Walk With Me

“We got a warning call eight years ago. Y’all remember?” Marcus asked the day before the funeral.

He was referring to Daddy’s stroke. The summer after my first year of college, Daddy had a stroke that almost ended him. I had been home at my mother’s house for a couple of weeks. I hadn’t heard from Daddy at all and that was unusual. I called him a couple of times and Ms. Kathy answered. She said she would deliver my message.

Marcus, in his typical vagabond fashion, appeared on their doorstep out of the blue. He hung out with them and noticed that Daddy seemed disoriented. Marcus said at one point, he was beating the wall with his fists. Marcus called an ambulance. The doctor said the stroke had occurred a couple of days before and if he had waited any longer in calling, Daddy would have died then.

I sat at my Dad’s side while he lie on what he believed to be his deathbed. “I want to be buried in Cedar Grove in Como, MS, next to my parents, Andre.” The melodrama aggravated me. Either depart for the skies or stop the carrying-on. I don’t have space to carry this drama. I feel like I’ve been holding worry for you since I was nine.

But he didn’t die. He stayed in the hospital a few days longer. Outside the hospital, turmoil reigned supreme. Ms. Kathy wanted to take him out of the hospital because they were doing renovations on the East Wing. His room was in the West Wing. “We should just take him home and surround him with prayer and the Word of God,” she said. Dear Lord, this crazy evangelicalism is going to be the end of us all. But I couldn’t be mad at her because it was his crazy evangelical ways that put her in the mental space she currently resides.

After that first visit to the ICU, us Tyler children couldn’t get back to the hospital. None of us had a car and Ms. Kathy wasn’t offering rides. Marnie was living with Daddy during this time and the rest of us were visiting, but none of us could get in that car. She would glide past us as if she had an exclusive appointment. Ooo lady, you don’t even know ‘bout my bus hustle. You can’t keep me locked up in this house.

Saturday morning, she left for the hospital and I went into their bedroom, looking for my dad’s jar of spare change. I sorted out all of the quarters and dimes like I used to do in high school, looking for snack money. With a pocketful of silver, I headed to the bus stop. A twenty-minute drive in the car to the hospital is equivalent to three city buses and 2.5 hours. But I made it.

The elevators opened up on his floor. Ms. Kathy was standing at the door waiting to get on, about to run errands. “Oh, ON-dree-uh (no one pronounces my name quite like her), you made it! Let me show you to your father’s room.” Ma’am, you are not happy to see me, but I just smiled in the face of her obvious discomfort. Game recognize game, Chick.

First order of business, I told my dad about all the chaos going on in his house. Arrangements were made. When Ms. Kathy came back, he told her that Punkin and his expectant wife Tameika were going to move in with her and she should follow his instructions. Punkin would make sure she took her medicine and keep the household running. It had to be the oldest child. He was the only one who could make the transition to being the head of the household, giving Ms. Kathy the commands she needed to function. I was still a child and could never boss an authority figure around.

Then, we moved on to him. I had heard that when Ms. Kathy’s family came to visit him in the hospital, they had been most inhospitable. My dad didn’t get along well with his in-laws. Their dislike for him was well founded and I didn’t begrudge them their resentment, but there is a time and place for everything. The story went that they stood at his bedside making comments like, “Oh it must be nice to have a wife who has a job and good insurance. How else could you afford such nice accommodations?”

When I heard what they had said, I felt sick. I went to my dad that Saturday with tears in my eyes. “Daddy how can you let yourself be so dependent on someone else? What if you didn’t have her? What could you do?”

My dad’s work history was full of gaps. He thought he was too good for every job he had, so he quit them frequently. At the time of the stroke, he hadn’t worked in over a year. He and my stepmother lived off of her income. This meant that when we asked my dad for something, we felt terrible because we knew we really should be asking her, but that just wasn’t the dynamic in their house.

