Reclaiming My Father: Navigating Loss, Rage & Absence On Father’s Day

(c) 2018 Jude-Laure Denis

This week, I took a few days off the digital crack that is the interwebs, to really sit with the loss of my father.

He wasn’t the Daddy television shows like Bewitched and The Brady Bunch taught me about in the seventies (representation matters!), and for a long time I nurtured a great deal of rage whenever I thought about our relationship and sprayed him liberally with it, in writing and in person.

I once accused him in very flowery language of being a sperm donor. He called me and I treated each moment of our conversation like a soiled dish rag not worthy of shining my shoes.

For years, I refused, like a petulant child, to fill the empty space where his desire to connect hovered between us. Instead, I propagated deep gaping silences, intent on making him angry, on forcing him to hang up, on eventually convincing him to give up altogether on trying to connect.

I was a quiet kid on the outside growing up, but inside, even at seven, I was a know it all. I always thought myself smarter than the adults in my world, listening, listening, to their grown people talk, my head buried in a book, what I would later learn to be my ADD juggling the world of the printed story and the one I was hearing in real time, most certainly confusing the two.

I listened to both what adults said and what they didn’t say, synthesizing and spinning narratives from everything around me, most especially the photographs I found lingering in closets and drawers, of a woman I could clearly see to be my mother and a long, lean, man, whose head, had been permanently scissored from the aging Kodak paper it was once printed on, whom I was certain was the mysterious father I’d yet to meet.

I remember meeting my dad for the first time when I was nine. I can’t be certain it’s the first time I actually met him, because I disassociated so often as a child that the majority of my childhood is a blank space inside my head.

Haitians don’t believe in telling children anything. Not sure if it’s a Haitian thing or a Caribbean thing or a Black thing or just a people who don’t believe children are fully human thing.

One day, you’re in school here, the next day you’re in school there and nobody bothers to give you a story to make sense of the change.

One day I was living in Haiti with my mother, another day, I was on an Air France jet with my grandmother flying to the United States. Forty four years later, and I’ve never managed to go back.

I’m beginning to question why that is. Maybe I’m afraid of the skeletons of the stories I will find there.

Four years ago, in the midst of the utter devastation of my mother’s death, coupled with the complicated nature of our relationship, and the fact that it had been only 18 months since the death of Carol, my partner of twenty years, I found the ability to create space for my father in the moment, my aunts, my mother’s sisters, told me they did not want him to attend her funeral.

A great many things about my childhood are unclear. But as an adult, I never doubted that my mother and father loved each other, whatever the real story behind the rupture of their marriage. He called her regularly. During those calls, they laughed and wove whispered secrets I will never ever know.

Somehow, my aunts’ desire to not invite him—the man my mother never shut completely out of her life despite her fevered history of erasing emotional hurts with a sharp pair of scissors – not only had me going sideways but wedged some stainless steel in my spine determined that “my father” had every right to come!

Beheaded photographs lurk in unexpected places inside me. I imagine finding the missing pieces — the excised flesh and blood — and replicating those missing pieces, replicating them, until even after giving away enough for parades and the New Year’s celebrations around the world for the next hundred years, there is more than enough to smear against my skin to not just numb the pain of living and loving and losing people I fought hard not to love, but enough to erase it altogether. Because my father’s unnamed absence had begun carving itself in me before I exited the womb, before I spoke my first word, before narcissistic dictators performed for Russian oligarchs, before the empty, protruding belly of hungry mouthed children in abandoned Wal-Marts, detention centers, began to growl their existence into our consciousness. Before, before, before.

Somehow out of this moment where we would officially acknowledge her absence, her recusal from life — their dismissal of his importance, to my mother and to me — triggered my desire to claim him.

I remember the metallic taste of my rage on my tongue as I yelled, “He’s my father and he’s coming to the funeral” before slamming the phone down (sounds much better than clicking the red button forcefully lol; landlines are much better for dramatic moments).

A week later, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we buried my mother. Big, downy snowflakes fluttered through the gray fog surrounding us.

As Father Bennett, at least I think that was his name, said his last word, one stroke of lightning and one clang of thunder punctured the evening air. We all took it as a sign from my mother to “Go on now. Somebody’s got to finish cooking the turkey.”

My brother Yves Jr. and my father Yves Sr. at my 49th birthday party at 187 Rue Principal in 2016

We walked back to the line of cars, straddling grass and gravel, my father’s right arm draped around me, and I recognized in that moment, how grateful I was that he had been there with me. I tried to verbalize my feelings but could only find the words to say “thank you for coming.”

Before getting into my cousin’s SUV, however, I surprised myself by walking into my dad’s arms and saying, “I love you.”

Those three words sustained our relationship for the last four years.

Our conversations didn’t get any deeper. We didn’t know each other any better. But the silences were no longer gaping.

I could tease him about the woman on his Facebook profile he told me was a friend.

“Friend? What do you mean by friend?” I laughed with gusto. “You’re a player for real Pops,” I continued, and he laughed right back, not a prideful laugh, but one filled with a humility born of the will to win by persisting, by being steadfast, by loving in the ways he knew how to love.

That conversation occurred last week, four days before June 11, 2018, in the words of Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, the day “everything changed.”

My father was consistent. He walked into a lot of people’s lives and never walked out. He was married to his second wife for close to 50 years. His relationship with his mistress has lasted just as long.

I’m his first born. He has two children with his 2nd wife — Yves and Michael — and two children with his mistress — Steve and Linda. I’ve never met my sister. Or the other grandkids. Or JoJo his first great-grand. His funeral will change all that.

For five decades, he walked into my life, swallowed my rage, bathed in my condescension, and kept coming back. He showed up again and again, proving his love, not in the way I’d seen it done on television, where the fathers came home every night, but by reaching out consistently, and never giving up on having a relationship with me, however much I resisted.

And by golly if he didn’t do it.

I cried so hard, that Monday afternoon, when my brother Yves, his namesake, called to tell me my father’s heart had simply stopped. He wasn’t sick. It wasn’t expected. He’d just gone to the store and bought oatmeal for his great-grand before taking a bath in epsom salt.

In the middle of Bread Alone, the Hudson Valley’s much better version of Starbucks, my tears ran like fake tears on television do, the ones that seem the most inauthentic, while I waited for my order of asparagus toast, remembering that I’d promised to buy him CBD oil for his back pain.

Haitian. Blakety-Blak. Activist. Student/Teacher. Drinker of Combahee. Caping 4 all my Sisters, trans/cis/genderfluid. Wielding ❤️ like a sword.

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