My father — an old lion of a man — would bark, "They don't give a fuck about you," any time I called a rapper, athlete or actor a "beast" for their artistic or athletic feats.
"Your mother, she's the real beast," he'd huff, quickly resuming whatever activity my star-fucking had interrupted.
Of course my dad was right. He and my mother had thrown themselves into financial ruin to put my sister and me through the best schools, to give us opportunities and a quality of life they could never have fathomed. So, it made sense that the old man didn't wanna hear about how much Diddy was worth in '99.
For many years, I despised the man I'd called "DaDa" as a toddler, holding him in contempt as a harsh authoritarian who, although accounted for throughout my life, I felt didn't do enough to provide for us growing up. But as I've entered "real" adulthood (constantly fucking up in my early 20s being the primer coat for becoming a man), my perspective has shifted wholly, and I've realized how lucky I am to have had a present, if not perfect, father in my life.
The son (and grandson) of a Chicago preacher, my father would get into the typical misadventures of a black youth in '50s Chicago, with all the attendant throwing bricks through windows and getting chased first by Vice Lords through Cabrini Green.
The sky would come crashing down on him when his mother died when he was just 15. Unable to reconcile his father's hasty remarriage to a woman he found, at best, disagreeable, he would ask not to return to Chicago during a family trip to his grandmother's farm in Virginia. After working in Woodbridge, Virginia, cutting timber, he finished school and ended up in Job Corps before being drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam war.
As an MP, he did nineteen months in country, stationed at the sprawling Long Binh compound not long after a none-too-often discussed race riot had broken out in the base's prison complex. He returned home to Virginia and quickly started a family—though to the detriment of his first family, some of the demons of war had followed him across the Pacific.
I used to dismiss his tough-guy tales of brandishing a revolver at backwoods bars and generally fucking with local law enforcement as embellished macho bullshit, but I know now that the most absurd and vulgar stories are usually the truest, and that even without some of the hyperbole, he was still a hard man, living in a hard place.
He would meet my mother selling his handmade jewelry at a party in Baltimore some 40 years ago, and I would come onto the scene shortly thereafter. Throughout my childhood, my father seemed to be nothing but loving towards my mother, and I never got the sense that they were anything other than partners, in love and in charge. Upon the birth of my younger sister, he even quit his job to assume a Mr. Mom role.
He was pleasant and gentle towards me when I was smaller, but things changed for us around the time I turned ten. He lost his first son, Reggie Jr., in a brutal double murder, and though he remained stoic around us, it was clear to me, even then, that a part of him died along with my half-brother.
In the wake of Reggie's death, my father became far more stern, far less forgiving of childhood transgressions, coping with outliving his elder son the only way he knew how. This man, who'd seen a war, didn't want to see me go the way of my brother. My father always seemed like he was made of steel, so it must've been especially painful when it became clear that I was heading down the same rabbit hole as my half-brother.
As my adolescence hit full tilt, and my mouth began to write checks my ass couldn't cash, things occasionally got physical. I remember vividly having my head smacked into the monitor of a computer after mouthing off, the computer's display dancing with ASCII characters, almost as dazed as I was.
Our relationship grew progressively more acrimonious as I approached the age that Reggie Jr. had been when he was killed, and the resentment towards the man I'd called DaDa burned white hot within me. It didn't matter to me when I was in the throes of alcoholic insanity, but I now had only the slightest grasp on how it must have eaten my father from the inside to see me trying to commit slow suicide with booze and drugs.
Just as vividly as I remember the pain and confusion of my head being battered against that monitor, I remember calling the old man in a state of delirium one horrific Saturday morning in a stranger's apartment on the Lower East Side.
My younger sister was performing with her choir at Carnegie Hall that Monday night, and inexplicably, my parents had given me $100 to give to her when she arrived in the city. I'd spent it on drinks and blow at Studio B within an hour, and it wasn't until the sun began to rise and the strangers I'd befriended the night before had gone to bed that I'd realized what I'd done.
I frantically called the people in my phone I thought most likely to bail me out (because someone always bailed me out). It was only upon reaching a high school friend who'd been drafted into the NFL that I knew the jig was up. After I stated my case for ten minutes, he flatly denied my pleas.
"Call your father," he said, and hung up.
Before I knew what was happening, I was dialing home. He picked up after two rings.
"I'm a crackhead," I sheepishly whispered into the phone.
"I had an idea," he answered, sighing loudly into the phone. There was appreciable concern in his tone, as though he wanted to hop on his bike and ride all the way up from Baltimore to extract me from the spiritual prison in which I was locked. Caught off guard, I cried into the phone for a minute or two.
