I am a father. I did not know that I was one, but I am. Not even sure when it happened, but, alas, it is a reality for me now. I did not ask for it, nor was it planned. And, to be brutally honest, I scratch my head and wonder how this came to me. I mean, for sure, I have a vague idea, but I am struggling to recollect what led to this.
This is especially profound for me because I don’t know my own father. Yes, I knew him in passing, as a child. He was about a dozen years older than my early 20something mother when they met. They both hail from South Carolina, but met in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. My father swept my mother off her feet, made her fall in love with him while he was simply in lust with her, and there I was nine months later. To say my biological father did not bother would be a grand understatement. My single mother, armed with nothing more than an eighth-grade education, sheer will, and countless prayers to God, was forced to raise me in dire poverty, with the aid of welfare, food stamps, and government cheese. And with the kind of relentless hardships I would not wish on anyone. I still am amazed, all these years later, with all the miracles my mother made happen.
My father did make a few select guest appearances the first eight years of my life: to purchase my first bike, my first watch, to ride me, once, in the truck he drove long distance for work. Yes, he had money, a home he owned in Jersey City, and could have co-parented and co-supported me, his child. But for reasons only he knew, he chose not to do so.
The one thing that he did do over those first eight years of my life was play with my mother’s mind, leading her, time and again, to believe he would eventually marry her. I remember how my mother’s eyes would light up when she talked in the kitchen with my Aunt Cathy about marriage. But because my father was, among other things, an incredible liar, it never happened. What did happen was a day I shall never forget for the rest of my life: Because my mother and I were so poor we did not have a home telephone at least until I was about 10 or 11-years-old (and we would not get a color television until I was off to college years later, thanks to a full financial aid package). So “home phone” was the phone booth of the local pharmacy around the corner from our apartment building.
These were particularly desperate times for us, so my mother swallowed her pride and dignity and called my father for help. I could not hear his side of the conversation but I could sense something was terribly wrong, as my mother’s body seemed to shrink in that phone booth and she was visibly upset. Then my father hung up the phone on my mother. She told me, immediately, that my father charged her with lying to him, that I was not his son, that they were never going to marry, that he would never again give her “a near nickel” to help us, me, his son. And he never did. And over three decades later I have not seen nor heard from my father—
I felt abandoned, hurt, embarrassed. At school I had long taken to the practice of making up a different name for my father each year because I was too ashamed to say, “I don’t have one.” As I got to my teenage years the father absence and hurt only intensified. No dad there to show me how to tie a tie as I prepared to graduate from grammar to high school, so my mother had to ask a male neighbor to show me. No dad to play catch with in spite of my great love of baseball. No dad to ask questions of as I passed through puberty, and those weird sensations and intense attractions to girls really kicked in. I was completely clueless about what it was to be a man, and there was no guidance whatsoever, not even from my sports coaches.
That meant constant battles with my mother, behavioral problems in school despite my excellent grades, and even run-ins with the police as a teen. In one breath my mother would say to me “Do not be like your father.” And in the next breath “You are just like your father.” Yes, I was confused, terribly confused, and literally stumbled into my adult years, as a college student at Rutgers University, as a budding writer in New York City. There was confusion on how to handle my then very bad temper. There was confusion on how to relate to women in a way that was not awkward, hyper-aggressive, or abusive in any form. I made many mistakes, and I was also constantly hurting and sabotaging myself. I longed for a father figure but even there I stumbled as my father’s abandonment had wounded me so badly that I could not completely trust any of the older males who attempted to mentor or guide me in my young adult years. I would either push them away, or run away.
But there was one older gentleman who did leave a profound impact on my self-esteem and psyche. He was a therapist I was mandated to see after I was suspended from Rutgers for one year. The therapy sessions were required as part of the conditions for my being re-admitted to school. Little did I know those first sessions would begin a life committed to constant self-reflection and healing, even in the most difficult moments of my life. This therapist, this father figure, listened to me in a way I had never experienced before. Then he said something that totally lifted my self-esteem from the gutter: “Kevin, you are a prince.”
I did not know what to do with that, fought back tears bubbling inside my chest, and I have never forgotten that moment since. I felt empowered, liberated, because of those very simple words. In essence the therapist was telling me that I was valuable, that my life mattered, that I had a purpose, all the things a father or father figure or mentor should say to his son. Or his daughter.
Now this did not mean I was past the father hurt. Just a few years later I read an open letter to my father at an arts festival in Atlanta and cried through the entire reading. I was nearly 30 at this point and a strange thing happened because of whatever little recognition I had gained as a writer and activist, and because of numerous television and radio appearances: younger people, from all walks of life, were suddenly asking me to mentor them, were telling me they looked up to me, and some even went so far as to say I was like a father figure to them. I will not lie: this all scared the hell out of me. I was like “Me?”
And what these younger people either did not know or chose to ignore was that I was grappling with who I was, or who I wanted to be. But just as I had in my younger years been on the search for a male mentor I could look up to and learn from, so too were these younger men and women, especially the younger males.
All these years later I am now in my 40s and have accepted being a father. Not in the biological sense because I have no children of my own, nor have I been married. I definitely look forward to marrying a great woman one day and having a child or two. I have survived, experienced, and learned so much that I feel, today, I would be a good father. But what I am speaking of is the fact that I’ve made peace, finally, with one of the roles of my life: that of a mentor and father figure to many people. Because I travel America so much as an activist, public speaker, and writer that means there are younger people in my adopted community of New York City and nationwide who call on me for advice in some form. And I must listen to as many of them as I can because it seems like yesterday that that was me. And what is the point of doing well in one’s own life, of having some measure of progress and success if what is learned is not passed on to those who come behind?
What has especially touched me are the parents, guardians, or various family members who’ve time and again asked me to speak to or work with their son, daughter, brother, sister, nephew, niece, or cousin. I am not going to lie: I have a particular soft spot in my heart for all the single mothers out there raising sons who’ve sought my counsel in person at events, via telephone or email, and even on twitter and facebook. I am both humbled and honored by this outreach. But for the grace of God and my mother’s great love and push for me to make something of my life by all available means I would not be writing this blog this very moment.
And I must add, finally, that I came to forgive my father for abandoning my mother and I—many years back—because I had to let that hurt and pain go forever. We cannot change our past experiences, and if we do not ever make peace with those experiences, we become prisoners of those experiences for the rest of our lives. As a man I simply refuse to allow that to happen ever again. And as I wrote in another space years back, I just have to be the man and the father I wanted him, my own biological dad, to be, but could not be. For the rest of my life.