I liked seeing Senator Byron Douglass back on primetime television just as much the next black person who grew up watching that quintessential episode of A Different World (Will you? Baby, PLEASE!), but I didn’t have half the heart to stomach Papa Pope’s monologues as the rest of the world did. Scandal’s Papa Pope reminded me too much of my own dad, a man to whom love was control. Eli Pope is constantly trying to ravage Olivia of the few delights and joys she has managed to procure in this world simply because those moments of happiness don’t revolve around him. When I hear him revving up to tell her how she is nothing without him, I have to close my ears, the same way I had trained myself to do with my own father.
It all started with Harvard. In 2006, I went away to college and my relationship with my dad was never the same. He didn’t know how to talk to me anymore. He would call and immediately launch into a monologue about Obama and the summit talks he watched on CNN that morning when all I wanted to talk about was the family and what was new with him. He took to formally addressing me as “Daughter” and affecting a borderline British accent. When he wasn’t doing his Father Knows Best routine, he would call, raging at me for being a disappointment and a failure even though I had only been in college for a couple of months. “Did you know Kathy’s [my stepmother] nephew, Donnell graduated from college in three years? See, now that won’t be you because all you doing up there is playing.” A month went by. “Andre, you need to be taking Spanish.” “Yes sir, I do.” “Unh unh, I don’t want you just to speak the Spanish they’re speaking in Spain, I want you to speak the Spanish they speak in ITALY!”
I understood his insecurity and I tried my hardest not to wound him there, but sometimes I couldn’t handle it. I would think about when I wanted to move in with him in eighth grade, so I could attend the middle school around the corner from him and he agreed, but then reneged on his promise. Then I recalled the time I did live with him in high school, but he wouldn’t let me participate in extracurricular activities, so I moved back in with my mom even though it meant I had to go back to hustling rides to school every morning. And then I would think about how I wasn’t attending my dream college because he didn’t want to fill out the financial aid papers and I got angry. Why do you care about my academics now? Now is too late.
The first two Christmases of my college years were the absolute worst. My freshman year, my sister called me after Thanksgiving and told me how my dad had created a scene at my stepmother’s mother’s house and embarrassed all of my siblings. I was relieved that I didn’t bear witness to that spectacle and promised myself to avoid such scenes at Christmas. Christmas came and my mom hosted her annual dinner. My dad came dashing in the house at one point with my brothers. I could feel the excitement pouring off of him; he never outgrew his love for being the center of attention. He was like a child, wound up with the joy of self-importance. Daddy was dangerous in that condition, so I avoided him until he left with the rest of my siblings. He called me a while later from my stepmother’s sister’s house, asking where I was. I rolled my eyes, knowing full well he saw me at the table when he dashed out, but promised to accompany him to her family’s brunch the next day.
Early the next day, my dad came by to pick me up. My sister was on the couch sleeping and I was asking her to call our cousin to see if he still wanted to see Dreamgirls later. I could barely get the words out of my mouth before I was lifted up off of the floor by my shirt and dragged to the car. My sister texted me, “Did you just get kidnapped?” I didn’t know if I wanted to scream from laughter or anger. I silently seethed all of the way to the brunch while my dad talked at me by way of my stepmother about how children need to be obedient and respectful, but they start thinking they’re grown. We got to the brunch and the parade began immediately. “Look at my daughter I brought back from Harvard!” I thought about the plane ticket I saved up for and I walked away to sit in the living room. Pretty soon, my dad was sitting on top of me, making me feel as if the loveseat was now an overcrowded armchair. I escaped to a back room for the rest of our time there. I returned to school soon after that and on the day of my first final, I received a formal, typed letter from my dad telling me that I had behaved as if I wasn’t his child and so, he was cutting me off. If I wanted to make the choice to be his daughter again, I needed to let him know.
