On Monday, my father Jimme turns seventy years old. Seventy, 70, 7-oh! Amazing! Given the years of alcohol abuse, so much loss, so much pain, so much rage, and to recover and make it to the age of seventy? That’s a big-M miracle, the kind that you can only attribute to sheer strength of will and the grace of God.
I must admit, after the summer of ’92, I had my doubts about my father’s future. The few times I saw him that summer, he was drinking like he had never drank before. The first time I saw him, he accused me of lying about having my master’s degree. “No college gonna giv’ you a degree afta a year,” he said. Only when his Jewish bosses told him it was possible for someone to finish a master’s in a year did he believe me.
The second time I went to see him, his landlord Mrs. Smalls was about to evict him. But my father wasn’t there. Or, I guess he was, in a way. He had made plops of defecation, from the front gate and blue slate walk up to the front steps and porch, into the entrance way and foyer, up the gloomy carpeted steps, all the way to the attic bathroom next to his room. They’d been cleaning for hours, according to Mrs. Smalls, but it sure didn’t smell like it.
Fast-forward two years to Christmas Eve ’94. My mother and my younger siblings and I went on a bus trip to Cross County Mall and Toys ‘R Us in Yonkers. Jimme showed up at the last minute to join us and to regale us with his “po’ ass muddafuccas” and his other favorite Jimme-isms. We were on the 7 bus to Yonkers, packed with parents who were shopping late for toys and Christmas trees. Jimme was so drunk that he fell over on some people on the bus once, and fell into the rear stairwell one other time. I wasn’t embarrassed as much as I was disappointed and saddened.
So by the time I finished my doctorate at the end of ’96, I’d all but given up on my father turning things
around. A few months later, my father, unemployed and no longer enabled by his former bosses, finally left New York for the family home in Georgia at the invitation of one of his sisters. By the end of ’97, I heard that he had cleaned up his act and moved to Jacksonville. Throughout ’98 and into ’99, I began to get calls from Jimme about how he was finally sober, had found God, and was getting married, to another woman named Mary.
I thought long and hard about blowing him off. All my life, and certainly all of my older brother Darren’s, Jimme had been an evil drunk, verbally abusive and incapable of staying sober for more than three weeks at a time. But he had also been there for me growing up during my Humanities and Hebrew-Israelite years. He helped keep Darren and me from starving or walking around barefoot in ’82 and ’83. He kept the example of hard work in front of us even as the other parent figures in our lives went on dreaded welfare and laid around as if our lives were over. His money was the reason I was able to stay in school after five days of homelessness my sophomore year at Pitt.
So I called him, deciding to give him a second chance. That was February ’99, a two-hour conversation about how he managed to become a recovering alcoholic, a church-goer, and a married man. He admitted that he had made many mistakes, that he was an alcoholic, that he loved me and my brother. It was a conversation, a real conversation, an unbelievable change of relationship. After twenty-nine years and two months, I finally had a father that I really could call father.
That was eleven and a half years ago. I’m still amazed that I’m able to talk to my father as my father, and not as the person I used to have to drag out of bars on 241st Street or in Midtown Manhattan growing up. But most of all, I’m amazed how much I love him and care about him. Happy Birthday…Dad!