This essay is one of several running on MyBrownBaby over the next few weeks in celebration of the release of He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories, and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers, edited by Regina R. Robertson (Agate Bolden, 2017).
By CORI MURRAY
I wouldn’t say that I hated my father, but there was definitely a time when I couldn’t have cared less if he was in my life. At least that’s the lie I used to tell myself.
I was on a business trip when my mom called to tell me that he’d died. As much as the news saddened me, I wasn’t really surprised. I’d been expecting that call for many years, ever since he chose drugs over being a present father to me and my brother—well, actually, that would be brothers, plural.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For so long, I felt as though my father had let go of the rope we’d both been holding onto. I assumed that he didn’t want to hang on anymore, that he was just . . . done. His death certificate states that he died due to complications from diabetes mellitus, but really, his passing had more to do with his broken soul. I’d always believed that he didn’t care about me and my younger brother, Ian, but that wasn’t the case. When I asked my mom why he didn’t try hard enough for us, she gave me an answer that she’d already accepted for herself.
“Your father loved you both, with all he had, but he just didn’t have enough for himself,” she said.
Her words were like a revelation. As I wiped away my tears, I knew that I’d have to find it in my heart to forgive the sins I’d been holding against him. He’d been carrying around enough extra baggage. I had, too.
You see, when my dad died, I felt like I’d been cheated. After he and my mother divorced, it seemed like he just skated away, clean, without having to make up for the years he was in and out of my life. When I see the kind of father my daughter is blessed to have—attentive, loving, playful, compassionate, responsible, caring—I understand what a difference it makes for a girl to have her dad there, physically and emotionally. I realize just how much I didn’t get.
Now, Momma likes to say that my dad loved me. She also tells me that he was around, but I don’t have any memories of him from before I was in third grade—not any good ones, anyway. Ian and I were always close to his family, so we knew he was proud that we were his kids. Even though he wasn’t with us for many years, it’s not like we didn’t know who he was or where he came from. We knew. But I, for one, didn’t have any warm and fuzzy thoughts about him. And there’s one incident that I’ll never forget.
When I was about seven years old, my parents were arguing and my father hit my mother in the head with a cast-iron skillet. I overheard the commotion through the walls of the bedroom that Ian and I shared at Big Momma’s house. What my father didn’t know was that my grandmother kept a small pearl-handled gun under her bed. In no time, she’d grabbed her weapon and was standing between them. She told my father to leave before she shot him. I don’t doubt that she would have.
I snuck out of the bedroom and saw my father just standing there, fuming. He’d been defeated by an old woman. He started to walk away, but then he turned around and said that we were all going to hell.
“Well, nigga, we’ll meet you there!” Big Momma seethed, still pointing her gun in his direction.
After that night, I didn’t see my dad for four years. He was in the Air Force and had received an assignment in Japan. While he was gone, my mother got remarried to a man I barely remember. We even moved to Chicago with her new husband, who wanted us to call him “daddy,” which was hard for me. Although he hadn’t been around, I was very clear that I already had a daddy.
Six months after the wedding, we all moved back to Texas, and within a few more months, my mom, Ian, and I were back where we started—living with Big Momma. Until this day, I still don’t know why Momma’s second marriage ended. I still don’t care enough to even ask. What did concern me was the fact that my father would soon be back in our lives. One day, my mother said casually, “Your dad is on his way over here.”
The image I had of him in my mind was blurry, but as I peeked through the blinds and saw him walking across the front yard, I thought, Yeah, that’s him. I had butterflies in my stomach. I wanted to jump into his arms when he walked through the front door. I wanted to yell, “Boy, where you been?”
“Hello,” I said instead, politely.
Then we gave each other an awkward hug. Come to think of it, that’s exactly how we’d be in each other’s company for years to come—pleasant and kind of awkward. After we greeted each other, he handed me the gift he was holding in his hands. I looked down at the Casio recorder and smiled, immediately forgetting all of the years he’d been gone.
My parents were married right after high school and got divorced four years later. Unbeknownst to me and Ian, who is two years younger, they were now trying to rekindle their young love. Plans were also in motion for us to go live with him—but not just him. We were going to be living with his first child, our new, three-years-older-than-me brother, William, whom Ian and I had never met and didn’t even know existed. There was even more news. We were moving to Washington, D.C. My dad was to be stationed at Andrews Air Force Base and we’d all be living under one roof. Oh, and did I mention that the five of us would be driving there, together, for twenty-plus hours?
