By KIRSTEN WEST SAVALI

My father, Theodore Joseph “Bubber” West, died on October 18, 2011. In retrospect, that brisk Tuesday morning was cruel in its normalcy, despite the sense of dread that crawled along my spine as soon as I opened my eyes. But no one or nothing could have prepared me for the day ahead.

Barely a month had passed since we’d moved to Apple Valley, California, so I initially chalked up the uneasy feeling to being surrounded by the unfamiliar. Living just enough for the city of Los Angeles had become too much of a financial strain on my family, but I still wasn’t quite used to the stillness of the surrounding mountains. Though I tried to comfort myself with that simple explanation, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was . . . wrong.

I asked my husband, Savali, if he knew of anything that happened, or was supposed to happen, on October 18. He didn’t. Then I remembered that it was the birthday of one of my best friends from college, so I thought that realization might quiet the fear that was snaking through my heart. It didn’t.

So, I tried to call my father, in Mississippi.

I’ve always been a daddy’s girl, so picking up the phone to call him was a natural thing. It’s something I did several times a day, without thought, just to hear his voice or run something by him or tell him I loved him. He did the same with me, so the call was not an event. My only intent was to ask, “Daddy, what’s October 18?”

But he didn’t answer the phone.

I tried calling again and again and again and again, but he didn’t pick up. I didn’t immediately connect my anxiety to his nonresponse, though. Maybe if I hadn’t been so distracted by deadlines, I would have. All I felt was annoyance because he knew how much I worried about him. The only reason I didn’t call someone to go check on him was because I knew he’d been taking a new medication for high blood pressure that made him sleep heavily. That’s why he hadn’t been answering the phone regularly during the days prior, so I decided to get some work done and call him back in a few hours.

So, a few hours later, I was home alone working while Savali took our sons, Walker and Dash, out for a walk. I was immersed in my thoughts when I received an email from my stepmother. The email, which came in at 7:12 p.m., shouted at me from the screen—“URGENT: Please call one of us! Mama.”

My feelings of anxiety came flooding back, and I immediately dialed her number. She said that everybody had been trying to reach me. At that time, my phone reception was notoriously horrible, so I missed a lot of calls. While trying to contact me, they remembered that I’m always online and checking email, so they tried that and it worked. 

“Hey, mom. What’s wrong?”

“Hey baby, have you heard from your brother?”

“No, I’ve been sitting here working and haven’t gotten any phone calls. What’s up?”

There was a long pause.

“He came home from work and found your father dead.”

My world shattered.

I dropped the phone, fell to the floor, and wrapped myself into a fetal position as guttural sounds escaped from my throat. I didn’t recognize the sound of my own voice. I was somewhere hovering above my body, gazing down dispassionately at the broken human being on floor, gasping in terror.

Not Daddy.

Not Daddy.

Not Daddy.

October 18. The details of what happened next are a blur—my husband and sons walking in and seeing me on the floor surrounded by fragments of a plate I’d thrown; hearing my stepmother call my name over and over through the phone; my husband wrapping me in his arms—but I remember the shards of pain like it was yesterday. And from that day until this one, I don’t really recognize myself anymore. I’ve come to the conclusion that, in that moment, my heart was hollowed out from the inside, and an emergency mechanism kicked in to keep me alive—kind of like on a parachute. It still functioned as it should, but one more blow and I might not have made it.

I had always been afraid of losing him. My mother died when I was eighteen months old, from a brain aneurysm. They had been a couple since junior high school, and even though the grief of losing the love of his life made my father want to run away and fold into himself, he stayed. He was thirty-one years old then and raising two daughters—me and my eleven-year-old sister—on his own. He would eventually remarry and give me two adorable baby brothers, but in those earlier days, it was just the three of us. He used to tell me that when my sister was asleep, he would allow the tears he’d been holding in all day to stream down his face as he talked to me about my mother and cried it out. He swore that I would look deep into his eyes as if I understood every word. And he laughed when he recalled how I would hit him over the head with my bottle and announce my juice order—“apple juice, light ice”—exactly how I drink it to this day.

Growing up, he was more than just a father to me. He also became a father figure to many of my friends. From elementary school through college, through family trouble, school difficulties, and breakups, he served as a father to many other young women who didn’t have one. I didn’t realize the void he was filling at the time. He was just Daddy and our house was just the spot. That’s the only reality I ever knew.

Daddy made sure that home centered our existence, which is something that remains with me. That’s the legacy I will pass down to my sons, too. He believed that when the world is against you, when nothing else is going right, you should always be able to depend on your family. I’ll never forget how he made New Year’s Eve so special, every year. Rather than going out to parties, I’d be at home, standing in a circle and praying with my family. Though I’m agnostic now, I still smile at the memory of my hand curled inside of his. No matter what I was going through at the time, when the clock struck midnight, he would turn to me and say, “This is your year, Baby Girl.”

Though my father was what some people might call over-protective, he didn’t just shelter me. He molded me. He taught me the importance of community and made sure I understood my history. He talked to me about the Freedom Riders and the cold-case murder of Wharlest Jackson during the civil rights era. He explained the undeniable fact that integration without education was the worst thing that ever happened to the black community. He sat me on his knee and taught me about the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission profiling the NAACP as a radical organization. From politics and science, to psychology and business, my father was, and will always be, my blueprint.

