Under almost no circumstances could I have ever seen myself visiting Jacksonville. A nuclear holocaust, the collapse of the federal government, a super-flu pandemic, perhaps. And that would be a hypothetical maybe at best. But I did visit, for the first time, eleven years ago this week, to see my father Jimme for the first time in since Christmas Eve ’94. It was a life-changing event, and for once, for the better.
It was a memorable visit because after three years of talking over the phone, I finally would get to see Jimme and his new family (see my post “Finding My Father for the First Time” from November ’11). It was a calm-before-the-storm two-day visit, nestled in between the sturm und drang of the ’02 New Voices Winter Retreat in Atlanta and my family intervention at 616 in Mount Vernon (see my post “The Intervention” from January ’08).
I honestly had few expectations. I knew Jacksonville covered a lot of acreage as a city, but was basically Georgia south more than it was a major city in Florida. I knew that the town had a high poverty rate, and I knew that they had the Jacksonville Jaguars. Not much more than that was in my memory banks as I touched down on my flight from Hartsdale International Airport to podunk Jacksonville’s airport on a rainy Sunday in January.
Collins family members besides my father were there to greet me, including a couple of second-cousins. They were much more excited to see me than I was to see them, mostly because I hadn’t been prepared to meet extended family on this trip. They gave me a brief tour of the city — although I wasn’t going to see much in the rain (and there wasn’t much to see to begin with). Still, I was happy that they were happy and chatty and welcoming.
Meeting my father’s second wife Mary was interesting, if only because she shared my mother’s first name. Though loud in so many ways, she was also very kind, very Christian and very warm to me. Like most folks, she made assumptions about me that I couldn’t possibly live up to, like viewing everything in life through the lens of the Bible. It made for a lively dinner discussion on the subject my second night there. Ms. Mary has kept her conversations with me much shorter since that first visit.
But the most important part of my visit, though, was the two days I spent with my father. This was my first time seeing him completely sober since ’88, and this was nearly five years since he had given up drinking. The change in his physical appearance was dramatic, as he now only looked his age, and not twenty years older than his age. He looked better and strong than he had in years, maybe decades.
That wasn’t all that had changed. Me and my father talked about everything, from family to work, politics to writing, education and religion over those forty-eight hours. He shared his secret to his new diabetes diet – a case and a half of diet soda per day and no water intake.
I spend our last conversation telling my father about what I was about to do in Mount Vernon, that I was going to spend an evening airing out three decades of dirty laundry, for the sake of my younger siblings. That’s when he apologized to me about his alcoholism and all the things he had put me and my older brother Darren through growing up. I told him that I’d forgiven him a long time ago.
It was a touching moment out of several touching moments that visit. I left that Tuesday morning, in awe of the fact that sometimes people can and do change for the better, even miraculously so. Even in a place like Jacksonville.