I Love My Dad, But It’s Complicated: A Black Father-Son Relationship
I want to say that I am truly blessed. I was born into a loving family with two working parents and a highly involved maternal grandmother. I am truly grateful for that upbringing, and as mentioned in a previous essay, I do my best to make my family proud by living up to standards set by them and myself. Also, previously mentioned, I have an incredibly close relationship with my mother. However, I want to give equal attention to my father, who is sometime overlooked but who’s role in my life has always been profound. My father and I have a far more complicated relationship, but one I think is worth reflection.
My parents celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary in October, and I reflected to myself on the many highs and lows and love it must take to be together that long. For 28 ½ years and counting, I have had an active, supportive father in my life and my family structure. I recognize that among many of my friends and peers, that is not a common occurrence as many black fathers are, either, incarcerated, dead, absent, live outside the home, etc. However, as a child, I was not too aware of that. I assumed every child had a Dad somewhere like mine who indoctrinated them into sports early (Go Buckeyes & Cowboys), took them to the auto show (an annual father-son bonding event), picked them up from grandma’s house, took them to Swenson’s when visiting his family, and went to work. I would learn as I got older that definitely not the case. I also remember my Dad being the family ATM, a role he nobly and dutifully filled until retired in 2017. His commitment to provide for his children before himself is something that I keep with me.
Most importantly, I recall growing up that my Dad worked 2 jobs up until the year he retired. I would remember my Dad working his main job as a corrections officer on 12-hour shifts from 5AM-6PM; and, then Thursday evenings and Saturday & Sunday at his part-time job. My father did this for nearly 30 years and it was done in order to provide us a life he did not enjoy as a child and to live his version of a middle-class dream. I remember my Dad working on the holidays. I never realized the fatigue and toll that work took on his health until later in life. But, I do remember the pride I had when I told folks that my Dad worked two jobs to get me the newest toy or clothes, not realizing that he wouldn’t need to work two jobs if employers paid a living wage (another debate for another time). My Dad has worked since he was in high school and also enlisted in the Army, something that I am indebted to him for his service. Nonetheless, my Dad’s work ethic and self-determination are some traits I would like to say that I got from him.
Around the time I was turning 7, my sister was born and things started to shift. I could tell that my Dad always wanted a daughter and I was happy to have a sister; but, I think jealousy on my part and favoritism on his created a dynamic that remains to this day throughout our household that usually allies my mother and I opposite of my father and my sister. This has a major role in the complication of our relationship. Throughout middle and high school, we would have periods of peace that were met with periods of discord; sometimes dealing with me and my sister, sometimes dealing with me and my Dad. But, there was a level of steady engagement and attempts to regularly converse. That changed in college where I in the early stages of becoming the person I am today. As a result, I came home only on holidays and summers. The holidays were short so we would catch up and things would be cool as we concentrated our interactions in a short period of time. It was summers that were more challenging as they were longer. I worked in the summer, but by the end of June I ran out of things to say and I no longer knew how to engage or what interested my Dad outside of trivial things like sports, so I would just remain quiet or avoid him or hang out with my mom or friends. We would usually have a blow up in July or early August as a sign summer is going too long and have peace until it was time to go back to Columbus in September. In graduate school, our interactions were even less frequent as I lived in Chicago, so when I was home it was only for holidays and it was peaceful, and I was a fully baked adult at that point.
Since I returned to Cleveland to work in late 2014, I have lived at home with my family. I continue to have a great relationship with my Mom, an improving relationship with my sister, and a complicated or disengaged relationship with my Dad. We usually have peace because we do not really engage. I am living my life and he is living his. I used to think issues with parents was just a white people thing. But, I long to engage with my Dad and learn more about his life and his story, But I do not know how to do so anymore. I took an Ancestry and 23 & Me test to learn about myself, but also to spark his passion for history and family lineage to no avail. We also have fewer but more explosive arguments as we have practiced many times before on each other’s sore points. But, this year, things have hit a nexus point where there’s an opportunity for things to get better on continue on its current path.
I began noticing my Dad had significant health issues around the time I was in late elementary and middle school. He was hospitalized with issues related to his gout that stemmed from what would later become congestive heart failure related issues. Since that time, my Dad has had several major health issues. For the most part, his health issues required a short hospital stays, constant monitoring and blood tests, and a new regimen of medications. However, things have fallen off the rails regarding my Dad’s health. He has lost a significant amount of weight and have been hospitalized too many times to count recently. I know this period has been scary and defeating for him as he is physically not his old self. My family and I have been thrust into a caretaker role. But, I have realized this is a scary time for me as well as several times in the later part of the year, I have felt defeated not knowing how to help or engage my Dad while also fearing what life would be like if he died and what regrets I would have and whether I would be prepared to lead the family. It is unfortunate how health issues to this magnitude has had to be the impetus for me to have a desire to want to shift the narrative of our father-son relationship, but it has.
In 2019, I want to find ways to allow my Dad into my life in a more constructive manner. I have often had a hard time talking to my Dad because to this day I still feel intimidated by him or feel he lectures and tries to teach me things rather than listening and engaging in conversation. But, I want to learn for him — I want to learn about his life, his stories, his relationship with his father, lessons in the Army, and more. More importantly, I want him to listen and learn about me. Admittedly, I have no clue as to the first steps as how to make this happen, but I’d like to try especially as his health remains unknown and I do not want him to leave with me having unanswered questions like I did with my late grandmother. It took both of us to get to this point and it will take both of us to get out of this point.
As I get older, I can start to accept things in life that I once had a hard time accepting either due to hurt or anger. I can accept that I look a lot like my Dad. I can also accept that, though many of my values and principles are rooted in my late grandmother and my mother, my personality is a lot like my Dad — honest, direct, funny, stubborn, smart, reserved, and loud. As a matter of fact, that may be why we clash because we are so much alike but are completely different people. So much of what I have done in life is driven by my mother and family, but I have always sought affirmation from my father. Regardless of our dynamic, I have always been proud to have my Dad because he’s been a great example of how to live your life. It is not a perfect life, but he’s always done his best and put family first. And, that is why I hope to live a life that is built on the example he’s set and continues to embody. I want him to say that I’m on the right path, accomplishing things of which he can be proud. I love my Dad and our relationship is complicated; but, the thing about love and family is that they are not perfect (sometimes unstable), but their complications are what makes it all worth it in the end.
DISCLAIMER: My Dad is in good health now, but we are still waiting for some clarity as to the specifics of his ailments. Now, we are just ready for him to get out the house more frequently or take a shower LOL.