This is an essay from the forthcoming book Bet On Black: African American Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age of Barack Obama, a collection of 20 powerful essays written by Black women on their relationships with their fathers, edited by Kenrya Rankin Naasel. The book goes on sale on October 8. Visit the project on Facebook to learn more.
“Why isn’t she breathing?”
Saa had finally decided to make an appearance, after 14-and-a-half hours of long, difficult, epidural-less labor. But the child who had danced in my womb for 39 weeks was too quiet. I couldn’t see through the circle of neonatal docs who had materialized when my daughter’s pale purple body slid into the midwife’s waiting hands, her umbilical cord wrapped twice around her tiny neck, but my husband could. “Why isn’t she breathing?” he asked again, as he pushed beyond the blue-gowned elbows to get closer to Saa. Louder then: “Why isn’t she breathing?”
There was no response as they worked on her, pressing on her slight chest, snaking a plastic tube into her trachea to deliver oxygen. The room held its breath, its walls concave with worry as we waited for Saa to draw hers. Two eternities later, she wailed, eyes squeezed shut, mouth hinged open, eager to assure her father that she was breathing, living, for us all.
I was fly, strutting down Harlem’s 125th Street in too-high heels, focused on catching the subway to a late-night concert. Underground, I crossed to the turnstile and swiped my Metrocard. Some cat with a huge Army-green duffle bag and soft brown eyes fell into step beside me. “You okay? Is your day going all right?” he asked.
“Yeah, why?” Hot and sticky, the attitude dripped from my mouth.
“’Cause you just gave me the ill look back there.”
I was guilty: A mean face is a crucial part of the armor for a girl four years in New York City, eight years out of the Midwest. I appreciated that he jolted me out of myself and made me see the image I was portraying, a picture that wasn’t really me. An introspective laugh, ten minutes on the platform and thirty minutes of good convo on the A train later, I scribbled my cell number on the back of a business card and slid it into his hand before he could be gobbled up by the wilderness of a Friday night in Brooklyn.
I’m five. It’s dark, cold as our drafty ranch-style house is wont to be, and I can’t sleep. As an insomniac from way back, this wasn’t unusual. What was odd was the sight that greeted me when I reached the end of the hallway, my bare feet slapping against the freezing tile, tiny hand trailing along the same sharply textured sherbet-colored wall that I’d scraped my arm on when I lost my balance on my Strawberry Shortcake tricycle: Two eyes, looking up and out at me like an old man peering over his reading glasses at an irritation. Then, short eggplant-rinsed hair—my mother, her dark arms akimbo, legs intertwined with a man/some man/not my father.
My parents eventually separated, then divorced a couple years later. They did a good job of keeping the fallout away from my little sister Leena and me, though I’ve always felt a bit responsible for their split. But it was bound to happen. To my young eyes, my mommy just didn’t seem to be cut out for the whole wife and mother thing. Self-interest often seemed to win out over responsibility: There was the day I returned home from morning kindergarten and she wasn’t there. I peed in the backyard, careful not to splash my tights or my pastel-colored “Wednesday” undies, then rode with Cindy The Bus Driver while she made her afternoon circuit, praying Mommy would be there when we stopped again. We returned three hours later to find my sister on her pink big wheel out front, my mother inside.
Daddy got custody on account of his steady job as a computer tech and the top-notch suburban school district where we lived. Even at nine years old, I knew it was a good decision, choosing to bow out of meetings of the “Divorced Kids Club” that school counselors tried to force me to attend. Courts are reluctant to separate kids from their mothers, but Daddy was doting, tireless and loving. He was a natural father: Staying up all night with an ear to my chest when my asthma threatened to send us down Columbus Road to the ER, running red lights all the way in our blue Ford Taurus station wagon; checking behind doors when I was convinced Freddy Kruger was going to pirouette out and slash me to pieces; carting me to gyno after gyno when my womb rebelled against me in high school, banishing me to bed for three days each month; even playing romantic advisor every time I retreated from my unstable on-again-off-again college boyfriend.
It wasn’t always easy. He had to drag Leena and me along on countless late night calls when a mainframe broke down in the over-air conditioned basement of some darkened school. And he struggled with the decision to have me let myself in after class, the first latchkey kid in my group of friends, proudly wearing my two shiny slivers of metal on a woven lanyard around my neck. Then came the day that gig turned out to be not so steady; he and hundreds of others were laid off like so many expendable space monkeys. Subcontracting work followed, but it didn’t pay the bills the way mandatory overtime used to, and we lived without health insurance for years. But he held us together with his trademark earnestness, ushering me off to college and becoming an amazing “Ga-Ga” to Leena’s children.
“I can tell you have your father in your life.” Excuse me?
It was my first real convo with Tahad, the guy from the train. We’d chatted about our friends/days/jobs, but we hadn’t talked families/values/dreams.
“You can tell when a woman has a man in her life by the way she carries herself,” he explained. “You demand a certain respect from men, and you know how to respect a man. It’s a good thing.”
A cock of the head (to the right, per my custom), a smile into my clunky silver cell phone.
Then a real curve ball: Two little girls called him “Daddy,” one in a country twang that reaches back through the generations, the other with the accent of her Long Island town. They watched his every move, vied for his attention with stories about who did what at school, begged to see the latest animated movie when their homework was done. I was taken aback.