So, here are the highlights of the first two years of my new life with Daddy. “Washington, DC” turned out to be Suitland, Maryland, a gritty, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it suburb fifteen minutes outside of the nation’s capital. At my new school, I was teased for having long hair, a country accent, and wearing penny loafers. One of my fondest memories from those days is the night we all sat in the living room, as a family, and watched Michael Jackson do the moonwalk for the first time on the Motown 25 TV special. I also remember when Ian and I discovered that William was into heavy metal. We’d stare at him in utter amazement as he rocked out to Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath. That was definitely new.
We’d visited the Smithsonian and other historical landmarks during our first summer weekends, but after we started school, we didn’t really do too much outside of the house. I remember hearing my mother trying to encourage my father to provide us kids with things other than shelter and food. Instead of hugs and kisses, Daddy bought us dinner. Instead of taking us to the movies, he made sure the gas tank was full. She wanted him to spend time with us and expose us to different experiences, whether it be a trip to the mall or just a Sunday drive through Rock Creek Park. For some reason, he didn’t seem capable of doing those things once we got settled.
I soon came to see just how disconnected he was from us, and me. Once, my mother asked him to pick up a few things for me from the store. I’m not sure what she told him that I needed, specifically, but he felt that the equivalent was a three-pack of underwear. As he handed me the package, I felt like a kid whose loving father was giving her the toy of her dreams. What could be in the bag? When I realized that he was handing me pink and white floral panties, in a size 4–6, my giddiness quickly faded. I looked up, meeting his eyes, and I saw the proud grin on his face turn to confusion.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Your momma said you needed some underwear.”
“Yeah, but Dad, I wear a 10. The size you bought could fit my doll,” I said.
“Well . . . ” was all he said. Then he walked off.
He just left me there, holding the underwear and wondering. Not only does my dad not know what size I wear, but he also thinks I’m six years old. I was mad at him and embarrassed for him. Had he not seen me every day for the last few months? Did he not look at me and think, Wow, my little girl is growing up? As the mother of a seven-year-old, I notice when my daughter has grown a half inch overnight. How could my own father not know me, not see me? But I wasn’t the only one he had a problem connecting with.
The good intentions he had to bond with William were quickly unraveling. They just did not click. By our second year together, their relationship went from stable to rocky to volcanic, and it became increasingly uncomfortable to be in the house with them. To spare her own son from Daddy’s abusive wrath, Momma started making arrangements for both Ian and me to live with her brother in Los Angeles. When we left Daddy and his firstborn behind, they believed that we were going to visit Momma’s family for spring break. They had no idea of our ulterior motives.
Once Ian and I got to Texas, we stomped around our old neighborhood for a week or so, then we went into hiding at the home of one of Big Momma’s friends. For two weeks, we stayed inside of that hot house and watched as my grandmother’s friend ate Vienna sausages and crackers, every single day. Once my dad and his family figured out that we were “missing,” intentionally, and stopped threatening my mom for taking “Murray’s kids,” we boarded a flight to Los Angeles. Ian didn’t seem to know what was going on, but I did. When I broke the news that we weren’t going back to Daddy, he cried.
The best year and a half of my childhood was spent away from my father. Bidding farewell to cold, dreary East Coast winters was an added bonus. I was officially a teenager living in Southern California, where it was summer every day! I felt like Sally Field in Gidget. I went to a junior high that was bigger than any school I’d ever seen in my life. I kissed a boy. I wore Bongo jeans and Wet n Wild lipstick. I shaved my legs. I went to the mall with my friends. I read Seventeen, Right On!, and Teen Beat magazines. I really felt like my future was so bright, but unfortunately, my mother, who’d been there to greet us when we arrived in Los Angeles, was having a really tough time with getting everything in place.
My uncle gave us a car and even though it was a total piece of shit, it was better than the nothing we’d arrived with. We did some couch-surfing, too, before we found an apartment—a one-bedroom—of our own. I remember that we couldn’t invite anybody over because there wasn’t any food to spare. Later, we got evicted when my mom lost her job. Then we moved in with my dad’s sister’s family, who lived nearby, while my mother tried to figure out her next move.
As much as I didn’t want to leave California, I could see that she didn’t have many choices. Going back to Texas to live in her mother’s house, with two growing kids, was a fate worse than death. So, we went back to Maryland, to my dad. The three of us walked into our old apartment with our heads hung low. None of us wanted to be back there.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what my father had been doing during the time we were gone. Ian and I hadn’t really communicated with him while we were in California, and to be honest, I didn’t miss not knowing what was happening in his life. It didn’t take very long to see exactly what was going on, though.