He watched me as I cried out to him. “Listen. I’m not dependent on anyone. I’m not.” He stared into my eyes with his confident smile on his face. He didn’t elaborate, just lay there willing me to imbibe his confidence on decree alone. I tried to interpret his meaning. Did he have a backup plan? Was he like the mom in The Family that Preys who was secretly a millionaire? No, no, Dre. He was just putting on a brave face in front of his scared daughter. All he had was her. And us.

He was released from the hospital a few days later, the same day that my nephew was born a couple of floors below. Mama dropped Marnie and me off at the hospital and we stopped to visit Daddy first. When we tried to leave, he detained us with inane questions like, “What is the baby going to call you? You need to decide right now or it’s going to be too late.” I’ll think about it on the elevator ride (or maybe even the first few months before he develops the use of his vocal cords) but either way, we gotta go!”

We rode back from the hospital with him and Ms. Kathy and he was in a cantankerous mood. He stomped around the house, yelling at us, yelling at Marnie, telling her she needed to move out of his house today, like immediately. His rage consumed him. It seemed to be the bi-product of disappointment. He was somewhere he hadn’t planned on being anymore.

The next eight years were a slow march to that morning when he went to the bathroom and went down into that forever sleep. He didn’t go to physical therapy consistently. He wasn’t vigilant about his diet. Some months, he was back down to a healthy weight, but then sometimes his legs would swell up so bad that he couldn’t walk and he would just kneel on the ottoman in his living room, something he had been doing since he got the diabetes diagnosis a few years before the stroke. He never left his house. He made rare appearances at family social functions or went to places close to his house, but he had definitely made a turn for the hermit.

While I was at school, I would think about ways I could get him out of the house. What if I could get him to start walking around the neighborhood with me? And then we’d go on runs and he would find himself again. My charismatic, extroverted dad would find himself again.

The summer before my last year of law school, I took an internship at a firm in Memphis. At Christmas, I told my dad about the job and asked if I could stay with him that summer. He said yes. All semester, I thought about how good this was going to be for him, for us.

That May, I flew home on a Thursday. The Wednesday before, my friend and I were moving my things into storage. My phone vibrated. I looked down at my dad’s text. “Daughter, we are unable to host you at this time. Love, your father.” I looked at my friend and held up my phone. She shook her head,“Sorry, Dre.”

I was so annoyed. A text, really? I already hate when people text things they should discuss over the phone, but I have more grace when it’s someone from my generation. How does someone his age think it’s acceptable to text that he’s going back on a promise he made six months ago? Oo I was too heated.

I also hated the formal tone of his text. Since I had started college, every written communication fom him to me had the air of Hamilton writing to Congress on behalf of Washington. I asked him once, “Do you write these letters yourself or is this Ms. Kathy writing letters for you? I can’t hear your voice in them.” He got offended, thought I was insinuating that he didn’t have the ability to write such high brow correspondence, but I wasn’t praising the letters. I thought they lacked his warmth and wit, the only thing that would have made them worth reading.

He was shutting me out. Maybe I was pushing too hard. I always push too hard. When I go home, I try to watch my mouth. I have always been opinionated, always saying what I think, but since going to Harvard, my opinions have been received differently. I sound a lot more judgmental. Maybe he felt that way too. I was never trying to communicate that I thought less of him, quite the opposite. I thought he was capable of greatness. What I saw in myself, I saw in him and I wanted him to strive to do better, like he had always pushed me.

I wished that I could have asked him that question that Quincy asks his dad in Love and Basketball, “Why couldn’t you be the [person] you kept trying to make me be?” In my dreams, my dad and I used to do life together. We would travel, go hiking, and camping. The first time I went snow camping, I stood out on the frozen lake with snow up to my knees and all I could hear was that old hymn, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” I wished my dad were there. He would have loved it.

When I would call my dad to tell him about something new I had done, like when I went to Puerto Rico, he would say, “Remember, Andre. There is a living and a killing everywhere. Your grandmother never went anywhere in her whole life and she was happy.” He would say things like this, but then he would talk about how he was going to move to Jamaica, grow out some dreadlocks, and sit under coconut trees. He wanted more, so much more, and didn’t know how he was going to get it. I didn’t either, but I wanted him to try.

