My Dead Father Taught Me Everything I Needed To Know About Fatherhood

In his absence, I learned a great deal about myself and the world around me.

My father passed away when I was 8 years old. It was during Christmas vacation, winter of 1998.

My father was a quiet, hard working man. He enjoyed jigsaw puzzles, video games, strumming his guitar, and reading the Bible. To me, my father was the smartest man in the world. He taught me about race, religion, space, and nature. He would tell me how beautiful it was to be Black, and how our latinidad did not take away from our Blackness, and vice versa.

This is the story that I tell everyone. It’s mostly true. Actually, all of it is true...except for the whole “being dead” part.

My father is very much alive and well.

I was ashamed of the truth. In actuality, my father spent most of my childhood actively avoiding me. My father did not die in 1998. He abandoned me; he moved out of the country and stopped contacting me.

I was embarrassed to tell my peers that this great man actually had no interest in having any relationship with me. I was too ashamed to reveal that all the good memories we’d had, and the things my father taught me, were from only a few weekends in 1995. No one needed to know that I would call his number back to back for hours ― in vain ― hoping he would answer; it was the only phone number my five-year old brain had memorized. 

It was a humid day in December of 1998. I was 8 years old, and my mother and I had just arrived in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica, to visit family for the holidays. We were day three into our monthlong stay, and one morning, I decided to go visit my grandmother ― my father’s mother. It’d been about two years since my last visit, and my grandmother, uncles, and cousins were very excited to see me; they mentioned that they had a “surprise” for me. After a few hours that felt like forever, My grandmother comes in and says “It’s time! Look outside!” I went outside on the balcony and looked down at the street below. There he was. The surprise. My father. At this point, it’d been three years since I’d seen my father. No one could find him; I recall thinking he was missing. I ran downstairs, bolted through the front door, and jumped into my father’s arms. That evening felt like 1995. Later that night, I was dropped off back to my mother. She asked me if I had a good time at my grandmother’s house. I told her that I found my father and how excited I was, and how I thought that he was back in my life forever. She didn’t react. Her facial expression did not change, she just took a deep breath and hugged me. At the time, I had no idea what my father being in Costa Rica truly meant, but she did.

My father originally came to The United States in 1989 while engaged to my mother. Initially, he was unable to obtain a visa, so he traveled to Mexico and illegally crossed the border in Tijuana, with the assistance of coyotes. My father’s return to Costa Rica meant he had no intentions of ever returning to the United States ― it meant rather than popping up in my life every few years then disappearing, he was walking out of my life for good this time. In fact, he had already disappeared and I just happened to find him. I had no clue that the moment I got back on the plane and returned to the United States, I wouldn’t hear from my father again. No calls. No letters. No visits. No interest.

I liked my narrative better; my father being dead hurt less than him being alive.

“How come he don’t want me, man?”

“No, you know what, Uncle Phil? I’m gonna get through college without him, I’m gonna get a great job without him, I’m-a marry me a beautiful honey and I’m havin’ me a whole bunch of kids. I’m gonna be a better father than he ever was, and I sure as hell don’t need him for that, ’CAUSE AIN’T A DAMN THING HE COULD EVER TEACH ME ABOUT HOW TO LOVE MY KIDS! How come he don’t want me, man?!“

We all remember this heart-wrenching scene from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” in an episode titled “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse,” when Will’s father literally walks out of his life, for the second time. The famous line, “How come he don’t want me, man?”  was perhaps the saddest sentence ever uttered on television. The line was actually unscripted ― the embrace between Uncle Phil was also unscripted ― with James Avery breaking character to comfort Will as he also broke character and began sobbing. While Will Smith actually grew up with his father, contrary to popular belief, the emotion in this scene was real, as he recalled being the only one among his friends with a father. The actor that played Will’s father on the show, Ben Vareen, actually broke into tears immediately after walking away from Will, and Karyn Parsons, who plays Hilary, can be heard weeping offstage during the scene. I still cry when I watch this scene; I found myself asking myself the same thing throughout my childhood. How come he didn’t want me? Unfortunately for young Christopher, I didn’t have an Uncle Phil to hug at the end of the episode.

As I sit here, tapping my thumbs on the edge of my keyboard, seconds away from succumbing to writer’s block and tabbing over to “The Sims 4,” I noticed “My Wife and Kids” is on TV. In this scene, Michael and his son Junior are having a conversation about Junior’s decision to get a tattoo. Michael is against it, but Junior protests that he is growing up and wants to make his own decisions. Michael and Junior, unable to come to an agreement, decide to wipe the slate clean and start over. They embrace, the audience goes “awww,” and while embraced still, Michael says “I’m just not ready to let go.” I look, and I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous; the same tinge of jealously I’d feel when I saw my friends with their dads when I was a child. Here’s this Black man with a shaved head, looking like my father, being who I wanted my father to be.

I felt betrayed. I felt cheated. I felt angry. I felt jealous. I felt unloved. He knew where I was, and he knew how to contact me. Why didn’t he care? Why did my first heartbreak and unrequited love come from my own father? As I got older, I began to realize that my relationship with my father, or lack thereof, was not a result of uncontrollable circumstances, but because of his own indifference. I hated him, but missed him at the same time. I was being emotionally abused by a man who was no longer in my life.

I often asked myself what I could take away from this situation? How will I feel when he physically dies? Will I mourn his loss, or have I already done that while he was alive? How would he feel if I were to die first?

Upon reaching adulthood, I went as far as legally dropping the last name “Lemones” altogether. I did not want to carry his name, nor pass it on to my future children; I had decided he hadn’t earned that right. I thought changing my name would fix it all; I thought a new identity would be a fresh start and clean slate for myself, however, I soon learned that “Chris Rico” was a still captive of Chris Lemones’ feelings. I couldn’t escape nor run away. As long as I held on to these negative feelings, I’d never have peace. Changing my name would not erase the pain. Forgiveness ― that was the key to my peace.

It took many years for me to realize that my father had actually taught me very valuable lessons about fatherhood. Instead of teaching me what to do, he’s taught me what not to do; I will give my child the love I longed for, and I will never allow my kids to feel how I felt. The lessons they learn will not be learned in hindsight, nor at the expense of their own feelings. My kids will learn from my examples, and not my mistakes.

I have learned how to forgive. Forgiving my father was the only way I could have peace. His artificial death only brought me artificial closure.

Although he was not around to teach me to shave, fight, tie a tie, nor throw a football, the things that I have learned from him are invaluable. From learning how to forgive, I then learned how to accept, which then taught me how to let go. When my efforts were unmatched, and the love was unrequited, I was able to learn that I must no longer expend resources on toxic situations. I was able to reclaim my identity as Christopher Lemones; rather than running from my own emotions by creating a new identity, I was able to free myself by standing up and confronting my demons.

I am now free. Thanks for the life lessons, Mr. Lemones.