He came here full of hope.
It was 1981 and he was a twenty four year old graduate student sent from his home country of Sudan. He was told to make his country proud so he packed his belongings along with his dreams for a better life.
The ultimate dream of any person living in a poor country. He was starting a new life in America.
A land of endless opportunity and a place where anyone could make it.
My mom said women were always taken aback because he was exceptionally handsome. His nubian almond shaped eyes, strong jawline, and chocolate skin made women, from all ethnicities, gravitate towards him. His solid frame had him shy of 6’5. I always thanked Allah that I inherited his eyes and not his height.
He didn’t know it though. He didn’t realize how good looking he truly was because back in Africa he resembled any other tall and lanky East African guy walking around Khartoum.
It was mid July and I was sitting in a motel in southern Los Angeles.
My window was open and I could hear the wind rustling through the palm trees. As strays of California sunlight crept through the blinds I could see the dust matter floating in all directions.
I reached into my oversized purse and pulled out a manila envelope. I looked at his photos and cried. The photos were faded and looked like they had been sitting in someones basement for the last twenty years. Actually the motel room looked like it belonged in one of these portraits. The sunlight bounced off the photo so I shifted it in my hands trying to look past the water marks. His eyes were bright and familiar. They were mine. For a moment I was looking at myself.
I needed this.
I needed to grieve properly.
I needed to mourn him and what could have been.
It’s always interesting to me how memory and the mind works. You always want to force yourself to remember the best moments. It’s a sense of nostalgia and usually not based on actual reality of the situation. Sometimes we mourn what we wanted our lives to be like rather than what they actually were. It’s a coping mechanism we all use at one point and I was certainly using it then. It was a mix of emotions. I was mad as hell, horribly guilt ridden but most of all I was hurting.
I knew very well what life would have been like with a schizophrenic father.
There was no point in romanticizing anymore.
“That’s the place.” She said. Her index finger was pointed in the direction of a supermarket and her eyes were dazed. I looked at it and thought about the importance of places and how relative they usually are. It just looked like a shabby spot to me but it held some sort of importance to my mother.
This was where she had met my father many, many years ago. She was twenty-three and a new convert to Islam. “He spotted me in the fruit section,” she said laughing. He was pretending to grocery shop. He waited until my mother was in the check out line and strategically got behind her and started conversation. It ended with him getting her number and a marriage six months later.
He asked me if I wanted to see the body.
He was a middle-aged man of Arab descent wearing a button up creme colored shirt tucked into his dress pants. He had thick rimmed circular glasses on that made his eyes look three times bigger than they actually were. He was hurriedly walking to his office and shuffling papers at the same time. Being the funeral director at the local mosque I could tell he was trying to offer sympathy, but being in a business of this nature for long periods of time can make one cold. It’s routine. Unchanging. Constant. Just like the postman delivering letters to people every single day, people will always need their mail and people will always be dying.
I thought about it for a moment.
Being an emergency room nurse I see dead bodies quite often. Women, men, the old and the young. Growing up I always saw images of my father. He looked firm and resilient. I had built up this imaginary man in my head of what I expected him to be like. Having never seen him in the flesh I didn’t want my first and last encounter to be with him laying in a casket.
“No.” I said quietly and looking down at the floor.
We’re not sure exactly want happened. One day he just started acting different.
My mom said he started becoming very paranoid and anxious. He always thought people were after him and wanting to harm his family. Now as an adult, I realize what an awful fear that must have been. Though not based on present reality its the reality of the individual and to him it was real as day.
It became too much and he began becoming aggressive. My mom feared for herself but she mainly feared for her four-month old daughter.
So she left.
Over the years my father would try to contact me. His schizophrenia and constant paranoia meant that he never stayed in one place for too long.
Letters were always sent back and numbers were always disconnected.
He died full of sadness and guilt. A man who tried but couldn’t deliver.
Several years ago I was able locate an uncle of mine who was living in California. He was there taking care of my father who was currently institutionalized. I was put back in contact with my grandmother and a slew of uncles, aunts and cousins, second cousins, third cousins (its Africa, you know how it goes.)
They welcomed me back with African styled love…
Just like I was returning back home from a long journey…
My grandmother hugged me and this time she was the one who cried.
Her tears flowed for a son who tried his best and a child who had made her way back home.
On Fathers Day we recognize the men who have consistently been around. Our role models. Our support. Our heroes.
Today I recognize the many men who fell victim to the difficulties in life. The men who have weeping hearts from never witnessing their child’s first step or the first day of school. The men who sincerely tried and prayed that they would never repeat the actions of their own fathers but somehow identically mimicked the loins that bore them.
The men who are painfully reminded about the type of men they had the potential to become.
The type of fathers they wanted to be.
Today I recognize you.