Once, when Marnie and I were no older than five and seven, Daddy took us to the park and pushed us on the swings. I was going higher and higher and giggling in delight. Marnie was not here for those swings. She was screaming at him to not push so hard. When we got back in the car with Mama, Daddy was laughing and telling her what happened. “Marnie’s crying and Andre is going faster and is all the way up in the air and she was just a laughing.” I smiled out the window because I could hear the pride in his voice. I was brave. I wanted to have the same pride for him.

I flew back to Memphis in October for the funeral. On the bus to Guatemala City and on the plane home, I looped The Holmes Brothers’ version of “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” on my iPhone.

In my sorrows, Lord have mercy, Oh Lord, Lord, walk with me.
In my sorrows, Lord, walk with me.
When my heart, Lord, my heart is aching.
I want Jesus, I want Jesus, Oh Lord, to walk with me.

Marnie picked me up from the airport and the next day, we went to my stepmother’s house for the meeting with the funeral home. Marnie was the strong one. She was talking through all the negotiations while I was wall sliding across the house every time a new arrangement was discussed. Danielle came running out of the spare room crying. “I keep waiting for him to come greet us, but he’s not coming.” When we would visit my dad, Ms. Kathy always answered the door and settle us in the living room. He would come out of his room or study a little bit later. But not that day.

My aunts showed up a few minutes later. They had all been at the house the day the mortician came and they were all amazed at how peaceful he looked in death. “He always said he didn’t want me to try to resuscitate him,” Ms. Kathy said, “When it was his time, he said he just wanted to go be with Jesus. Don’t try to hold him back.” But she had tried.

I walked into the bathroom where he had set free his last breath. I looked around like the police investigating a crime. I ain’t no expert; I’m just hurt. It was a tiny bathroom; he couldn’t have fallen in a tragic way. It seems like he just kneeled down and never got up. My aunt found me there. She started telling me how he was when she saw him as Danielle wriggled past, moving quickly out of earshot. “He was laying just like this,” she got down on the floor, “just like he was sleeping, Moot. He was so peaceful.”

“Ann!” my other aunt screamed at her sister from the living room, “What are you back there talking about? Stop that.”

Ann reached out to hug me. I was crying, but I was glad that she had shared. Why were you so eager and willing to go, Daddy? In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about how fatherhood changed him. He said he started being more careful and less nihilistic in the tradition of his black male culture because he realized that if he went down, he would not go down alone. I cried the first time I read those words and I wrote them in my quote journal, a little moleskin that my friend bought for me this past Father’s Day. How come you didn’t feel that way about us? How come you didn’t realize that if you went down, we were going down with you? But, I think he did. I think he did.

I knew that if I could just get through the funeral and the business of the body, I would be okay. Twenty-four hours of anxiety and then, I would be fine. But Lord, what a day. My aunt called on Friday.

“We need to go to the funeral home and see him today.”

“Oh ok, you’re going to go?”

We are going.” Mmm. ok.

Marnie, Danielle, and I met my aunts outside of the funeral parlor. His body was resting at the front of a room with lots of pews. A mini-sanctuary. We three sisters were on a spectrum of emotion. Marnie was still in take-charge mode. She walked down the aisle with my aunt, reached out, and touched him. “Look Andre, his skin is soft here. Danielle was in the foyer of the parlor, outside the room. I was somewhere in the middle. I walked up slowly, saw that he was wearing his trademark smirk of a smile, and breathed a sigh of relief. I walked back to tell Danielle. Maybe she might be more interested in coming after knowing this fact.

“Don’t force her, Moot (My nickname is Moot and that’s the end of that conversation).” my aunt called after me.

I found her seated on a bench, arms folded, looking down.

“He looks like himself. He’s smiling.”

“Ok.”

“Are you coming in?”

“No.”

