I swear not a day goes by that I don’t think about my dad.
I’m not sure if it’s because so much has happened in my life recently or because so much is happening in the world, but it’s agonizing not to be able to pick up the phone and call him.
In another way, I’m sorta glad he’s not here to witness both this pandemic and the person not-leading the country.
As a microbiologist, he would understand the virus better than most, and his fears about his own health and our family’s health would weigh heavily on him. He would understand what needs to happen for the best possible outcome and the catastrophic ramifications if science doesn’t lead the way forward.
I often hear the call in my head.
Me: Hey, dad. How are you feeling today? Did you hear about this insane Governor, Kemp trying to open Georgia on Monday? And all this shit Trump is saying every day that makes it all seem fine. He actually suggested that people should ingest Lysol to “clean their lungs.”
Him: These motherfuckers are out of their minds! What is wrong with white people? I told you not to move to the south.
He grew up in a tiny town called Morrow in Lousiana. The town took the name from the white man who owned it. The town was segregated back then and remains that way today with black folks living on one side of the road and white folks on the other. The south for my dad represented a place to be hated and feared – and for good reason. It was a place where his grandfather was lynched for registering black voters, and an inadvertent glance at a white woman could also have deadly consequences. He walked out of that small oppressive town, and somehow he became a microbiologist, rubbing elbows with Dr. Fauci and others at the WHO, CDC, and NIH.
But, after all that, he still hated the south. The scars ran deep, but he also respected my decisions. After all, I was his daughter, and he was the one who raised me. So, I’d tell him we moved because I got a job at CNN and because Atlanta is a lot less expensive than L.A. He’d certainly understand that. Then I’d tell him that just as quickly as I got my coveted CNN credentials, the job vanished because of the virus.
Me: I was so excited about working at CNN. It was a dream come true. I wanted you to be proud of me. Now, I’m so sad and ashamed that I left a secure job to take a risk on a new one, and then a pandemic hit. Now everything’s up in the air, and I’m scared.
Him: Well, there’s not much you can do about a pandemic. But, you could be on T.V. You’re prettier than those women on CNN, and you’re good in front of the camera. You’d look good sitting next to Anderson [Cooper]. You’ll be fine. You always land on your feet. Besides, you guys can always come live with me.
I’d tell him that his grandson is living with his girlfriend and her family here in Conyers, Georgia — reputed Ku Klux Klan country. He would laugh and say, “Well, at least he’s safely away from the virus in California and near his mama.”
I’d tell him my husband Roger and I are very happy together. And if you can spend this much time in a 1,000 square-foot apartment, working together, and not fight and still laugh, it must be true love. I would tell him that we cook vegetarian meals, and Roger finally relented, allowing our dog, Mocha, to sleep in the bed with us sometimes.
Him: Rebekah, why would you let that dog sleep in your bed? She walks outside, then carries the dirt into the house. Please, haven’t I taught you better?
Me: She’s so sweet and cuddly. Remember, when you gave my puppy Ginger away?
He would try to change the subject. But, then say…
Him: Yeah, that wasn’t very kind of me. I worked too hard back then and didn’t think about your feelings.
He did work a lot. I used to think he loved work more than he loved me. I was a latchkey kid. I started walking home from school when I was around 6 years old. I would make a snack for myself, play with toys, and wait until he came home around 5 or 6. He’d cook dinner. I always wanted French fries, and we’d watch the news together — or movies, but only those about black people — “Roots,” “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
When I was 13, girly things started happening, and I went to live with my mother. I look back now, and I think it broke his heart. He was angry and sad, and it took a few years for us to mend our relationship. It wasn’t until I had my son Miles, and moved from D.C. to San Diego that we got close again. He never missed a soccer or basketball game or dinner party at our house. I’d never seen him more proud than to see Miles graduate from high school or to visit him in college in San Francisco.
Miles told me that after one of the visits, they’d gone to Chinatown for Dim Sum, and “Boopah,” the name he’d given to his grandpa, got lost on the way to the bathroom. I think that was the beginning of him getting sick.
When he was diagnosed with kidney failure and had to have a kidney transplant, he suffered through years of dialysis, but we also became inseparable. As he grew older, and especially the years before his death, I saw a kindness I’d never noticed. His anger over years of having to prove himself as an African American scientist, a single parent, and a non-threatening black man eased a bit. Although it was inspiring to see the fire return when he spoke to Roger about the black man in America experience.
At his Celebration of Life, I learned from his former students that he meant the world to them. He was the reason they’d become doctors and scientists and learned to feel like equals to their colleagues.
Me: I should be there to take care of you. I could go to the grocery store and drive you to the doctor and the university. Roger could cook for us.
Him: That would be nice. But you have your life. And I can drive myself, and I know how to take care of myself. I can cook. I cooked for you when you were a kid. Chicken curry every night. (He’d laugh.)
When I hear jazz, I think of him. When we saw the Grand Canyon, I thought of him and how much he wanted to see it. When I travel to anyplace new I think of telling you all about it.
I wished I’d been there when he died. The nurses sent me home, and within hours he was gone. I guess he didn’t want me to see him pass, but I wished I’d been there to hold his hand. I hope he wasn’t scared. I hope he simply let go, alone in the dark, because he knew the future was a loss of his independence.
We spoke almost every day, and when I’d tell him about life’s moments, he’d laugh, but he never told me how he was feeling. He never told me he was in extreme pain or that he stayed in bed all day and sometimes went without eating because it was just too much to get up. I learned that later.
Me: I miss you dad.
Him: I miss you too.
Me: I love you.
Him: I love you too. Tell Miles and I love him. Tell Roger and Olivia hi. I’m going to call Julie [my sister] and Maddie [my niece] now.