Up to this point, it had always been my mom who dealt with scraping me up off the pavement or being an audience to the rantings of my drunken despair. So this day was stark, the first time in years I'd felt a connection to him, even under these ridiculous and shameful circumstances. That I had so often forced my mother to live through my hell with me was a source of strife and pain for my father that I hadn't even considered until I got sober.
To this day, I don't remember if I even told him about the money (which I ended up trudging through the rain to Midtown to borrow from my roommate's corporate-lawyer girlfriend, much to the chagrin of my roommate). What I do remember is that feeling of ease and comfort in knowing that my father, even at my worst, still loved me.
Coming up, I was constantly told how "cool" and "awesome" my father was by kids and their parents alike. As a young black middle class kid at a top-flight private school, I was obsessed with the notion that my father, this man of humble origin who'd bike to school with my sister in a carrier and my BMX bike in parts strapped to his back, was not like the dads I'd seen around me, in their seven-series Beamers and Brooks Brothers gear.
Completely oblivious to the legion of sons and daughters living without their fathers and longing for them, until recently, I could only focus on the few things he didn't do for us, rather than all that he did. I now realize what's more valuable.
Even when things got dark, there was never a question as to whether he loved us as a family, but in my own sick mind, I found myself wishing that I'd been one of the kids who'd never known their dad. Now approaching the age that my father was when he had me, I know, if he could do it all again, by his own admission, he'd have handled things with me a bit differently. And I don't blame my father or his treatment of me for my long struggle with substance abuse. I've met plenty of peeps in recovery who grew up in "Leave It To Beaver"-like conditions and ended up as bad out as me, if not worse.
In retrospect, mine was the "cool" dad like they all said. Throughout the '80s and '90s, he'd bike to DC from Baltimore every year, and he still bikes everywhere. He built furniture for our home, painted and built musical instruments like his prized kalimba just for the hell of it. And he taught me a lot about being present, a lesson that has admittedly taken until now for me to even begin to learn.
He taught me to question experts and their conventions. A true autodidact, he trained himself to troubleshoot and build computers simply using books found at the library. And though it's been a hard lesson, he's schooled me even more about love, commitment and redemption.
I'm compelled to write this now, at 29 years old, whereas I may not have been at 15. The embodiment of post-American, self-centered teen angst then, I wanted to kill him. There was a long stretch where I couldn't even see him as my father, but rather an abusive interloper who'd somehow convinced my mother to let him set up shop permanently in our home. I wasn't stable.
Even in my preteen years, I was rather insane actually. And I certainly couldn't (or more like wouldn't) see how I was in fact breaking his heart. But people change, and by some sort of fucking miracle, the both of us did.
I wish nothing more than for this to be a testament to the healing power of time, and a lament for a society where fatherlessness becomes normalized. We seem to have become numb to the sight of the bodies falling into the chasm of addiction, poverty and violence caused by the condition of the fatherless home, foreshadowing of a bleak future.
Yet, when we turn down the noise on the stereotyping of this only being a "black thing," or something that's happening to somebody else, somewhere else, we can easily see that this is a problem facing us all, because the kids, of all colors, who grow up without loving fathers are our weakest link, and therefore, really our strongest. There are certainly those who've grown up under the wing of strong single mothers, and thus turned out to be strong and successful individuals themselves.
For so long, I'd been unable to realize (and wholly ungrateful for) the distinction of being a kid who grew up with his dad present and genuinely involved in my life.
If my father had made any number of choices differently, if he'd simply split when my mother, hard-working, loving and iron-willed in her own right, announced my impending arrival, I wouldn't be the person I am today. Thankfully, I've been able to give him credit where it's due while he's still here.
We recently took a stroll through the woods behind the house, recounting summers gone by nursing briar wounds and shooting the bow and arrow in the backyard. I never imagined I'd have a relationship with my old man like the one I have now, as though he hadn't been under the same roof as me all those years and has just come home to roost.
As much as I'd like to, control freak that I am, I have no way of forcing fathers-to-be to stick around for their kids. The best I can do is to be grateful that mine did — to teach me to bait a hook, to stand up for me against the neighborhood bully who just wouldn't stop fucking with me, to protect me when those crazed Dobermans cornered us in that alley on the way home from school, to build me that awesome puppet at the last minute for my play, to call me on my shit when I was truly adrift, to speak truth to foolishness in his no-nonsense manner borne of love above all else.
Thank you DaDa.
Kasai Richardson is a writer living in Baltimore. You can follow him on Twitter @KasaiREX.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]