Back in the sanctuary, Marnie and my aunt were still standing by the casket. I sat down beside Ann. An older cousin was in town for the funeral and she had come with my aunts. The three of them had seen so much grief, buried so many loved ones that they were taking it all in stride, talking about other funerals they had attended in the past few months.

After the funeral, we piled into cars and drove out to Como, MS, where my grandparents are buried. My brothers and cousins slipped and slid all over the damp soil as they heaved the casket over their shoulders and dropped it into the ground. We Tyler children held hands as the pastor prayed the final prayer, hugged, and headed back to the city.

I have not been back out there and I don’t really intend to go until the next funeral.

My parents were not huge believers in visiting cemeteries. At least once a year, my aunts go visit their parents’ graves, clean them up, and place flowers on them. Daddy never went. My mom’s mother is buried somewhere in the city, but Mama doesn’t visit. When I asked her why, she shrugged and replied, “She’s not there.” Daddy’s response was roughly the same. I used to hate that they felt that way. On television (mainly the HBO series Soul Food), they always visiting graves and talking to the deceased. What did it say about my parents that they didn’t?

But I understand now and find that I feel the same. My dad used to always asks us, “What are you?” and the answer is, “I’m a spirit.” “That’s right, you’re a spirit. This right here? This is just a body.” He always seemed constrained by his physical form, but he’s not anymore.

In The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, one of the Ya-Yas, Teensy, discusses her mother’s suicide with Sidda, the protagonist. “My mother didn’t kill herself because she didn’t love me,” she said. Every time I read that line, I would think, yea, but she didn’t love you enough to not kill herself, so what is this distinction you’re trying to make? I pitied her. She was trying to make peace with her situation by lying to herself.

My perspective has changed. My dad didn’t kill himself, but he didn’t take care of himself. He had choices and he didn’t make ones that would lead to him seeing his 57th birthday. He made choices that caused an early exit, but his choices were not about his children. It was about him and the trials and tribulations he faced living this life. I can think about his last few years on this earth and not feel resentment. To be honest, I’m happy for him. He was so discontented and I feel like he’s at peace now.

At the end of Stepmom, when Susan Sarandon is saying goodbye to her children, she tells her daughter to take her along. When she gets married, when she has children, “take me with you.” My teenage self used to wonder how that would work.

This is how it works (for me at least):

The Monday after the funeral, I stood in the line at airport security and whispered, “Ok, come on. Let’s go.” I always wanted to travel with my dad and I didn’t think it would be like this, but I felt like my dad was going back to Guatemala with me. Three weeks later, I turned 28. The day after, I got to work early and stood under a tree on the soccer field. I turned to the left and saw him standing there  as clear as day, “Wow! Look at that view, Andre. This is in-cred-ible!” I burst into tears. I haven’t seen him since, but I feel his presence all the time. All along my pilgrim journey, I want Jesus to walk with me.

I have been blessed with a flexible job where I can work remotely often. I spend a lot of days at this one library because it reminds me of the old central library street on Peabody St. in Memphis. My dad used to take us there. He loved to look through the records and check out celebrity biographies. He loved reading and he passed that on to most of his children.

I feel his presence when I go on bike rides. For a month, I lived with these people I had found on craigslist before getting an apartment with a good friend. At that place, there was an extra bike in the garage that I used. I would go on long bike rides every day and think about my dad teaching me to ride a bike on the one he bought for my 13th birthday. He was living in his parents’ old house then with his sister and brother. I would practice on the quiet street in front of the house, but I was afraid of doing anything more or going down hills because I wasn’t comfortable with the brakes. But look at me now, Daddy. I ride in the street like the rest of these Massachusetts hippies.

I feel closer to him now than I have in years. I feel like we can commune without the resentment, jealousies, and disappointments that plagued us when he was alive. But maybe, I’m just like everyone else who is trying to cope the best way they know how. Maybe this is all just happening in my head. But like Dumbledore told Harry at King’s Cross, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

 

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