E on DC
After all the tears from our mothers, what will our fathers do? I think about this as June brings Father’s Day into bloom again. I think of children missing in Nigeria or dead in South Korea. I think of the sadness deeper than blues of African American mothers standing over urban coffins. Tell me about the hole inside a father’s heart – don’t spread the rumor that we are all missing. How many men are crying – trying to hold up after all the horror? Maybe I now understand better those old black men I always saw helping at funerals, men walking the mourners down the aisles or carrying a coffin outside to a hearse. Where do these men go after the ceremonies? Who comforts them? Why after all the years of embracing sorrow do they now suffer from dementia? What do they wish to forget or simply refuse to remember? Tell me about the trauma and I will whisper about how every prayer is broken.
Come Father’s Day each year I think about how I am haunted by the ghost of my own father. Egberto Miller is still a mystery to me. He was a quiet man, a maintenance man, a postal worker sorting the mail for most of his life. It’s ironic that I have no letters from my father. No cards. I have only moments of memories that continue to fade as I grow older. Next year will be the 100th year of my father’s birth. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Does the Pacific ever know the loneliness of the Atlantic? Is the canal just a kiss between two oceans?
When I walk the streets of DC I hear black men talking to themselves. I see many sitting on corners as if there were no more freedom trains departing. I suspect many of these men are fathers. Each one carrying a cross or story. Did Emancipation turn our sorrow songs into blues? After all the years are we still trying to escape something we cannot name? My brothers, our fathers, who now inherit at times only the emptiness of dreams.
What can I give a black man who stops me in the street and begs for a quarter or jokingly says he takes credit cards? What have become of our fathers, not just on Father’s Day but on these days that seem to be forever?
My children are now 27 and 32. I wonder what they once expected of me? When I was writing my second memoir, “The 5th Inning,” I interviewed them. I needed to put a few questions between our distance. Could they understand the face I saw each morning when I stared into the mirror? In “The 5th Inning” I wrote:
When I’m very ill or dying, I can see my daughter coming to the hospital to visit. I can see the patient in the next bed turning on his side and saying “You’re blessed to have a beautiful child who still cares about you.” I’m not sad that we all have to die one day; I’m sad that so many of us will die alone. We will depart from the earth with our children living in another city. Maybe on a small desk or table there will be a card and flowers and maybe the phone will ring once a week. Maybe the grandchildren will send pictures drawn in crayon, adding a few misspelled words. You will prop yourself up in the bed and hold either a pill or a memory in your shaking hand. You will turn to stare at the ceiling or walls.
I’ll turn 65 in 2015. It’s like being a pitcher and looking over one’s shoulder at the bullpen and seeing a relief pitcher warming up. How many of us want Father’s Day to go into extra-innings? Why do I still have trouble throwing the curve? Why do so many things keep breaking in the hands of men?
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. He is the author of several collections of poetry and two memoirs.