I have snatches, too-brief glimpses of what it might have been like to have my father as an in-home parent during the course of my childhood.
There is the time he carried me on his shoulders on a family trip to the zoo and laughed when I asked him why the sky was blue. On another day, he took my mother, three siblings and I to a family picnic near a river. I know now the place was chosen simply because it was peaceful and beautiful - and because it had ample room for children to run and play.
Dad came home to our apartment in public housing in Columbus, Ohio, one day in the early 1970s and shocked my brothers and I with the most cherished, hoped for items of the time — tickets to a Jackson 5 concert. My brothers and I, who imitated the stars for patient and perhaps tone-deaf neighbors even though we lacked the necessary numbers and/or talent, were beyond ourselves with glee.
When Dad punished us, it was with Hot Wheels tracks, but he wasn’t very committed to the whippings. He’d tickle us afterward and urge us not to “make him” do that again.
Dad would have been a patient, kind father who was all-in. He would have been a good listener and a sage font of advice.
But he wasn’t. He didn’t get a chance to be that father.
He had a mental breakdown sometime around the time I was headed to kindergarten. The man who loved cards on Friday nights with friends, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and the Impressions on the stereo, the one who could dance and charm, was moody, withdrawn, threatening.
When Mental illness Surfaces:
Dad’s breakdown broke my parents’ marriage, as my mother was faced with an awful choice— remain with a sick man who could be violent to her or return to her parents’ home in South Carolina with her children and face the inevitable bouts of feeling unwelcome and feelings of failure.
For her children, my mother chose Door No. 2. Dad became a man who lived a few miles away. We’d see him when he walked a several miles to visit us. He talked to himself and his hygiene was bad, hallmarks of that damnable scourge, schizophrenia. Unkind schoolmates would tease me about him.
I love my father. Very much. But duty - what I should feel - colors that love nearly as much as do interactions with him.
I am ashamed to write this. I know we should love openly and not as part of a transaction. I just can’t shake the feeling of being cheated, even as I try to make the best of the relationship I have with my father now.
He did not teach me how to drive. He did not tell me about girls or give me guidance when I sought this job or that one. I do know he did what he could with what he had for as long as he could do so. I do cherish that.
A Good Father Does not Mean a Perfect One:
And the gaps - the things he was unable to give to me - have driven to give my own two children, Ashley and Wayne II, everything I’ve got as a parent.
To know me is to suffer as I go on - and on - about how much I love them and how proud I am of them. Through my son’s marriage, I now have a second daughter, Erica, who matches the generosity, kindness and level-headedness I’ve long cherished in Wayne and Ash. I think of the three of them and my heart swells. I don’t think I could love three young adults more.
I want to be there for the small questions and the big ones. It felt good that Erica and then Wayne wanted me with them recently when they went to dealerships to manage a new car purchase or lease. I’m happy Ash chooses - still - to share with me her plans for her career and safe-for-Dad exploits and travails from her dating life.
My wife and I hit every parent-teacher meeting together when Wayne and Ash were kids. I bird-dogged classroom progress, pushed them to challenge themselves, asked tough, probing questions of them whenever they announced important plans. I played with them, taught them to ride bikes and to drive a car. I gave dating advice, some good, some, well, not so good.
I am not and have never been a perfect father.
Happy Father’s Day, brothers!
It is true - for me and, perhaps, for you - that we didn’t get all we needed or deserved from the men who helped create us. But maybe, just maybe, we got enough to know how much we need to give and to know who we need to be for the people we helped create.
Wayne Washington is a loving father and investigative reporter and writer based in Florida.