Next Christmas, I went to the Christmas party at his sister-in-law’s house along with my own sisters. We sat around making small talk with the family and the evening ended on a pleasant note, or so I thought. A couple of days later, my dad called and told me that he was going to my brother’s house to deliver some presents for my new nephew. I asked if I could go along and he came to pick me up. On the ride over there, my dad was unusually quiet, but I didn’t think too much of it until we were headed back to my mother’s house later that evening. “What was your problem the other night? You were being so anti-social at the Christmas party! Just sitting there, talking to your sisters…don’t you realize that you are the Michael Jackson of the family and have to shake off the deadweight? You are the star! And you need to act like it! But ok, since you don’t appreciate it; you’re going to lose it. You are going to fail out of Harvard and then you’ll be right back here.
It was always like that. He would try to take credit for my accomplishments and pander me around to people whose favor he was trying to curry and when I proved to be an unwieldy trophy-piece, he berated me. I graduated from Harvard and he decided not to come to my graduation, said I wasn’t doing anything with the degree anyway, so what was the point? “You just want to be like Kathy, but Kathy has a law degree. You just have a college degree.” I went to law school. “You’ve been up North too long. You’ll never be able to get hired down here in the South.” I got an offer from the oldest and one of the most prestigious firms in Memphis. “But you still have to take the bar. And who says you’ll pass it? And even if you do, what are you doing with your life? What’s your plan? See, you ain’t got no plan. You ain’t doing nothing. I’m not impressed with you!”
I’m not impressed with you! I’m not impressed with you! I’m not impressed with you!
He said that so often to so many of us that it became a running bit amongst my siblings. But that last time he yelled it at me, I found nothing humorous in that situation. I saw this desperate desire in his eyes to make me feel like I was nothing and it was then that I knew my mother was right. She had been right all along. When I was younger and would try to convince my mom that my dad had changed, that he was making better choices, and that would he finally be the dad I needed, she would turn to me with a sad, but determined look. “Andre. Your dad does not have your best interests at heart.” I hated her for saying that to me.
That day he yelled at me for not being “the star,” I got out of the car, walked into my mother’s house, and didn’t see him for the rest of the vacation. But, the day I was supposed to fly back to Cambridge, I asked my mom if she would drive me by his house to say goodbye before we went to the airport. “No. If that’s what you want to do, you need to find another ride.” “But, I just need to…” “Andre, if you knew your dad was going to die today, what else could you say? Go back to school, Andre.” I didn’t see him that day, but I went back time and time again. Once, when I was a teenager, my dad was bragging about me to my stepmother. “See? My other children, I say something to them and poof ! They’re gone. Andre? I say something to her and she comes right back the next day.” I was proud to be that child. But, in the past couple of years, it got harder and harder to be that person.
I was falling apart emotionally in college. I went to therapy very briefly at the insistence of my best friend (first question out of the therapist’s mouth was, “What is your relationship with your father like? I started boo-hoo sobbing, ran out of there, to my friend’s dorm, into his waiting arms, and I never went back) and eventually found a professor-friend who encouraged me to write. I started writing because of my dad. I used to write short stories about him, stuff I was too ashamed to ever confess to my friends. Writing became my catharsis and slowly, but surely, I started to heal.
I was home the summer before last and I went with my sisters to visit my dad. Soon enough, my dad started a fight with me and began attacking me and my goals. My baby sister, who never involves herself in these altercations, started defending me and I was grateful because it was all I could do to hold my ground and not cry. I couldn’t let him see me cry. I went home and decided that I was taking a much-needed mental health break from my dad. I wrote it in my journal, so I wouldn’t ever forget what I was feeling that day. It was clear that he didn’t wish me well and I deserved better. Wasn’t supposed to get introduced to that. I don’t deserve to get used to that.
I saw him that Christmas holiday once, but we didn’t speak really after that summer day. After I moved to Guatemala and started blogging, he somehow got access to my blog and was angry with me for saying that he was abusive to my mom. “She never went to the hospital for injuries! She wasn’t abused. That’s a lie!” My sister had moved in with him briefly and would tell me about his rants against me. She thought it was funny because even though he derided me, he religiously checked the blog, printed out my stories, and kept them in a binder. I wasn’t amused and told her to please stop spreading his negativity.