“What’s your relationship like with them and their mamas?” I asked, ready to hang up if he said some mess along the lines of, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about them.” But he spoke (at length, per his custom) about how raising his daughters right is the most important thing he’s ever done, how they carry the best of him in their hearts. It was a good thing.
Through the years, my father did his best to keep my mother in our lives, shuttling us to her house some weekends and summers, and even letting her stay over on occasion. He even took on the role of godfather, and eventually just Daddy, to my little brother Ted, an intelligent kid my mother gave birth to the year I started calling myself a teenager.
I asked Daddy what it was like being a man under pressure to mold two girls, two ladies. “You always look back and think that even more could have been done,” was his reply. He wishes he’d been better at communicating with us about all things girly, and regrets that he couldn’t give us everything we wanted on his single income. But he was always creative in fatherhood: He subscribed to Essence to keep aspirational Black women in our home, even if they were just on our mirrored coffee table. He paid a lady to do our hair every other week so we wouldn’t be bully bait. He kept our older girl cousins around as surrogate moms who taught us how to wash ourselves when we got old enough to bathe alone and accompanied us on back-to-school clothes shopping excursions. Daddy got us through it all, from first periods to final exams, all the while instilling us with the skills necessary to be independent.
These days, my dad is happy. He remarried after I finished grad school and gained a second chance to do what he does best with the births of Ethan and Cheryl, my youngest brother and sister. And my mother has found a second chance of her own as a vigilant grandmother who pinch-hits when my sister needs a babysitter, frequently calls to talk to “Granny’s Saa-Saa,” and even puts her hairstyling skills to work for my three-year-old sister.
Tahad and I went on our first date, nearly two months after that night on the train. Graphic as a picture: Red umbrella, orange swing jacket, smoothies and SmartWater from the juice bar around the corner, sitting under the tree canopy as the clouds emptied onto us through the milky leftover sunlight. For 10/20/60 minutes we sat on the concrete stairs, him explaining the basics of metaphysics, me only half listening, marveling in the perfection of the moment. The rain slowed and we walked to the Magic Johnson Theater, pressed close, struggling to stay dry as he stopped every block to dap up some dude he guarded as a CO at Rikers or to drop some knowledge with a brother selling black soap and conscious DVDs.
I took him in as he spoke, his short curly hair, his black ninja-looking drawstring pants that he must have thrown on when I called to ask if he was up for a spontaneous meeting in the park. He wasn’t super tall like my daddy, but he had enough height on him that I kept smacking him in the head with the umbrella. And then there was his face. He looked…like me. All angles, a sharp humped nose, cheekbones that could cut if you got too close, a pointy chin that he would later use as a near-lethal weapon when we wrestled on the living room floor—“I dreamed you,” he said, snapping me out of my appraisal. Say what? “I pictured my wife, and she looks like you. Little. Brown. Short hair. Cool glasses.”
“You mean like The Secret?” I said, incredulous.
“Exactly. I put an image of you into The Universe, and here you are.”
It was strange of him to say, but it was even stranger that I felt the same way, like this was one of those Inshallah moments when you know that things are going precisely the way they are meant to, God’s plan unfolding.
“What is he, Arab or something?” my father said, looking at the picture of Tahad that I had sent to his phone. He wanted to see this cat whom I’d soon bring to Cleveland for approval.
“No,” I sighed. “He’s just as Black as you, fool.”
“Well, you know, he looks a little Arab to me,” he said, cracking up. “And his name is Tahad, hell.”
Daddy had jokes, but he was excited, happy that I loved someone who didn’t drive me to call home in the middle of the night, tearfully seeking counsel from the person who understood me best. He had even relaxed about me living in New York, limiting his after-work phone check-ins to every other day rather than each night. Freedom!
Five hours. That’s how long Daddy and Tahad talked our first night home. Like two little old men catching up after an accidental ten-year break, re-bonding over my baby pictures, the plight of the Black man in America and their pride in their daughters. It was sickening.
I’d always known they would get along, so I just tried to stay out of the way. My sister and I watched one of those hood movies she always puts on when I come to visit, while my nieces climbed all over me, combing my hair, thrusting their half-naked dolls into my arms for noisy kisses. Every time I looked up, they were still at it, yammering on, mirroring each other in emotion and expression. Okay, so maybe it was beautiful.
You know that mystical, magical, omnipresent “They”? Well, They say women seek out their fathers, for better or for worse. But I think loving Tahad goes deeper than unconsciously looking to bottle my daddy’s love and sit it on my mantle like some sparkling trinket suspended in time; I know Henry Lee will never stop doting on me like I’m still working a slobby double chin and droopy tights. Seeing my father in action taught me the greatness men are capable of. It would be nothing short of self-sabotage to stray far away from pure light, having felt it on my face, having soaked it into my spirit.
And now Saa gets to bask in it. Today, she’s a two year old with a voice so loud it makes up for her initial silence. Her daddy is her best friend; when her eyes pop open in the morning, she yells, “Where’s Daddy?” like a living doll programmed with an endearing catchphrase. All bright smile and conspicuous ears, she looks like he spit her out, only revealing my presence in her eyes and her animated expressions. My heart explodes when I see them twirling in the living room to her personal (Beyoncé-heavy) playlist, heading down the slide together at Druid Hill Park and covering each others’ faces with noisy kisses.
Women who aren’t as lucky as I am repeat the mistakes of past lives, unable to ascend. But I married a man who loves his daughters the way my father loves his. And that means I’m more than just lucky. That means I’m blessed.