The lunch was supposed to be about politics.
I had just moved to town and sitting across from me was a 50-something former Cincinnati city councilman and preacher who was helping to run down the lay of the land.
Earlier, when he showed me his church's new recreation room, I lamented that I wished I had my 8-year-old and 11-year-old boys living with me.
Now, the topic of fatherhood came back up at lunch. He told me about his effort to get black males my age to show up on Sunday. The conversation had completely strayed from politics, but I was curious—why us?
"Well, if you look at it, that's the group still looking for their fathers. Your generation [is] the sons of the Baby Boomers like me, and black fatherhood fell off right around the 1970s," he said.
It was one of the rare times I'd heard an older brother admit that black fatherlessness didn't appear out of nowhere in the last decade. I was cool with that but bugged out about the first part of his statement. I'm a grown-ass man with two sons but have never had an adult conversation with my own father. I needed answers about being Daddy: how to manage being a father from a state away, how to effectively parent when you don't get along with the boys' mother—questions I rarely get to ask any oldhead.
Now, sitting across from me was a brother 20-some years my senior, a father himself, and he was making sense of what I was going through. I latched on. It was the first time we'd met in person, and we had no blood ties whatsoever, but he was still a figurative representation of a father I never knew.
At 31, I realized I might still be looking for my own Daddy.
The illpart was that I'd never considered how my own father's absence affected me. I had a mother and a crew of aunts and uncles who raised me, and I was cool with that. It was just a fact of life that the man wasn't around. Not a positive, not a negative.
Repeating a history I never knew, I became a father at 19, twice over by age 22 and ceased to have a functional relationship with the boys' mother not long after. I vowed that my boys would have me in their lives yet still didn't consider why I felt so strongly. The absence of my pops was more a void in my life than a lack; to sense loss or neglect, there needs to be a consciousness of what's missing, a consciousness I never had.
Or so I thought, until that lunch. Then, I realized that for years I'd been subconsciously picking surrogates, even as a teenager when I was more drawn to the street than I was to anyone who had some good sense they wanted to give me. For as long as I can remember, I've been as close to my uncle as I have to any other man. We hang out every chance we get. Talk football, basketball, women, the kids. But because he's not that much older than me, I never thought of him as a father figure, despite the obvious.
Now my own oldest son is approaching his teen years—we had our first iteration of "the talk" a few weeks ago—and the hardest thing is living apart from my boys. Does it make me want to go out and find my own father? Not so much.
Does it make me a lot more curious about him and self-aware about myself as a man and a Daddy?
Hell, yes. Realizing what I missed made me more thoughtful about what I do with my boys. I want them to have weekends, summers and the occasional road trip with me, but I also need them to understand any health problems that may be hiding in their genes and to have financial support when it's time to go to college, buy their first car or home. I want them to discuss any and everything with me, no matter how many grays that first convo with my oldest about sex added to my hair.
Whatever I do now, I know they'll never wake up in their 30s and wonder where I was.
Keith Reed is a writer living in Ohio.