one day in my teens, just the two of us working together on a home improvement project- something we often shared as I apprenticed with him. This very tough, foul mouthed, womanizing man who would give you the shirt off his back, spoke to me in unabashed eloquence about the last woman he cheated on my mother with, and the details of the circumstances of how karma paid him back. How he surprised this woman by coming early from an overnight hunting trip, let himself in, only to see her sleeping with another man. He quietly packed his things while they slept and he never looked back. There was no great moral to the story. He offered no excuses. Unlike my mother, who hid from me when I demanded to know the truth, who never found the strength to be honest with me about the origins of my birth, this man who accepted me as his son simply and openly spoke of his “sins” as part of the many life lessons he would impart as we worked together.
There are many such secrets between fathers and sons that are lost to the eyes and minds of women who no longer possess the generational wisdom of silence and letting things be. Despite my progressive proclivities, there are still weakness of each gender that have nothing to do with power over each other, but everything to do with what is just the right thing to do.
Many women are single parents because that is the entitlement of their mindsets- that it is “MY child” and that kind of emotional showmanship is not a battle that most men are willing to fight because it can easily escalate to violence. When a man falls back from involvement and into silence, it is a little credited and oft misunderstood expression of love to not take the divisive bait of women clearly not thinking. But children still deserve full and unfettered knowledge of ALL of their DNA. And where is obstruction, confusion will follow. And you can’t ask a man to later be The Miracle Worker of the Helen Keller that you created. Sometimes Johnny comes lately because the road was closed.
And yet my father, though non biological, never closed his road to me, and neither did my mother obstruct it despite his very obvious failings. I learned more from the honesty of his heathenism than the hypocrisy of my mother’s holiness.
Still, when this young man graduated as a PhD and showed signs of a blossoming relationship, I thought our road had ended. It was a good ride while it lasted. I did not understand the impact or meaning of my presence in his life. I thought I had grown to be as unimportant to him as my ex had made me unimportant to my own children. I had bought into the marginalizing of my presence as a buffer against the pain of my absence from them.
I hearken back, once again, to the months after my parents divorced, riding my skateboard miles down a busy four lane road to wait outside my father’s door for him to come home from work. I had no idea that I wasn’t his, and being the youngest of a family of kids of whom all the rest belonged to him, and yet he never ever turned me away. He always smiled at my presence, opened the door, and just let me in.
He would turn on the radio and as he changed clothes from work, he would tell me the history of every song that played, how often it was remade and by whom, and would quiz me on whether or not he told me before. He knew I was intellectually smarter than him and was never threatened by it or tried to beat me down or tease me about it. But at home, I was teased mercilessly by my siblings and called a white boy. Here was a proud black man who was proud that I was a smart young boy.
And so when my young man would pop up out of the blue with a call or a text or an email asking me to show up for something, it shocked me, but I went. And it would amaze me the people who were waiting there to meet me and how much of me and my influence upon his life they already knew. The son not by my own blood who seemed so proud to share who I am to him. It is beyond humbling.
In the year since he married, we had not spoken. Once again, I reconciled that he had moved on with his life and that I should merely appreciate the temporary bond which was. Then, out of the blue, a few weeks back I got a text asking me if I was still in town. I replied and he asked if I could come to dinner the following week. I said sure and we set the day.
When I arrived, he and his bride joined me at the table where I had made many meals during the five years that we stayed together. The condo was largely packed up. They began to tell me about the jobs they both got at the same university and all the other plans that they were making. About half way through the conversation, it dawned on me that, just as he had done with every other major decision in his life, he wanted my opinion and advice on the moves he was making. So I heard him out. I asked questions of each of them. And then basically did what dads do. I told them how proud I was of their direction in life and offered pointers on some of the things they were not experienced enough to think about.
I felt his mom’s presence there all over again. Her ever warming embrace still fresh and I began to wonder if she had a sense- if she knew she would not be there anymore. It was as if all that she did was an interview for the role she knew I would have to undertake.
The cancer that she had survived was in remission so no one ever saw her death coming. But perhaps she did. Weeks after her visit she went to the hospital with everyone thinking she simply had a cold that possibly turned to pneumonia. It turned out to be bone cancer which took her the same day as the diagnosis. Still… I wonder.
I left the dinner with a bittersweet smile, thinking to myself, ok, this is finally it. He is on his way. I will probably get a card or something now and then.
A few days later, while shopping at the grocery store, I called him and asked had his colleagues and students at the school planned anything for his departure. He told me no because it was the end of the year and a lot of them were already gone on vacation, and also because they were so busy packing they couldn’t dream of trying something like that.
I suggested that he allow me to cook for him one last time before they moved. I could see his smile clear through the phone and he thanked me and said he would set about to see who could make it.
So the day after Memorial Day he started getting the RSVPs and called me to give me the count. We settled upon a pavilion at a local park that his department had held events each year. Before he got off the phone he told me “you know you really made my day when you said you wanted to do this for me.”
I told him “I couldn’t have it any other way.”
I recruited a few people and set about the plan for his going away picnic. He texted several times asking if I needed anyone to bring anything and I told him no. As the rest of the week passed, I cleared my schedule to be able to start cooking Thursday night and all day Friday.
My team and I arrived at the park about 30 minutes early with most of the food cooked, outfitted the tables with cloths and serving containers matching the school colors, and laid out a spread of food that shocked everybody but him.
Although I had never known him as a child, he beamed like a two-year-old going from container to container sampling all his favorites knowing it was all done for him. As each guest arrived, the most common comment among them was “you have to mean something to someone if one person did all this.”
There were some there who already knew our history, like his former professor and retired supervisor whom I had known over the years. For the rest of them, he spent the entire time bringing them up to speed about all of our stories. For as liberal as most colleges are, it did not escape any of them that me and my help were the only people of color there aside from an Asian student and Latino colleague- that this was all done for the big southern white kid, by a black man.
While I was sitting at a table with a few of his colleagues, I laughed as I overheard him answering questions about each dish. I didn’t realize how much he had learned over the years. He also followed every protocol I taught him about handling and hosting an event and making certain leftovers are divided and sent with guests.
And then, true to form, remembering my back, he didn’t let me lift a thing and packed up everything for me.
After everyone had gone, only me, his wife, and one of my helpers who was waiting for a ride remained. He came to me and gave me a big hug telling me how much of what I did and everything I had ever done meant to him. It was only the second embrace we ever shared.
Next came his wife. I had known her only briefly before moving out of the way for their relationship. She had heard the echoes of my relationship with him. But actually seeing what was done today, the reaction of her husband, and the stories shared with their colleagues left her quite emotional compared to the calm and reserved more drawn back person who only shook my hand before.
This time she pulled me in for an embrace. After which we looked at each other with eyes of a new understanding.
Breaking the silence, I said “you take care of him.”
Peering back emotionally she replied “I can only hope to do as good a job as you have.”
It was all I could do, to hold back my tears….