The apartment was shrouded in darkness as a result of my father’s growing drug habit. Now there was something else to deal with. There were times when we thought the apartment had been robbed, but after he’d start tripping over his own lies, it was obvious who the culprit was. Then there were those nights when we thought he was working a double shift but later found out he’d been out getting high with his buddies. Other than weed, I’d never seen my father do drugs, but when he started smoking crack, the physical effects were hard to miss.
“Your daddy was a good-looking man,” Big Momma used to tell me.
Not anymore. He started to look haggard. He was losing his teeth, and his eyes were sullen, too. Once a portly man, he had withered down to the point where his clothes draped on him.
On most days, my father was a decent man. If there was something we needed, and if he was sober, he’d be like any other normal dad. And sometimes, dads just don’t get it. When I was in eighth grade, I got my period, but I didn’t have any pads. It was just me and him at home that day, and it took what felt like hours for me to figure out how to tell him. Although I’d clearly fumbled the entire situation, he read my body language, rolled his eyes with a smile, and took me to the store. I was hoping he’d take me to the commissary on the base, a place where I knew I wouldn’t see anybody from my middle school. Instead, he headed for the 7-Eleven up the block where everybody hung out. I begged him to go inside and buy the pads for me, but he refused and starting yapping about how it was no big deal.
“It’s a natural thing, Cori,” he insisted.
When I walked into the store, I saw some kids from school, just as I’d feared. I was horrified. The entire purchase seemed to happen in slow motion. I just wanted to disappear, even after I slunk back into the car with the paper bag tucked under my arm.
“See, that wasn’t so bad, right?” my father asked.
I almost died of embarrassment that day, but I can laugh about the experience now. Ever since then, I don’t care who sees me walking down the “feminine care” aisle.
Thanks to Ian, we had some moments of joy at home. He was the court jester in the family and no matter what was going on, he always knew how to make Momma laugh. I remember the time when he pretended my nose was a vacuum cleaner that was sucking him up with each breath I took. Minutes before he rammed his bony, twelve-year-old body into my face, my mother was sulking about something my father had done, or didn’t do. But once Ian starting making sucking noises and sticking his head up under my nose, my mother looked over at us.
“Let me go, Cori!” he screamed.
Because she’d been so deep in thought, in her own world, she was a little late on the joke. When she could no longer ignore his antics, she fell off of the sofa, howling with laughter. I hadn’t seen her laugh like that in years.
* * *
High school was a time when I was completely focused on myself. I was hell-bent on doing everything I could to get into college. That was my primary focus. I’d joined Future Business Leaders of America, the Student Government Association, and even ROTC. I was on the softball team and the pom-pom squad, and I’d signed up to be a Maryland State Assembly page, too. My dream had been to attend New York University or Spelman College, but wait lists and tuition costs kept those schools beyond my reach. Life had something else in store for me, though. I found that Hampton University offered me the best deal, and the campus was just a three-hour drive from home. I happily accepted. I was excited.
Before I was to leave for college, life became turbulent, both inside and outside of our home. Nearly ten boys from my high school and neighborhood had been shot and killed over drugs. Meanwhile my father’s habit had become even more of a regular routine. William had gone to live with his mother and Ian, once my little brother, was starting to tower over all of us. He wasn’t so little anymore, and as he matured into a young man, he lost more respect for Daddy with each passing day. Their relationship deteriorated to nearly nothing, and one afternoon, their fighting became so physical that my friend and I had to step between them. It was a rough time.
My mother was working two jobs to support our household then. I was working, too, but she let me keep my money for nineteen-year-old essentials like clothes, lipstick, hair gel, and of course, cassette tapes. All the while, notices about my tuition were coming in from Hampton, but she assured me that everything would be worked out. I don’t know how she managed, but she did, and I continued buying supplies for my future dorm room. I couldn’t wait to get to college, but on the night before I was scheduled to leave, I was a nervous wreck. My feelings were bittersweet, I knew, but they were also compounded with anxiety because my father had not come home.
He’d left work hours before, but still hadn’t walked through the door. By morning, I was done packing and started loading up the car. Ian, Momma, and Big Momma, who’d flown up from Texas to join us for my college drop-off, were all up too, helping me get all of my stuff together. My father still wasn’t home. Once everything and everybody was in the car, I stood outside for a minute, looking, waiting, for him to show up. Where was he?
For most of that morning, my mom had been the quiet, patient mother she’s always been. But once she saw me just standing there, she stepped out of herself and shook me out of my delusion. My father was not coming.
