(Special to The Root) —
Bet on Black: African-American Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age of Barack Obama is a collection of 20 essays by black women about their father-daughter relationships and the positive influences their dads provided in their lives. Hillary Crosley, a contributing editor to The Root, also participated in this book, which was edited by Kenrya Rankin Naasel and will be released Oct. 11. In this excerpt of her personal essay, Crosley details how she barely remembers her father, who passed away when she was 5, but still lives in his long shadow. You can also contribute to the Bet on Black Kickstarter campaign, which ends Oct. 11 at 6 p.m. and supports the book’s physical and online release.
The Persistence of Memory
I don’t remember my father at all. Sometimes it seems my whole life has been shaped by other people’s memories, the stories they’ve told me while eating popcorn on the couch when the movie rental got boring, or while celebrating a good high school report card at Red Lobster. One of my close family friends who’s like a grandmother to me believes my amnesia started as early as my father’s funeral. We were driving away from the church and I looked up at my mother and aunts and asked why everyone was crying. I think that my 5-year-old mind couldn’t take the stress of his departure, so it simply blocked him — his humor, his talent for baking Bert and Ernie-shaped birthday cakes, his love for the daughter he’d begged my mother to have — out of my head.
My father was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of bone cancer that usually affects children, not long after I was born. My Air Force family was stationed in Lakenheath, England, at the time, and the doctors said he needed an operation that could only be performed at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California. So my father flew back to get the surgery without telling my mother, who was still in the U.K. When my father’s best friend, O’Harrell, found out that my father was in the hospital alone, he called my mother, livid that she’d abandoned him to endure alone. Because she still hadn’t heard from my father, my mother thought O’Harrell was joking about his condition. He’s still a funny guy to this day, always laughing and ready with a wide smile, and even as my mother retells me this story, she quips, “What husband doesn’t tell his wife he has cancer and then leaves the country to be treated?” My father had told my mom that he was going to Travis Air Force Base — a midpoint between Lakenheath Air Force Base and Idaho’s Mountain Home Air Force Base, where my parents had orders to move soon — for physical therapy. He’d recently been unable to turn a knob properly in his aircraft, so the Travis medical team was going to check him out, except instead of diagnosing a muscle strain, the doctors told him that he had Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer that had already begun attacking his skeletal system. Finally, my godmother, and my mother’s best friend, called and conveyed the situation’s seriousness, after hearing from folks back in Los Angeles.
Hours later, my mother grabbed me and my diapers and flew to California, only to be greeted by a husband who was completely paralyzed from shock — and cursing nonstop. As my mother recalls, he was beyond upset that he, a man who ran several miles each day and whose muscular, 6-foot-3-inch frame was the outward physical picture of health, could be afflicted with something like cancer. It just wasn’t fair; he was only 26 years old and had just begun raising his first child.
After five years of daily treks to the hospital, and daily climbs up the side of his wheelchair to keep me occupied, he passed. It was 1986 and I was 5 years old. My mother says that he was just too tired to keep fighting.
According to my mother, I was born to an over-achiever from a broken family who married the high school cheerleader — after they graduated, of course. As a teen, he lived in Los Angeles with my grandmother, who made him mayonnaise sandwiches sans meat and babbled with all seriousness about being married to President Kennedy. The middle child of seven, he and his siblings from several different fathers were shuttled between relatives and foster families because my grandmother’s severe paranoid schizophrenia made it impossible for her to take care of them. But it never threw my dad off his game; he was reading the dictionary at 3 years old, and by the 11th grade, he was so advanced in mathematics that he had exhausted Manual Arts High School’s curriculum and began taking classes at Los Angeles City College.
Then, he chose to really fly, and attended the prestigious United States Air Force Academy in Colorado, where the average GPA is 3.9 and admittance requires a letter of recommendation from a local congressman. Upon graduation, Toddy (his family nickname) became a navigator in the Air Force, but I’d like to think that making me with my mother — the cheerleader — was his greatest accomplishment.