July is a busy month for my family. We celebrate a cluster of birthdays from July 10 to the 16th. Then on July 19th, I stop to remember my father. It is on this day in 1996 that he broke the only promise he ever made to me. “I don’t plan on going anywhere,” he’d said. But by July, he was gone.
Like my mother, my father was larger than life in my eyes. They had separated after I was born but he was never really out of our lives. He visited as often as he could and wrote regularly to my mother.
Through her eyes, I got to know a man who “cut a dashing figure in his uniform.” He was intelligent, chivalrous, charming and strong in his beliefs.
Through my eyes, I saw a tall man who my mother said was my father but I wasn’t sure what father meant or how it was connected to me. And Daddy didn’t roll easily off my tongue. I remember one of the first times I saw him. As he bounded on to the steps of our house, I hid behind my mother’s dress, peeking out only when I thought he wasn’t looking. I can still see him now, sitting on our verandah, the setting sun forming a burnt orange halo around his head.
Through the eyes of our local media, I got to know a man who was well respected. As second in command of crime in Jamaica, his opinion counted.
But who was this man who had the same name as me?
As I got older, I began to develop my own relationship with the man whom I knew only through other people eyes and the narrative I had created for myself. It wasn’t easy at first — too many years of disappointment and hurt to soften. But he never backed away from my questions, no matter how personal or intrusive. I guess he sensed I had a right to know.
He never said a bad word about my mother and if she had any resentment over the dissolution of their relationship, she kept them to herself. As a result, I was able to develop my own relationship free of her emotional baggage – an invaluable gift I’m sure she never realized she gave me.
When I was growing up, my father always encouraged me to write. No matter that my letters were shopping lists of all the things my mother refused to buy me, like the A-line skirt, scarf and sunglasses I knew I needed to have at age eleven. In his mind, writing would help me learn to express myself.
I didn’t start writing until after he died. Being away from my mother, I had to find a way to process the conflicting feelings I had, the dreams I realized I had held on to. I had to find a way to knit together and hold on to every story she ever told me about the man everyone said I resembled – but who was sometimes a stranger to me – with my own stories. For months, I wrote furiously as if by writing I could bring him back.
One night, I did. He looked about 40, the age he was when I was born. We were walking side by side, his left hand loosely holding mine, my right reaching around his waist to hold his. I was probably five or six. No words were spoken. None was needed.
I could still feel his presence when I awoke but my sadness had lifted. I stopped writing about him after that.