Over the weekend I had brunch with my ole man; it’s been a while (not by accident) since we last saw each other and so the meal became a three-hour marathon session of catching up. Our father-son relationship has not been an easy one. He left my mom and my siblings when we were young; he did not provide any financial support to us except for the occasional Xmas holiday gifts when inspired to play Santa. We, especially my sister, resented him for his abandonment and to this day still have reservations about his random appearances in our lives. Maybe we feel this way because we fail to see the need for a father at our age. We are now self-sufficient adults who have achieved academically and professionally. Regardless, I have kept an open mind over the years and accepted the relationship for what it was despite his faults. In some ways, keeping the door open has provided me with a front row seat to observe what goes through the mind of an absentee father. What is it that makes a man run away from his children; not to be there for them? Sure, marriages fail. It’s the unfortunate norm now. A Parent leaving their children is not as normal (in some communities). These thoughts floated in my mind while father ate his seafood salad, while I had my fried eggs and turkey bacon.
A recent retiree and now in his 60s, father still has the physical appearance of a man in his early 40s (Something to be said about the genes of our ancestors). He keeps himself busy with some encouragement from Alessandra, his second wife, by taking on more responsibilities for their two children, one an adult and the youngest, Samantha, has not reached her teens. Sipping on his bloody mary, father recounts his daily chores of getting Samantha ready for school, the hour-plus workout at the gym, Spanish language lessons at Instituto Cervantes, and then hurrying back to pick up the little one from school. “ Jaytoe” he said “I know that I wasn’t always there for you guys. I guess I’m trying to make up for it by being there for Edwin and little Samantha.” It dawned on me the irony of his statement that he’s making up for his past failings with us by doing better with another set of children. Whether he misspoke is not clear. A more accurate statement would have been that he’s trying to redeem himself, not helping us, by being present in the lives of my two younger siblings.
I never asked father why he left mother but, over the years, I have been able to piece his story together and came to my own conclusions; his was a “Bright Lights, Big City” tale with a black immigrant in the leading role. As a twenty something year old, father was a handsome man, very dapper dresser, ambitious and lots of charisma (even in recent times, some of my past girlfriends have done double glance when first seeing him). I imagined a man with these attributes, plucked out a small dusty town and landing in the biggest city of them all, had all inspiration he needed to pursue the “good” life. The penniless lifestyle of mopping floors or driving a cab (the earlier jobs) would not do for such a man; living in a small shoe box-sized apartment with several children was a hopeless path for him. So he did what other men have done before him, he ran. Along this journey, he collected a few degrees at public and private universities; he remarried to a Latina woman who, in his own words, looked different than him but was culturally similar. He had Edwin and later adopted Samantha because not to would allow a child of Alessandra’s extended family to spiral downward in the NYC foster care system. From what I have heard, his second marriage was not too rosy, either; there was a period of separation; there were instances of the “other woman” issues; but they stuck it out and now his (and their) story, not exactly bright lights, may still end up on a good note.
In some ways, being a product of an absentee father was not the end of my world. The experience has helped me to choose my partners very carefully as one sexual encounter can lead to an unwanted pregnancy where tough choices have to be made. The risk of partnering with someone who don’t share your moral and social values can be devastating and ultimately be another addition to the absentee father stats. We have seen the headlines and may have even read the studies that more than half of the American black households are fatherless. A Phd is not necessary to conclude that this problem is intertwined with the bleak evidence of a young black men majority in the U.S. prison system and an even a larger absence of them in universities. For these are some of the reasons, I believe maintaining a relationship with a deficient father is an opportunity to learn from his mistakes in order not to repeat them when I become a father.