“Since I raised myself, Happy Father’s Day to me.”
I didn’t post that a year ago. But I wanted to. The only thing that stopped me was knowing that my uncle would probably see it and, living on the 6th floor, eventually tell my father on the 9th. The same uncle who had to clean up and clear out his apartment less than a week later.
Not that anyone could have challenged me. I taught myself how to shave. I taught myself how to drive. And YouTube taught me how to tie the ties I wear almost every day now. But in 29 years my father never taught me anything other than how to teach myself. And after 30 I now see that this was the best thing he ever could have taught me.
“Self-made man.” Two different people, a lover and my boss, have described me as such in the past few weeks, and however positively meant it makes me uncomfortable. First, from the inside looking out I don’t think I’ve made as much as other people see. And second, none of it has been on my own. It didn’t take a village, it took multiple across Harlem, the Bronx, Oldenburg, Orangeburg, Tarrytown, Williamstown, Greenwich Village, the East Village, Paris, Berlin and now London. And without all the mothers, host-mothers, godmothers, grandmothers, teachers, principals, counsellors, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, lovers, enemies and bosses along the way, I never would have made it past 125th Street. Made in the USA with parts assembled elsewhere.
And missing one crucial part. The one you don’t realize until after you’ve already built the wardrobe, made in Sweden with parts from who knows where, and it won’t stand properly. Or, if it does, never upright as intended. You think it came with the box, but you can’t take it apart anymore to see where it went wrong.
If I had to guess, probably on my fifth or sixth birthday when I couldn’t stop crying because my daddy didn’t come and I knew that he wouldn’t.
Tears dry and with each year I move farther away from the little boy missing his daddy to the teenager who hates him and ultimately the young man with no time for him. Not that anyone could blame me. When I realized he would never come my father would have been 25. At the same exact age I started at my fancy New York law firm. No time for me then, no time for him now.
Then, as absent as he had always been, he was there. Never in person — by this point he was losing more and more of his leg to the sugar — but over the phone. He didn’t call to talk about anything in particular, but he managed to say all the important things. That he was proud of me. That he loved me. “You know. You know.”
That he was always drunk? And that I hated seeing his number on my screen at hours when any non-lawyer would have been asleep? I picked up but never dialed. And the last time we spoke was probably a week or two before I left the country. More than two years ago. I knew I was leaving for good and spent my last weeks flying as much as I could to see friends and family in the South, the Midwest and California. But a twenty minute subway ride up to Dyckman? Not necessary. Nor a call, but somehow he found out and called me anyway.
“Hey, Joe. It’s your father.”
“Hi!” (more surprised than excited)
“How you doing, man?”
“Good, thanks. How’ve you been?”
“……..” (what else to say?)
“I heard you’re going back to Germany?”
“No, to England, for work.”
“Get out of here!” (genuine excitement)
“I’m proud of you, son!”
“Thank you.” (what else to say?)
(same nervous laugh, slurred speech)
“Anyway, I just called to say I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
(happy laugh, more like a cough)
(thinking of reason to get off the phone)
“I’m proud of you!”
“Thank you. I’m proud of you, too.”
[most likely an invented memory, but I probably said it once]
“Be good, son.”
“Thank you. You, too.”
Considering these were the last words we ever spoke to each other, I should probably remember them better, but I don’t. What I remember most is resenting having to talk to this man when he was drunk, this man I barely knew. I can talk to anyone about anything, but I couldn’t talk to him. Not like that. Whatever we said it was the last thing we ever said to each other because we didn’t talk when I arrived in England. We didn’t talk on my birthday or his. We certainly didn’t talk on Father’s Day. And we haven’t spoken since.