My Father’s Son

This Father’s Day weekend, I’ve been reflecting on my father and my memories of him. The funny thing about death and grief is how your perspective about the departed changes over time. You start seeing things that were not as obvious before. And lately I’ve been thinking about the last time I saw Dad when he was still alive.

When I was a child, Dad and I pretended to be Batman and Robin. I didn’t realize it then, but as an adult, I can see how Dad imparted something crucial to me. While it initially might seem like a silly game of the imagination, Dad instilled in me a desire for adventure and crusading for my beliefs. Though he pretended to be Batman, he could have called himself Superman, because that’s who he was to me. Especially when I saw him on the skate rink, gliding with an effortless elegance. Dad skated acrobatically—bobbing and weaving, twisting and turning—on the wooden floor. I never saw him stumble on the rink. Dad insisted I skate from an early age. In fact, he put me on the rink before I started walking. I learned to walk from the way my legs moved while skating. Though I think of myself a decent skater, I still haven’t reached my dad’s proficiency. Because on the rink, he was Superman. But the last time I saw my Dad alive, I realized, for the final time, that he wasn’t Superman. He was a terminally ill man fighting to live another day.

It was the summer of 2013. Dad’s eyes widened when he saw me for the first time in nineteen months. He looked so elated and sorrowful all at once. He smiled and said, “I almost didn’t recognize you.” Dad was so frail I almost didn’t recognize him either. I was twenty years old and had gained around thirty pounds of muscle since he had last seen me.  He marveled over my physique while I felt choked up as I looked at his. I realized for the first time that I was bigger than my dad. That’s every boy’s dream, to surpass his father. But not like that. Not when your dad has pulmonary heart disease, and he looks like he hasn’t been eating enough. Not when your dad is wearing clothes two to three sizes too big. He had already been given a heart transplant 14 years prior, and the doctors didn’t want to give him another. They refused on the grounds that he wasn’t taking care of himself. He tried to act like he was, but truthfully, he wasn’t.

As he hugged me, he said, “You’re pretty strong, son. You got some nice size on you.” Despite my anger, despite that we hadn’t seen each other in over a year and a half, despite that he was still blaming Mom for something that was actually his fault, my heart soared within my chest upon hearing his words. Isn’t that what every boy wants to hear from his father? The affirmation that he’s becoming a man, that he’s the apple of his daddy’s eye? I held back tears as I hugged my father, remembering not to squeeze too hard since sometimes I don’t know my own strength.

After we hugged, we got into one of my aunts’ car and headed to Golden Corral to celebrate one of my uncles’ birthday. As I sat next to Dad in the backseat of the car, I noticed his forearm next to mine. His arm was just bone and skin while mine was thick and sinewy. I felt guilty for being bigger and moved my arm closer to my body. Though we were estranged, Dad knew how much I love weightlifting and putting on muscle. And he was curious about my progress.

“How much do you weight now?” he asked.

“I’m about 195lbs.”

“Wow, and you’re trying to get bigger?”

“I want to see if I can break 200.”

“Dang, well how tall are you?” Dad asked because he knew how insecure I was about my height when I was in high school.

“5’8,” I answered.  

“You want to be 5’8 and 200 lbs.? I think that might be too big. You have limits.”

And I will surpass my limits. I’m not a quitter, not like you. I thought. But I did not say anything.

Dad broke the silence, “I used to work out too when I was your age. I was pretty big.”

“What happened?”

“I got busy and then I got sick.” You mean you quit. You gave up. You took on drugs and way too much alcohol.

Though I kept these thoughts to myself, I was so heated with Dad. I was furious for us going so long without speaking and that he wasn’t taking care of himself. I felt let down. And looking at him, I felt ashamed.

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“And I will surpass my limits. I’m not a quitter, not like you.”

When we arrived at the restaurant, we all grabbed some plates and headed to the buffet. I was eating a pescetarian diet at the time, but I didn’t like the way the fish being served looked. So I decided to pile a bunch of vegetables and fruit on my plate and call it a day. My dad sat next to me and gawked at my plate.

“Marquise, are you a vegetarian?!” His voice rose up a few octaves as he said this. He could be so dramatic.

“No, I’m just pushing away from meat for awhile,” I replied. “I still eat eggs and seafood. But I’m kinda picky.”

At the time I was annoyed that he acted so shocked, like he couldn’t believe his son would not eat meat. My dad loved steak, despite his heart disease. And I suppose he wanted that to be something we shared in common. As we ate I told him how I had just finished up an internship in D.C., in the House of Representatives. I told him how after interning in Congress I felt inspired to pursue law.

“I knew it!” Dad chuckled triumphantly. “I’ve been saying that for years.”

“What kind of lawyer do you want to be?” one of my aunts asked.

“A prosecutor.”

Dad frowned. “I’ve always been saying you should be a defense attorney.” So I can defend men like you? I don’t think so. But I did not say this.

Instead I replied, “I want to put criminals away, not help them beat the system.” The verdict for the George Zimmerman trial had just been announced a few weeks earlier, and I was still seething at how the prosecution had handled the case.

I turned to my aunt, “Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, which was stupid. That meant the prosecution had to prove he had malicious intent when he killed Trayvon but that’s basically impossible. If they had charged him with manslaughter it would have been an easy win and he actually would have gotten a longer mandatory minimum sentence in the State of Florida.”

Then I turned to Dad, “I want to be the prosecutor to put away men like Zimmerman.” But Dad rejoined, “What about men like Trayvon?”

Indeed, what about men like Travyon? Or Mike Brown? Or Philando Castile? Alton Sterling? Eric Garner? The countless others? What about these men? Essentially what Dad was asking is who is going to defend them? Who is going to use their skills and resources to make sure that they get justice?

After college, I ended up going a different route than what I initially considered. Instead of going for a J.D., I decided to pursue an M.Ed. I realized I would be more satisfied working in education than in law and that I believe in my ability to change educational policy for the betterment of others far more than in my ability to change the criminal justice system.

I realize now, after having earned my master’s degree, that Dad’s question deeply impacted me. It guided me to seek how to use my skills to transform people’s lives for the better. When I looked at the criminal justice system, I concluded it’s too punitive and reactionary, not at all like the sort of proactive change I can cause through education. Moreover, I realize how much the man I am today and the man I’m becoming is influenced by Dad. And most importantly, I’m realizing how Dad loved me. He didn’t always know how to show it, but he watched me from afar, and when we had times together like the last time we saw each other, he observed me as closely as he could.

It’s been a little over two and a half years since he died, and a lot of the anger I had towards him is gone. It’s been replaced with a sadness that we never really connected the way I would have liked. And with an understanding of him that I didn’t have before. I was harsh in my assessment of Dad when he was alive. I condemned many of his choices without fully understanding why he made them. I was embarrassed to be my father’s son. But as any comics nerd would tell you, even Superman is flawed, and while Dad wasn’t Superman in every way, he was enough of an example to steer me towards doing everything I can to make the world a better place. And that’s going to have be enough. On this Father’s Day, I’m proud to be my father’s son.

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