You just never know when your work will touch someone. I sure didn’t when, while working as an editor for Honey back in the early 2000s, I helped Regina Robertson, a well-respected, nationally-known entertainment journalist who has long served as Essence magazine’s West Coast editor, bring an essay about the loss of a relationship with her father to the pages of the now-defunct magazine. That essay had incredible power and resonance—not just the readers, but with Regina, who was thrilled to see her story shared with an audience that understood her challenges.

All these years later, Regina used that essay as the base for her new book of essays about fathers, daughters and loss—He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers. This book is first and foremost an offering to young girls and women who have endured the loss of their fathers. But it also speaks to mothers who are raising girls without a father present, offering important perspective into their daughter’s feelings and struggles.

The essays in He Never Came Home are organized into three categories: “Divorce,” “Distant,” and “Deceased.” With essays by contributors such as Emmy Award–winning actress Regina King, fitness expert and New York Times best-selling author Gabby Reece, and television comedy writer Jenny Lee, this anthology illustrates the journey of the fatherless, and provides a space for these writers to express their pain, hope, and healing—minus any judgments and without apology.

He Never Came Home, officially in stores today, is an absolutely beautiful, at times heart-wrenching book full of gorgeous thought, memories and writing. We highlighted several excerpts from the book last week, and this week, we celebrate the relase with three more stellar essays, including this one by Nisa Rashid, daughter of the incredible author and poet asha bandele. I encourage you to dig into this piece, look out for two more essays this week, including one by one of my favorite writers ever, Kirsten West Savali, and, most importantly, support He Never Came Home by purchasing a copy wherever books are sold.

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My birthday is in April, which is also National Poetry Month. In 2011, when I turned eleven, I decided to write eleven poems to celebrate both occasions. One of my poems, which I entitled, “While I’m Alive, I Will,” read more like a bucket list. It included eight things that I hoped to do before I die, like ride a unicorn to Alaska, marry my love on a Mediterranean wave, and even dye my hair neon green. I also wrote that I wanted to walk a Brooklyn street with my father.

I was so young when I wrote that poem. I was optimistic and tended to fantasize about what might be possible, especially when it came to my father. Back then, I didn’t really understand what deportation meant. I didn’t realize that when he was sent to Guyana in 2009, when I was nine, it meant that he would not be allowed to come back to the United States. If he wasn’t allowed to come back to the States, then he wouldn’t be able to stop by his old block in the Bronx, and he definitely couldn’t come see me in Brooklyn. I also didn’t know that there was another option—that I could visit him in his homeland and walk down a street with him there.

I always knew that he had been in prison, but I was never embarrassed about him being my father. What was embarrassing for me was knowing that my friends and I didn’t have the same type of home lives. A lot of them lived with their dads, and because I sometimes talked about mine, they’d ask me why he was never around when they came over. I didn’t know how to answer their questions, so I’d always find a way to make light of the fact that he wasn’t there at that moment. I knew I was the different one, which was hard for me to admit and accept when I was a little girl. 

When I was seven, my mother and I went out with a friend of mine, along with his mother. While we were eating, our mothers shared that both of our fathers were serving time in prison. I immediately felt a sense of relief. Before that day, I had no idea that there were other people, and definitely not somebody I knew, in the same situation. Knowing that I wasn’t alone helped me feel much more comfortable talking about my father.

As much as I used to avoid going into detail about his whereabouts, my father being in prison was never really a secret. My mother had written books and articles about their relationship, about our life, so many people knew the story. When I was growing up, I don’t remember anybody talking about him or the situation too much, though. My mom’s friends might ask, “Oh, how’s your dad doing?” or something like that, but nobody ever asked me questions like, “Oh my God, how does it feel to not have a father?” Sometimes I would feel bad that he wasn’t with me, physically, but I never felt like I didn’t have a father. We have a great relationship and he’s always had a very strong presence in my life. I’ve always had my father.

I haven’t seen him, in person, for a while, not since before he was deported, but we are still very close. We talk twice a week, and also stay in touch through social media. We Skype sometimes, too. I still remember when my mother and I would wake up early to drive or take the bus to go visit him. For me, those were always such happy times because I got to see him and spend time with him, but my mother used to tell me how mean the officers were to her, especially when I was a baby. She’d tell me that they were really horrible to her and made her feel uncomfortable during those visits, but I don’t remember any of that.

My mother didn’t tell me everything about his incarceration when I was growing up, but I think she was as honest as she could be. Even though she didn’t outright say why he was serving a twenty-year sentence, she never painted him as a criminal either. Instead, she’d talk about the type of man he was. She always told me that he was a good person and that he didn’t have the proper support or guidance around him when he was younger. That, along with his surroundings, was a big part of the reason why he was sent to prison as a teenager. He’s made that clear to me, too.

If I had to describe my father in a few words, I would say that he is very protective and extremely caring. He always tells me how much he loves me, and as I’m maturing, he talks to me about boys—“Be careful!”—just as any father would with his daughter. He sees my grades and hears all about my accomplishments from my mom, but one of the hardest and most confusing things about not living under the same roof with him is that he hasn’t been able to see me grow, firsthand. I can tell that he knows I’m doing well because he always reminds me that I’m a smart, beautiful young lady. He’s very encouraging and always wants the best for me. I know that, too.

I look forward to seeing my father and walking down the street with him, hand in hand. Click To Tweet

I should also mention that my father is really religious. He grew up Catholic, but converted to Islam when he went to prison, before he and my mother got married. When I was born, I was given two Arabic names—Nisa means “the woman” and Rashid means “the guide”—but I don’t identify as Muslim, which is something I’ve expressed to him. He has tried to tell me that having one parent who is Muslim technically makes me Muslim, too, but I don’t agree with him about that. As much as I respect his choice, I don’t like some of the practices of his religion, especially as it relates to sexism. I know that Muslim women are supposed to cover their hair and things like that, but I don’t support that. My mother is much more liberal and understanding.

We might not see eye-to-eye on religion, but my father and I are definitely connected by culture. His family is from Guyana, so like him, I strongly identify with Guyanese culture. Living in New York, where so many cultures are appreciated, I am surrounded by Caribbean people in my neighborhood, and I am also in touch with my roots through food and music. I’ve taken it upon myself to read about Guyana and study its history, and my mom says that when I’m sixteen, we can take a trip so that I can see the country for myself. I look forward to that, but most of all, I look forward to seeing my father and walking down the street with him, hand in hand. I think we’ll both be happy on that day. Until then, I will try to stay open and optimistic.

Growing up with a parent in prison was not ideal, but it's important to work with what you have. Click To Tweet

Growing up with a parent in prison was not an ideal situation, but as I get older, I understand how important it is to work with what you have. As thankful as I am to have such a wonderful father, I also know that it wasn’t easy for my mother to carry so much of the weight of taking care of me. I appreciate her for all she’s done, and while we’ve had help from my grandparents and many friends, I think that running a household and raising a child is too much for one person to take on.

A lot of people ask me about my outlook on marriage and family, and I always say that I’d definitely like to have both. I see myself being married in the future and my husband will be at home. That last part is non-negotiable. Maybe I’ll even marry my love on a Mediterranean wave, just as I’d envisioned when I eleven years old, when I wrote that poem. We shall see.

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Reprinted with permission from He Never Came Home, edited by Regina R. Robertson (Agate Bolden, 2017). Order a copy here.

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