Re-Writing Fatherhood

Young, broke, and unmarried; it was my daughter who helped me find my voice.

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Abdul Ali and his daughter, Kayla Simone. Photo by Mignonette E. Dooley(www.migdooley.com)

Four years ago, I made a promise to my newborn daughter in her hospital room. I stayed awake the entire night waiting for her to open her eyes. I'll never forget the feeling, as if I were on top of a skyscraper, feeling the rush of greatness and being consumed by fear—fear of not knowing what may come.

At the time I had been doubling up on courses at a junior college, while counting the freckles on the moon at night, praying to whatever God would listen to not succumb to defeat. Yet, there was a definitive magic in knowing a great task lay ahead and still not knowing how I would become a rainmaker in the world, or at least a respectable father. I didn't want to give up on my promise to be the best father I could be without sacrificing my dream.

I promised that I would always be there despite the odds, which were many: I was trying to transfer to a four-year university from my academically-malnourished existence at a junior college; I was unmarried, and (financially) unprepared for the weight of caring for a new life; and possibly equal in importance, how I shrunk in the eyes of my family from as a person of promise, someone who would make it, to someone who was behaving like one of those other young men you see on a daytime television show: a slacker, a derelict, someone trifling, born to different circumstances.

While I don't think of it much today, at that time I was also very embarrassed by the fact that everyone—friends, family, professors and strangers—would look at me and give me that condescending nod and say the inevitable "I would have thought you'd know better than to not protect yourself. Now what are you gonna do?" I'd answer each of them the same: I'm going to work to support myself and my daughter and finish school. Sometimes they'd laugh, pat me on the shoulder and say, "Son, this ain't time to go to school. You better get a damn job!"

Not for a second did it occur to me to quit school. I wasn't endowed with the temerity (or reckless abandon) to sign up for the military. Nor was I particularly handy with tools. So, the logical decision for me was to remain steadfast in my education: better to struggle while my baby is an infant than an older child. With the help of American Express, a few generous relatives and sometimes three jobs, I managed.

If I had it to do all over again, of course there are things I would decide differently. However, whether to be a father is not one of them. More than any future Father's Day card my daughter will ever hand-deliver I am most proud of a recent moment we shared on one of our routine commutes from Baltimore to Washington. My 3-year-old daughter caught a glimpse of me scribbling something in my notebook and turned toward me and matter-of-factly said, "Daddy, you're a writer."

 

I think time stilled for several moments as I tried not to get misty-eyed in front of her. I almost melted hearing those words percolate in my ear from the mouth of my little girl who has my face. Who'd ever think that a 3-year-old could validate me in a way that a college degree, the approval of my family and peers and all the literary prizes in the world could not rival.

Measuring fatherhood is tricky business. A different calculus is required. It's something that can only happen by what Billie Holiday calls "facing the music." The opportunity to father a child, on a cosmic level, gives you an opportunity to vicariously have the kind of father you never had: a way of writing fatherhood, imbibing it with your own vision, sweat, tears, prayers, love and finally, pride in what an exquisite gift you have in a little girl who has your nose.