In the midst of a pandemic when it’s common to check on your folks, I can’t help but notice the glaring silence between my father and me. We have a history of silence marked by absence.
We reunited as I was finishing college, about 12 years ago. After a long stretch of not being in touch, my mother ran into him in New York and handed him a picture of my daughter — his granddaughter. At the time I was optimistic about the reunion. Since then, my optimism has waned to the realization that we are simply two Black men who have become strangers to one another. Yet here I am with an ice pick, still chipping away at the awkwardness. I take refuge in the only space where I feel free to express myself — the page.
Although we don’t talk as often as I like, I have several dreams about my father. Actually, they are variations of the same dream: I’m on a train that’s going a thousand miles per hour and he is racing to jump on. He finally grabs hold of the door where my hand is reaching out for his. He manages to get one leg on the car, and the other leg dangles in the air when the train suddenly goes through a snug tunnel. Right before a wall of cement severs our hands, I awaken, my body drenched in sweat.
This recurring dream captures an insider-outsider dynamic in our relationship. I left New York City as a teenager and moved to Maryland. I went to college, then graduate school. I became a writer. Once, I invited my father to a poetry reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in Lower Manhattan, and he turned to me and said “I ain’t never seen this many poets who went to college.” I’m one of those poets who went to college, and the gulf between us bothers me.
But I don’t want to be a cliché of an angry Black man anymore. Staying in a hurt place stunts your growth. So, I invested scores of hours in therapy and thousands of dollars in co-pays to sort my feelings out. And, while it felt great to purge and it gave language to all of my anger and frustration, it sometimes feels better to close my eyes and force myself to remember some of our happier moments.
My earliest memory of my father is of him walking toward me on an autumn day sometime in the early 1990s. I am somewhere between 7 and 10 years old. He’s wearing headphones, and I ask him what he’s listening to. He says, “The Notorious B.I.G.” and I say, “The what? Nutritious P.I.G.?” He laughs out loud. It is apparent to him that I am a nerdy black kid without any street cred. He puts his arm around me and corrects me, his face beaming like the sky on the Fourth of July.
I often grieve the fact that the patrilineal side of my family tree isn’t nearly as intact as I would like. I don’t believe this is particular to my family tree, as I’ve met so many Black men my age and older who either don’t know their father or don’t have a relationship with him. I wish there was a way to rebuild this tree. So many ghostly limbs make up this tree. At 36, I still long to feel at home with my family surrounding me. As an only child, I’ve worn solitude like a shield. But as I get older, I realize that being lonely is no fun.
All of my work in therapy has taught me how counterproductive it is to have negative feelings toward my father, because these feelings quickly can become poison. I left those feelings in my teens and early 20s. (Or at least I’d like to think I did.) The mission now is wholeness, not to see who can wait out the longest grudge. That is the stuff of youth, not grown-ups. The older I get, the more I am eager to learn about him. Not superficial things, but to really get to know him: his manner, his dreams, his fears, what kind of life he has lived in his 50-plus years. How are we similar? I know that I get so much of my ambition, audacity, and perseverance from him. We already know our differences, but how can we learn from each other’s experience? Maybe he will come around to thinking that there isn’t one authentic way of being Black.
A few years ago, I came out of a New York subway in the Village, near New York University, and saw him and his girlfriend staring into a window like kids outside a candy store. It was a hat shop, and I saw his finger point to a few of the hats. He let out a big laugh. I think the two of them laughed together. I wondered what they were talking about. Maybe each hat represented a different look, or a different man, and he was vicariously putting all of them on and seeing what she thought. I’m struck by this scene. The imagination. The intimacy. It reveals so much: my father’s sense of fashion, the playfulness of his personality. But also how he never shies away from dreaming.
I’m not sure if I ever shared with him that he was the first writer I’d ever met. When I was a pre-teen, he was taking classes at York College. I remember seeing yellow legal pads scattered across his room, and how he wrote out his papers in longhand. You could see the curls in his handwriting on those pads. In a stocking cap with corn rows — before D’Angelo popularized this look — he told me that he wanted to be an English professor. And he spent about 20 minutes waxing on the poetry of literature and his love of the essay. I mourn the loss of this younger version of my father who was as smitten with language as I am. I doubt that he realizes how this memory has been etched in my mind.
I can picture him when I was about 10 years old. He’s wearing a Kangol hat with a Newport cigarette nearly falling out of his mouth. His lips are an eggplant purple from years of smoking. He is at a typewriter punching the delicate keys with his oversized fingers. I can see a silhouette of his body at the typewriter; a mischievous grin has enveloped his face. There I am off to the side, unable to see what he’s typing, hoping it’s a story and wondering if I’m a part of this story that brings so much delight to him.
Some 20 years later, I have legal pads scattered across my office with drafts of poems, the names of books, quotations from great thinkers for me to add into an essay. I have had appointments as an English lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, Towson University, and my beloved alma mater, Howard University. I wonder if he knows the influence he had on me as a young boy. All this might have been my unconscious way of trying to be just like him.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve bought so many books, conspiring to write my next one. I want to create a wreath with my words. Something that will honor not just my father but men who lived as he has and perhaps died prematurely. There is so much emotional, economical, and spiritual warfare that Black men must survive to be well and present enough to parent. This is a story I’m burning to write. My father, unwittingly, became a master teacher in showing me how to be a father (and how not to be a father). I’m finally at a place where I can look him in the eye and say thank you.
Abdul Ali, a poet and an essayist in Baltimore, is the author of “Trouble Sleeping.” Follow him on Twitter @abdulali_.