Time and children have brought healing, probably because they bring perspective. What was so clear back then, so starkly black and white, are no longer as crisp. The lines are now grey, smudged by factors I neither knew nor could understand. It took a long time to reach this place and achieve this perspective. I am here, now, and ready to share. The clouds have cleared and when I remember, I smile.
Even I as write this, I smile. I smile remembering his smile.
He smiled as he watched my three year old self dance to the "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" 45 he brought me from Two Guys because it was my favorite song (I still don't know why).
He smiled as he wrote the letters of the alphabet on the chalkboard he bought me and watched me copy them.
He smiled as we fed the ducks and put my on his shoulders when I became afraid because they were coming too close.
He smiled as he taught me long division.
He smiled as he dipped out bowls of Neapolitan ice cream (I only wanted chocolate and vanilla) from the 1/2 gallon carton we always had in the freezer all while teasing me about the size of my belly.
He smiled when taught me to drive a stick. The lessons began with him sitting in the driver's seat and teaching me to listen to the engine so that I could shift for him. Soon we were able to take entire rides without him telling me shift. We would drive as one, in silence or with conversation, perfectly in sync. And then, I got behind the wheel and there was outright laughter as we lurched or skidded off when I tried to take off in first gear.
He smiled and cried at my grade school and high school graduations. He dropped the camera during the my 8th grade valedictorian speech when I added an impassioned "I love you, Daddy" in the middle of it.
Red has been my forever favorite color. Daddy dressed me in various shades of red growing up.
I miss our "six finger rubs." Six fingers run in our family. I still have the nubs on the sides of my pinkies where they were removed when I was an infant. Daddy had them (passed down from hi s mother and grandmother). When we made a plan, we sealed it with a six finger rub.
My father never broke a promise to me
If he had any doubt, he would not promise it. I knew that if he promised it, it was a certainty. One summer, Big Mom (great grandmother) was going to drive to Florida. My promised me that I could go.
During the summer, my father started drinking. Once he started drinking, he drank nonstop until his body could no longer take it. He would be drunk for entire days to weeks and then not touch a drop for months, even a year. On evening, I was sitting in the living room. My father came into the room crying and apologizing. He laid his head on my lap and cried. He had drank up the money for trip. He didn't realize it; he was sorry. I was disappointed, but I knew he did not mean to do it. I told him it was ok.
The next day, he stopped drinking, cold turkey after at least two weeks of being completely inebriated. In the heat of the summer sun, he caddied at the local golf club to earn the money for my trip. He promised. I went to Florida.
My father loved me fiercely
As far back as I can remember, my father told me that I was his heart. He also told me that he would kill anyone who hurt me. One Saturday, Daddy and I were at Collingswood flea market. We were walking hand in hand. I was probably 4 or 5 years old.
A white man that I had never seen approached us. He and my dad started talking. He was someone my father knew, maybe someone from his school days. I remember my father introducing him to me and telling the man that I was his daughter, "Yeah man, this is my heart."
The man bent down to greet me. (I cannot remember how the conversation led us to this point. Looking back, I realize how peculiar it all was.) The man asked me what my father would do if he hurt me. I looked at my father. He nodded his head. I looked the man dead in his eyes and said: "My father will kill you." The man visibly flinched, then looked up at my dad. My father solemnly nodded his head and said, "She's right." We exchanged a few words and goodbyes. Then, we continued walking hand in hand.
I used to pray no one would hurt me so that my father would not have to go to jail. I knew my daddy was Carl Lee Hailey with some cousins to back him up.
The Big Three
These were three important life lessons my father taught me and the phrases he used repeatedly.
"Use your own mind"
I was responsible for my choices and I would be the one who had to deal with the consequences of those choices. Therefore, I was not to follow anyone blindly. "So and so said..." was never an acceptable reason for doing anything.
"You can do anything you set your mind to"
I needed to focus on what I wanted or where I was going. Yes, there were obstacles. However, my father had an unflappable belief in my ability to do whatever I set my mind on doing. My assignment was to "set my mind" and pursue. He was completely confident that if I did that, nothing would stop me. As a matter of fact, "our song" was "Ain't No Stoppin Us Now."
"You are a strong, proud, black woman."
If when we were walking down the street, my head was down, he would tell me, "Put your head up! You're a strong, proud, black woman!" I would lift my head, throw back my shoulders, and smile. I still hear those words when the world I am tempted to make myself small.
Father's Day 2002
June 16, 2002, on Father's Day, my father took his last breath. He had been battling lung cancer and the time of fighting had come to an end. The doctors had spoken to me and given me the DNR to sign. Every organ was failing and there was no point in resuscitating him. They removed the tubes. He was sedated, no pain.
I sat at the foot of his bed, my aunts on both sides. (I cannot remember who else was there). Then, out of nowhere, he flushed the most beautiful rosy color. If "healthy" were a color, it was the color I saw. Then, it drained away. I thought I had imagined it. My eyes caught my Aunt Sharon's, who was sitting diagonal from me, near my father's head.
We looked at each other questioningly and then she asked, "Did you see that?"
"The way his color changed?"
"I thought it was just me."
I knew he was gone, and then his body followed. I tried to imprint the feel of his head in mine, the weight of it and size of it. I wanted to be able to shut my eyes and and feel my hand holding his for the rest of my life. My first love.
It took me a long time to forgive God for this one. This unanswered prayer, or rather, this prayer answered with a"no" instead of the "yes" I wanted, broke me. You see, my relationship with my father had finally turned around. I moved past the hurt and disappointment of my childhood. We had hit a groove. He was proud of me and he was telling me rather than highlighting what I did wrong or could do better. We were worshipping together. He was visiting me and we were talking on the phone regularly.
I repeatedly asked God, "Why?"
One afternoon, after crying myself almost to sleep, I heard the Spirit whisper, "He was finally close enough, so I took him."
I slept. And I pray that when my time comes, Daddy will be there to hold my hand, tell me to hold my head up high, and celebrate with me for arriving at the place I have spend a lifetime "set[ting] my mind" to see.
Happy Father's Day, Daddy!