“Cori, get in the car,” she said firmly. “Let’s go.”
I heard her. Then, as I fought back tears, I got behind the wheel, turned on the car, and drove off.
Years later, after several visits to a therapist, I retold that story. In my mind, the memory had been shaped into just another day that my dad disappointed me, but my therapist’s reaction was so emotional, I felt like I needed to console her. She told me I’d been deeply damaged by that experience. She said that my father not showing up that day—which was something I hadn’t spoken of since the day it happened—made me believe I wasn’t good enough or wanted.
As she said the words out loud, I couldn’t stop the tears that followed. I went right back to that day when I had been standing on that sidewalk, waiting for him to come home. I hadn’t thought my relationship with my father had any effect on how I was living my life, but the evidence was there: I had a shitload of insecurities, I was dating mediocre men, and my self-esteem was tied to outside validation rather than internal motivation. What kept me from spiraling further was my mom’s devotion to my going further than she had. Her love was big enough to keep me and Ian from feeling lopsided. She made us whole.
* * *
For many years after that, I kept contact with my father to a minimum. Since he’d missed most of the major moments in my life—from my college graduation to my big move to New York—I figured there was no need to keep regular tabs on him. I spoke frequently with Big Daddy, my paternal grandfather, who would update me on what was going on with my dad, who’d moved back to Texas. If he was there when I spoke to my grandfather, we might talk for a few minutes. I’d try to condense a year’s worth of my life into a six-minute sound bite. Other than that, our interactions were limited to quick conversations on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays—his, not mine. When Fathers Day rolled around, I could count on my mother, Big Momma, or my great-aunt Claudene to hit me with the same line . . .
“He’s still your father.”
Some years, I’d call him on Fathers Day. Other years, I didn’t. Then one year, after not hearing from him for months, he called me on my new cell phone. This was when cell phones were primarily used for emergencies, so my first thought was that something might be wrong. Was he in the hospital? Was Big Daddy okay? Then, for a fleeting moment, I hoped that he was calling to catch up. Did he want to start a dialogue with me? Maybe.
First, I noted the shallowness in his voice. Then I heard shame. My father wanted money. As he begged me to wire him $500, I wanted to scream. I was in shock. I wanted to throw the phone against the wall, as if shattering it would shatter him, too. But instead of giving into my rage, I told him that he’d broken my heart by not caring about me. I told him how much it hurt me that he could let my birthday pass, year after year, yet he could pick up the phone to ask for drug money. He was quiet. I couldn’t tell if he was crying, silently, but I knew he was listening, because he never asked me for money again.
For the first few years after I finished college, it was obvious when I saw my father that the drugs still had a strong hold on him. I remember during one visit, I could barely look at him. We both turned away from each other, not knowing what to say. Then I started noticing a change. Because we didn’t speak very often, it was from other family members that I learned he’d gotten a job as a short-order cook. He didn’t have a car, so he was walking the two miles to and from work. I also learned that he’d been diagnosed with diabetes and was in and out of the hospital for treatments. All the while, he had a woman in his life. Overall, things seemed kind of stable. I’d see him a few times when I was in town to visit Big Momma, and he looked like the dad I remembered all those years ago in Maryland. Eventually he met my daughter, his third granddaughter, for the first time, too. We talked and laughed a little bit during those short visits, but there still weren’t any warm embraces. Our smiles were genuine, though.
A few years ago, my former assistant was getting married in Texas, so I thought I’d fit a little family reunion into my trip, too. I’d been hearing that diabetes had started to get the best of my father. Part of his foot had been amputated and he’d also become insulin dependent. I hadn’t seen him since his surgery.
My little girl traveled with me, and after the wedding festivities, we went to visit my dad. The three of us traipsed all over Fort Worth, visiting folks and eating at Ruby’s and Whataburger. While were having lunch one day, I watched as he talked and played with his granddaughter, and she just laughed and played along with him. Right then, some of the lingering resentment and past hurt began to melt away. I wondered if maybe he could love her enough to make up for all of the time he hadn’t been able to be my father. Then the moment passed.
My father died on December 12, 2013, three months after our last visit. At his funeral, I thought our years of estrangement would keep me from memorializing him with a full heart, but that wasn’t the case. I thought about what my mother had said to me on the day she called to tell me that he died. Despite the choices he’d made, he did love me. He loved us and we loved him, too. That’s really what mattered.
After the service, I took a deep breath and felt my spirit lift a bit. With tears in my eyes, I looked up and felt as though all was forgiven. It was . . . and it is.
* * *
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.