When my dad died, I hadn’t seen or talked to him in over ten months. It would have been a year this Christmas. I have shed a lot of tears over the past month and a half, but most of them haven’t been for the man we buried, more for my hopes and dreams that got buried alongside him. Deep in my heart, I had this glimmer of hope that one day, my dad would get better. He would let go of his anger and resentment and be the dad I knew he could be.
I am my father’s child. All of the aspects of my personality that I cherish, I got from him. When I was a kid, I thought he was the coolest man in the world. His laughter would ring through any house he was in and I loved to watch him light up a room. He had so many dreams that he never got to realize and I wanted to make some of them come true. I dreamed about us traveling the world together. The first time I went snow camping, I thought, “I wish my dad were here. He’d love this.” The day after my birthday, I sat under a tree at work and I cried, thinking about how my dad would have been crazy over the moon about the view of the mountains we have there. I know I made him feel inferior sometimes, but that was never my intention. I just wanted him to stop treating me like his prop. I wanted to be his beloved daughter, not his show-piece, but all the world was a stage to him.
A month before he passed, I had a dream that he and I were driving down the street in his Cadillac listening to our song, “Used Ta Be My Girl,” by the O’Jays. I woke up feeling like my heart had anchored itself in my stomach, crying because somehow, I knew that dream would never come true. When I was home for the funeral, my big sister told me about some of the moments she had had with my dad in the last few months and I had to look away, so she wouldn’t see my hurt. I had been chalking the nonexistent relationship with my dad up to the fact that he had a stroke a few years back. He didn’t leave his house and when I did go visit him, he wasn’t in his right mind. But, now my sister was telling me that he was alert in those last few months. He was taking my nephew to school sometimes. He was going out to eat with her. I thought about how I chose to stay in Guatemala another year when it was time for me to take the position at my firm. What had I done? I started to place the blame at my doorstep. But, then I remembered.
My baby sister turned to me the day before the funeral. Her and his relationship wasn’t much more involved than his and mine. “You know, if someone had told me that he was going to die on this day, I’m not sure I would have made a different choice.” Her truth echoed through my chest, but I was not brave enough to second that emotion verbally. I finally confessed to my mom that I hadn’t spoken to him in months and how the feelings of guilt were starting to creep over me. “But Andre, do you think maybe God fixed it so that you guys weren’t fighting when he passed?”
When I came back to Guatemala, I found a tape recorder that I bought before I moved down here. Sometimes, just before I go to sleep, I get these ideas for stories and I’m too lazy to get a pen and paper, so this was my way of catching those thoughts. The recorder had gotten buried under a pile of papers, but I found it recently and played the voice notes I created back when I first bought it. Four out of the seven notes were about my dad. The pain in my voice is so palpable. It was incredible to listen to because when he passed, I didn’t have any of that anger for him. I had forgiven him. Slowly, but surely, I had forgiven him and forgiven myself. I had thought about my dad dying many times before and I always thought I would be a stoic mute at his funeral. My anger, wouldn’t let me feel for a stranger. But I wasn’t. All I could remember were the good times. His laugh, his smile, his hugs, his kisses, his sense of humor, his love for music. Those memories had me thinking that maybe I could have done more when he was alive. Maybe I could have tried harder.
But, I don’t think that is the lesson I am supposed to be learning. I did my best. And he did his best. I know my dad loved me and even though I didn’t always care for the way he expressed it or how he often let his other emotions trample over that love, I know it was there. So, I am choosing not to blame him or blame myself for how things turned out. I choose to listen to Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love is Fair” until the grief subsides and I remember how blessed I am to have received all that I did from him and get excited for the future, thinking about all the love and possibilities that await me.
A writer takes his pen, to write the words again, that all in love is fair.