The sound of thunder, and loud rumbling noises still shake something inside me. It reminds me of when my dad used to beat my mom. Once even with a shotgun. I saw him try to throw her out of a window.
“Please, Jimmy! Stop!” she would beg. But he didn’t. And the silence left after he did stop was equally deafening. When I finally had the courage to come out from under the bed, I would try to comfort her. The sobs. The sobs of a beaten woman–your own mother–is something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Rinse, and repeat.
I hated him for it. And feared him tremendously. Yet for some reason I adored him. When I was with him, he’d take me riding on the back of one of his Harley-Davidsons. He had a collection of them. I had my own helmet.
He was in a terrible motorcycle accident, and technically died. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel and everything. But the doctors revived him. I helped nurse him back to health.
One Christmas, he handed me the Toys R Us sales paper and told me to circle all the toys I wanted. You can’t imagine the six year old joy.
When I was seven, he bought me the greatest material birthday gift a child could ever receive. It even dwarfed the Christmas splurge. A red leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica. Although he told my brothers and sister that it was for them too, he let me know secretly that it was mine. My Father treasured me, my mind, my imagination and cultivated it whenever he could. He’s one of the most intelligent and insightful men I’ve ever known.
My father was a career criminal. Illegal lottery, drugs, and the like. He took us out of near poverty. He was effectively a millionaire, and was beginning to make his transition into real estate and small business ownership, until the tax man came.
I’d become used to my father not coming home for long periods of time. It maintained his mystique in my eyes. I didn’t know my father was on trial. “Your father’s in jail” is all they said. And I never saw him again. Not for many years.
And if it was hatred I felt for him leaving us, my seven year old mind couldn’t process it yet.
I must’ve been around 13 when he first came out on parole. I was different from last time he saw me, a bit more street-hardened, hungry often, poorer. The result of his leaving me. Or not. I still adored the man. He was still as smart and funny as always. Late one evening, he picked me up in some shitty pickup truck. We drove to some dump. Literally, a block comprised of junk and trash. There he told me to wait in the truck. Hours passed. It was late, I had no idea where I was at. He came back, and it was then I knew my father had become a junky. He’d only been out a few weeks before he went back to prison for violating parole, drug use.
Years passed. My oldest brother was in Lorton penitentiary for two years. He spent those two years in there, alongside our father, who had no idea that was his son. You see, my brother kept it a secret from him until the day he got released. My father told me, “This lil young nigga kept coming up to me, asking if I wanted him to spot me on the wieghts. I thought he was a faggot or something. But he turned out to be a cool dude and we became friends. Two years later, he was getting out and he says to me, ‘Damn, dad…you don’t even know your own son?’”
He said he cried and cried and vowed to never return to prison again. And he never did. It’s hard enough to imagine being in the penitentiary. But finding out your son was with you. The result of you leaving.
When I was 15, maybe 16, I lived in the projects. It was just me and my mother at that point. I come home to find a letter and it read:
Sorry, but I have to leave.
Attached to the letter was $60 worth of food stamps.
And my mom abandoned me. My oldest sister would not take me in. My second oldest brother had disappeared, perhaps frustrated by so much familial pain. And it was all terrible for me. So like my father before me, I turned to a life of crime–Black American stereotype type shit.
A couple years later, like an angel from Heaven, my oldest brother shows up. The one that was in prison. He tells me that my father had just gotten out of prison and that I should go see him.
And so I did.
It was like a dream come true. My father took me in. God, I adored that man. He said I’d be leaving the street life behind. That I’d be going to the best college. That I’d have a family now. That I’d be loved and cared for.
Oh, how I wished that would’ve been true. Because in between telling me all of this, he’d nod off in a heroin-induced trance. It was not working out between us. My half-sister found some heroin on the TV stand, which was in reach of her children. Although she knew it wasn’t mine, my father and his wife blamed me for it, accusing me of selling drugs. I looked at him and said, “You know yours and your wife’s. Why are you doing this to me?”
Then an unlikely hero emerged. My mother. She did have to leave. She’d fleed D.C. to Atlanta, Georgia. To clean herself up. To create a place where I could be loved, nurtured, healed. This broken, battered woman was restored. No, reborn. But this story isn’t about her. With her support, I graduated from high school. My father did not come. He and I didn’t talk much over the next few years. But he had his own demons to face. But let’s finish our story.
As we were walking out of the house to take me to the Greyhound station to get on the bus to Atlanta, he gave me three rules to live by, which like the Encyclopedia Britannica, changed my life immeasurably for the good.
Rule one: “Boy, don’t ever hate anybody for any reason. I don’t care what color they are. Even if they’re gay. Boy, don’t be homophobic. You never know who could be your friend.”
Rule two: “Wake up every day and make a plan. Write it down. I don’t care if you cross that list off by noon. If you accomplish everything on that list, you’re a man that day.”
Rule three: “Travel. See the world, boy. You can travel your whole life and never see all of this Earth. And if you don’t go to college, you can learn just as much just by traveling.”
This is what I wanted from him. This. Knowledge. Love. To help me become a man. To show me right from wrong. To guide me. I needed this all my life. Oh fuck, god…it’s Father’s Day. Anyway…
The next time I saw my father, he’d been clean for many years. He was strong. He was smiling. His family had grown, including grandchildren from his other daughter, my half-sister, whom I adore. I would visit when I could. We would talk. He’d tell stories. He had te ability to tell a story, deviate off to a trillion tangents and in one fell swoop, tie all the loose ends into one helluva story, with an important lesson at the end.
A few years go by and I watch him buy some crack. After all those years of being clean. He says to me, “Boy, I’m 60 goddamn years old. I deserve to dabble every now and then. I can do what I want. Can’t nobody tell me shit.”
I was hurt. I understand the lesson, but not the choice. A choice that had such a terrible meaning attached to it.
Years later, after I moved to NYC, I was able to see him more often. Leukemia was eating him alive. My dad, who despite the drug-use, almost always had a jail body, even in his 60s, was now frail, stretched thin by the chemotherapy.
The funny thing about his dying, he started to become the man I always wanted him to be. But in a different way. One day, he was driving me around D.C., running a lot of non-errands, like playing the lotto, or saying hi to some guy he hadn’t seen in years at some gas station, and says to me, “I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry for all I did your mother. I’m sorry for leaving you children behind, not raising you. I’m sorry for not leaving you anything to help build your future.”
That was the man I needed. The father. And I adored him again. And I forgave him with all of my heart.
The last words I ever said to my father were “I love you.”
“I love you, too, son.” And he went to sleep on the couch.
A few weeks later, he had died.
There is no lesson here. I didn’t come here to weave any tales like my father would. He was a terrible and amazing character all at once. But I needed to start with the pain. But I wanted explore why, through all the pain, I could still love, adore and forgive him. It’s because he is my father. But he was more than a father. He was a unique, irreplaceable human being. He could make anyone laugh, think or cry. He had a charisma, charm and a way with words that I couldn’t even convey to you if I tried. He loved fiercely, and taught love. And he is gone. Gone. Gone. And in the end, he fixed everything for me.
There is no father for me to call this Father’s Day. There is no smiling voice on the other side of the phone saying, “Hey, boy. How are you? When are you coming to visit?” There are funny jokes or sage advice or asking me for some money. There is no more Jimmy Simms.
Yet I wish him a Happy Father’s Day in my heart, where he now lives.