"with some part missing (A Letter to Daddy)" (2014)
My dad died in 2008. It was an inflection point in my life, a fork in the road. I'm still processing it. Still reckoning with it. This letter was an attempt at processing and reckoning. It was initially published to Furious and Brave, a blog that I maintained with two friends while in grad school.
You only gave me your first name, perhaps because you wanted me to be just like you, but with some part missing. Perhaps you were thinking of your childhood, born to poor, sharecropping parents in rural Mississippi, and wanted better for me. Or, maybe you knew of your transgressions—gin, Budweiser, and a short temper—and wanted to give me space to avoid them, to find my own. Bruce. In my mind, some sort of prevailing assignment for who and how I ought to be in the world. “Bruce, will be my grown-up name,” I often thought to myself and, occasionally, aloud to the amusement of everyone in the house.
But something happened along the way. Somewhere between constructing elaborate Christmas lists from J.C. Penny gift catalogs and building fences—literally, laying fences—when you decided that you wanted to be some sort of cow shepherd, I started to resent you. Like that time you said we couldn’t live with you anymore. You said we had to leave. No qualifications. No hedges. Just leave. I still remember that night, now more than ten years ago, in perfect sequence. The Lakers were playing, yours and momma’s shouting voices in the background like white noise. Then, black and quiet. You flipped the circuit breaker. “Ain’t gon’ be no peace up in this house.” Verbatim. You remember saying that? That one scared me. It just felt different.
The gunshot came a little later, not long after you told us we had to go.
No police came. Neighbors either. Momma was upstairs. I could hear you scrambling about downstairs, so I figured no one was dead. You was a cold motherfucker that night. You told us we had to leave then sent buckshots through truck tires so that we couldn’t. You clinched that shotgun—a special edition that we had bought you for Christmas years before, the kind that folk hang on gun racks over fireplaces or keep locked away until it’s time to shine them and show them off—as you paraded through the house, us all bracing for the worst.
The night ended as many others had, with the dark impulse to teach you a lesson, even if I didn’t quite know how to do the teaching.
Then there was the time you broke every picture frame in the house—literally every one—and left that hole in the wall. You and mom argued from night to morning. I cried for just as long, too afraid to leave my room, even after you had gone. Momma hung a clock over the hole, I guess so we wouldn’t notice, I guess so she could log the time until you would stop being hard. The clock didn’t work.
We were strange after that.
I always kept track of how tall I was. Little tick marks on the frame of my closet door. At first, I just wanted to know how fast I was growing, how soon before I was six feet tall. In time, it became a countdown of sorts, a gauge to determine when I was “grown.” Being grown was all I could hope for. It was the only counter for every time you began a sentence with “As long as you still live in this house…” That was your trump card, but being grown meant I wouldn’t have to play that game anymore, so I wanted to grow, as fast—and as far away from you—as possible, even if I had to stand on my tippy toes. Even if I had to leave.
Enter, Macalester College and cold ass Minnesota. I received a letter and phone call from a football coach there. He wanted me to come play, to come help “write the greatest story in the history of college football,” or something like that. I can’t quite remember what he wrote on that wolf ticket. I said things like, “It’s a great school for academics.” “I just want to see what the city is like.” “I’ll get a chance to play football.” Momma wasn’t really buying any of that. For her, a Mississippi school would do the job just fine. You didn’t mind so much. I was amanafter all, and men made ways for themselves. So I was off to make mine—or something. I left in the summertime, scrambling to put as much distance between you and I as possible. But Minnesota is a strange place, especially for black boys from small towns in the South. I lasted one winter—one winter, before I started to think of home and family and, yes, even you. But I still wasn’t ready to fuck with you like that, so I stayed.
When I was twelve, I found the wonder of writing. When I was fifteen, y’all started to notice. At twenty-five now, I often look back at that work, at least until I start to get that familiar weight in my throat—the one that comes before tears. The other day, I saw a journal entry from 2005. I was sixteen, and you had not yet been diagnosed. There, tucked between talk of God and Heaven and football, I wrote: “One day my parents will pass, and I will wonder what it should have been like.” “Should,” because I knew, even thatn, that the way that it had been was somehow wrong. “Should,” because then I thought imagination was the only way to make it right.
Three years later, you made me prophet.
The cancer diagnosis was hard. Until then, I knew you only as the man with rough hands and a strange heart. Until then, you hadn’t really talked of love much, just work and the family business. But then, I think you knew. You said you were “go’n fight this thing,” but I think you knew. “The doctor said six months,” Momma whispered to me as we stood outside one night—just her and me, but she whispered it. You definitely knew. After then, you talked, in your own way, about death and dying and told me that you loved us “more than anything in the whole wide world.” I believed you, not because I needed to, because then I still didn’t want to believe how bad it was. I believed you because I never heard you say it, at least not quite like that. We were both losing battles: me to the feelings of resentment that came with thoughts of you, you to the dozens of tumors that arrested your body. But even in the midst of those battles, both mine and yours, you swallowed your pride and said those words.
Momma paused for way too long when I asked her, perhaps because she wanted me to realize it all on my own. I was back in Minnesota for my sophomore year. Thanksgiving was close, but I hadn’t planned to be home until Christmas. But her silence—I asked her how you were doing—sent me in a panic, rushing through that small dorm room throwing clothes in garbage bags. I had to leave. There was no time for specifics or explanations. The 16-hour drive was hard. I didn’t eat. I don’t even remember stopping for gas. I just kept calling you, telling you that I decided to come home after all. I couldn’t say what I knew, that I was desperate to see you once more before never again.
“Just wait on me, okay.”
I met you and mom in Memphis, saw you for the first time in four months in the parking lot of the Veteran’s hospital there. It had only been four months—exactly four months— but you were at least 50 pounds lighter, eyes bright yellow, body in a constant jitter. We hugged for a long time, with breaks only long enough for you to wipe my tears away.
I drove us home from Memphis that night. I hoped to talk, to meditate with you on your and our lives, but your body, defeated by an endless regimen of medication, needed sleep.
I went to bed around 9 that night. By 10:30, we were at the ER. At times you would spring awake, even rising briefly from the bed, with your eyes wide and eyebrows raised as if you were surprised to be there, or maybe waking from some nightmare. You and I joked about biceps. Mine were bigger than yours. Other than that, there was a lot of quiet. We left you and mom at 2 to make a quick trip home. We told you we’d back. You told us, “bye, bye.”
By 5:30, you were out of here.
A month after you left—now more than six years ago—I wrote: “He took a part of me when he went, but a large part of him still lives in me, and for him to live in me is to not be all the way gone.” Today, though I still go by my middle name, Brian, I keep the “B”—for Bruce, for you—hoping to hang on to whatever part that is, whatever part that you intended.