It was the day Reverend Jesse Jackson was on the ballot for the first time in a presidential primary. My father had never registered to vote. In fact, he couldn't because of his dishonorable discharge from the Army and felony conviction. But still, he was excited about a black man running for president. The call came at 6:14 a.m. It was the mistress, the woman with whom my father had lived for more than 20 years -- the whole time that he was married to my step-mother. There was no hello, good morning -- nothing.
"Horace is dead."
"Your father is dead. I came home from my mother's house this morning and couldn't
wake him up. He's dead." I'm not sure I actually understood what she was saying, but I knew I needed to get to his house, their home.
I walked into the bedroom half expecting and hoping he would greet me. I touched his hand, which still felt warm. I snatched the covers off of his body and stared at him, my father. He was dressed in a white undershirt and his undershorts. He remained stark still, his beautifully handsome face poised in a peaceful sleeping position. I never knew my father slept on his back. I stared at his thin, hairy legs, the same thin legs that I inherited from him. I nudged him to see if I could make him move. Then I saw the urine stain spreading beneath his behind. No way would my daddy lie in a wet bed! No way! I don't remember what, if anything, went through my mind. I didn't believe he was dead and could not believe that he would never greet me again. He was lying right in front of me and it all seemed surreal. I pulled the covers up over his body and covered his face.
"Don't cover his face! What are you covering his face for?" The mistress was standing behind me. I had not heard her come into the room. She was on the verge of hysteria. Before I could say a word, my father's youngest son ran past me and threw himself across my daddy's body.
"Don't leave me Horace. Please don't leave me." I wanted to feel some compassion for this child of 15 who had just lost his father. I felt none. In fact, I was a little insulted that this kid was calling my father by his first name and crying while I was not, could not. I simply could not find a tear to shed. My entire being was numb.
Then, in the same harsh tone with which she had spoken to me, she instructed her son: "Don't do that! Get off of him! Leave him alone." It was then that I realized that this woman was hysterical.
Over the course of the next nine hours, the amount of time it took for the coroner to arrive and remove the body, everyone in the neighborhood came into the house to view him. The superintendent of the building came as soon as she heard. The mailman came in, the guy down the street who worked on everyone's car, the neighborhood drunk who frequently got a few coins from my father to support his habit -- they all came in to voice their shock and to view my dead father lying in his bedroom. Some peered under the sheet. Others just stared. Every 45 minutes to an hour, another one of his children would break down and freak out, requiring that someone pick them up, hold them up and shut them up. It was nothing short of bizarre. I sat on the sofa directly across from the bedroom door and watched the entire ordeal, keeping my mouth occupied with Hall's strawberry cough drops and thinking to myself, These people didn't even like my father, or at least that is what they said.
Grandma arrived around 8 a.m. "What happened to him? How did this happen?" She then began to speculate about all the illnesses that could have possibly befallen him. She had been in the house about 20 minutes before she went into the room. I never moved from the sofa. I'm not even sure she spoke to me. I do know that for the second time in my life, I saw my grandmother cry. Her only son was dead and she wept like a normal mother. But this woman was anything but a normal mother. I was not convinced that her tears meant anything at all.
At birth, we are like cartilage -- soft, flexible tissue. By the same natural process by which cartilage becomes hard bone, the soft, tender heart of an innocent child can become hardened by the circumstances into which she is born. A gentle, caring, nurturing and loving mother provides a much different environment for her child than does a raging alcoholic. A peaceful, stable, loving home molds and shapes a child much differently than does a chaotic, unstable one. By age five, our legs and arms are pretty solid, yet there are a hundred other bones throughout our bodies that have yet to take their permanent form. The same is not true of our minds and hearts. A stable and nurturing childhood is essential for the healthy psycho-emotional and spiritual development of a human being. While we may understand what is supposed to happen to us physically, we must begin to better understand what happens to children mentally, emotionally and spiritually as a result of the families into which they are born. My father did not have the required understanding.
For most of my life, I believed that my father had broken many of my bones. They were emotional and psychological bones; things no one could see, things that caused me to limp through life clutching for and holding on to people and situations that often rendered me immobile. He broke my heart by leaving me in the care of his mentally unstable, violently abusive mother after my mother, his first mistress, had died. He broke my trust by ignoring the wounds on my body and terror in my eyes when he would return after a long absence, asking nothing about the bruises and wounds on my body. He destroyed my innocence by exposing me to his many lovers who were nice to me because they wanted to be with him. He broke my sense of value and worth with his critical, analytical assessments of what was wrong with me and how I needed to work harder to fix myself. Worst of all was his refusal, inability or unwillingness to show me even the slightest sign of affection. My father never kissed me, hugged me or told me that he loved me. As my only living parent, he became the filter through which I saw myself, the possibilities for my life, the world and all men. He was a conflicted and dark filter. Now he was dead, and instead of feeling sad and broken, I simply felt numb. Trust me when I say, feeling numb and being broken are kissing cousins. And what they do together in your mind and heart is deadly.
I wish I could say that grieving over and healing from my father's death was a natural and gracious process for me. It was not. It took me three years to feel its impact and another five or six to really heal. Then it happened, all of a sudden. One day I received a very clear and life-changing message: You cannot get to The Father until you forgive what you are holding about your father. The thoughts sent shock waves through my body. First, I was deathly afraid. Did the anger, resentment and disappointment I felt toward my father mean that I somehow felt the same way toward God? Yes, it did. Then I felt a crushing sadness. All of these years that I had been trying to get closer and feel closer to God -- did this mean I had failed? No, it did not. After days of crying, praying, forgiving and questioning myself and anyone else who would listen, I came to a place of peace. I came to a deeper understanding of how important a father is in the life and mind of a woman. I also came to understand the importance of healing our perceptions and misunderstandings about who our fathers are and who they are not.
A Universalist would tell you that there is only one Life, one Mind and one Spirit. We are each a unique expression of the One. This would mean that whatever we hold in our minds and hearts about any one individual, we hold about and toward all individuals. More important, this would imply that what we hold about them, we hold the same about self and God. It was a sobering thought. Maybe it's true. Maybe not. Could be. Who knows? That one thought took me into a realm of forgiveness and self-awareness that changed how I saw myself and my relationship to all people. More important, it transformed my relationship with my father and the Father. That one thought revealed a truth to me that I had never considered.
The truth I discovered is that my Father never abused, neglected or abandoned me. He kissed me and continues to kiss me every morning with the breath of life. He watched over me every night as I slept. My Father has fed, clothed and provided for me every day of my 50-plus years. My Father is not dead and cannot die. The man who showed up in my life to fulfill the physical role of father was simply my path to the truth -- I only have, can have, will ever have one Father. He is and will always be my true Daddy.