Charles Dickens once penned, “In the little world, in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing more finely perceived or finely felt as injustice.”
I didn’t grow up with my father, and it was a finely felt injustice. Mine isn’t the story of a father who left or who was never there for his son; my father loved me dearly, but he joined the ancestors when I was just 11.
At 33, I’ve lived more years without my dad than I did with him. Still, sometimes when the sun is at my back at just the right angle and I catch a glimpse of my shadow’s gait in front of me, I see him and it scares me. It scares me because, aside from distant memories that grow more difficult to grasp with each day that passes, his likeness in my own shadow is all I have left of him. It scares me because I am now the father of this beautiful little boy, and I want him to have more than that of me.
I’ve never been afraid of death, which I realize is a pretty clichéd thing for a Black man to say. The world tells us we aren’t supposed to be afraid of anything—not crime-ridden communities nor violent police officers who behave as judge, jury and executioner. But my lack of fear, as it relates to death specifically, was not born out of some mythical Black pathology, feigned macho toughness or revolutionary spirit; it was never about being brave.
You see, I’ve never feared death because at a very young age, I came to know it intimately. I’ve seen death my whole life. I’ve been as close to it as is humanly possible without actually dying myself and that forced me to accept the inevitability of it in ways that many of my peers don’t seem to grasp. We’re all going to die, and there’s no way around that. Losing my father, the grandmother who stepped in to do what my parents could not, friends and others who meant so much to my life made this abundantly clear for me.
I have lived much of my life with a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, something telling me that I might not be long for this Earth. Maybe it’s from seeing my father’s walk in my own and knowing that I am quickly approaching the age at which his travel ended. Maybe it’s from the understanding that this country is capable of destroying even the most careful of Black men. Whatever the cause, that feeling has been with me for a very long time.
It just never really mattered till now.
Now, everything is different. I am deathly afraid of dying—not for me, but for my 3-year-old son. So much of who I am has been constructed around what I’ve lost, and although I’ve always loved the person I became, one wrought from the absences I’ve endured, I don’t want the foundation of my son’s personality to be based on his getting over me. I don’t want his pride and self-confidence to be built on how he survived losing me. Instead, I want him to grow and reach his full emotional potential. Right now, he moves like the world is singing him a song, and I don’t want to be the reason the music stops.
Long after I’m gone, when the sun is setting at my son’s back, I want him to look down at the gait of the shadow cast before him, see me and smile. I want to live—for him—and that desire has created in me a fear that never before existed. That fear is love. It is the greatest thing I’ve ever felt in my life, and I’m grateful to him for this wonderful gift he’s given me.
Jermaine Spradley is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter: @mrspradley.