Interestingly enough, as my writing on feminism has reached more people, some black men have accused me of being in bed—literally and figuratively—with white men whom, they believe, thrive on emasculating black men. They assume that my refusal to allow the collective fight against racism to distract from my battles against sexism and misogyny means that I didn’t have a black father in the home. And they seem genuinely shocked when I tell them that it’s quite the contrary: I owe my feminism to my father.

I owe my life, my being, and my intersectional feminism to the greatest man I'll ever know. Click To Tweet

He taught me to never depend on a man for my well-being and to always be self-sufficient. He stressed to me that I should never tolerate disrespect from any man. And he warned me that men would try to possess me—body and mind—and manipulate my emotions. He didn’t shame me about my interest in sex, either. Instead, he taught me that my body was sacred and that if I did have sex, I should protect myself and make sure my partner was worth it. Most importantly, he taught me to never allow any man to tell me what I couldn’t do, not even him. I owe my life, my being, and my intersectional feminism to the greatest man I will ever know.

We moved back home to Mississippi after his funeral. I needed to be close to the streets he walked, the buildings he entered, and the people he saw. I needed to be under the same corner of the sky, to see the same sunrises and sunsets. That’s the only way I could breathe, the only way I could exist. With my father’s transition, I felt vulnerable to cruel people who would no longer not have access to me because of the force field of his love. The thought of coming to town, burying him, and leaving like a relative passing through never crossed my mind. I needed his protection, even in death.

For weeks, I would go to the cemetery, bury my hands in the dirt, and will him to come back. Below that cold ground was my father’s body, and if death was the only way for me to be next to him again, then I was open to death being the answer to the numbing grief that, most days, felt too much to bear. These days, some well-meaning people tell me that, by now, I should be feeling better. And to them, I paraphrase Ossie Davis’s words about Malcolm X: Did you ever talk to my father? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him, you would know why “feeling better” is not going to happen. I know, beyond all reasonable doubt, that if the world could feel my father’s energy, be his energy, it would be a better place. He was my everything, and if not for the fear and guilt of even thinking about causing my children the same pain that I felt, I’m not sure I would be here today.

When Daddy died, the pain was a living, breathing thing that encompassed me, owned me. Click To Tweet

When Daddy first died, the pain was a living, breathing thing that encompassed me, owned me, controlled me. Now it’s seeped under my skin, into my blood and bones. It’s a part of me. I see it in my eyes when I look in the mirror, hear it in my tone, recognize it in my thoughts. It’s a shadow that follows me, a lingering chill in the air even when it’s warm. That feeling has become something I no longer try to fix because, over time, I’ve grown to understand that it never goes away.

Besides the bouts of depression and anxiety, another excruciating realization is knowing that I’ll have no more pictures of him to comfort me. What I have is what I have. The pictures of him—hugging me, laughing, dancing—that once brought me comfort have become a reminder that time has stopped. His image is frozen. His voice is silent. His body is inanimate and all I have are these gotdamn pictures. They will never be enough.

I miss his hands—wide, calloused hands that would rub my back or grab my hand just to kiss the palm and tell me he loved me.

I miss lying across his bed watching a Motown special on television and discussing the “feud” between the Temptations and the Four Tops.

I miss his laugh. Oh, his laugh could light up a room and reverberate for hours after he left.

I miss reaching for the phone to call him in the middle of night, just because.

I miss the light that came into his eyes whenever I walked into a room, knowing that it reflected the light in my eyes at seeing his face.

I miss seeing him get dressed for work in the mornings. I still remember the familiar scent of his aftershave and cologne wafting through his bathroom as I trudged in, blearily, to get ready for school, always passing his watch and ring where they sat perched on his nightstand.

I miss cooking with him after my brothers were asleep.

I miss going to his office and stopping at the coffee machine just outside his door to make him a cup before walking in—cream, two sugars.

I miss the famous card tricks that he’d pull out whenever my friends came over.

I miss dancing with him whenever he slid “My Girl” on the record player or when it came on the radio.

I Miss. Him. Every second, of every minute, of every day. And the more time that passes, I miss him more.

I don’t want to have to 'cherish the memories.' I still want my daddy to say, 'Hey, Baby Girl!' Click To Tweet

I don’t want to have to “cherish the memories.” I still want my daddy to pull up to my home that he’s never seen and say, “Hey, Baby Girl!” I want him to be able to go to Walker and Dash’s school for Grandparents Day, tell them bedtime stories, and give them too many cookies when I’m not looking. I want to see him laugh and dance. I want to call him and not have to say a word before he says, “What’s wrong, Baby Girl?” before telling me the corniest, most inappropriate joke ever, just to get me to laugh.

My laugh hasn’t been the same since.

After he died, I spoke with one of his doctors and discovered that he was suffering with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). That’s what he was covering up when he wouldn’t allow his doctors to give me information. I realized that when he sounded short of breath during our phone conversations, it was really because he couldn’t breathe. His doctor told me that since his COPD was stage four, he had less than twenty-five percent lung capacity left when he died from a heart attack, alone in his bed, while I was thousands of miles away, wondering why he wouldn’t answer the phone. If there was ever a man who deserved to be surrounded by love when he took his last breath, it was my father. That thought haunts me still.

Grief is the price one pays for love. Click To Tweet

My father always said that he lived a good life, a full life, and that all he really wanted to be remembered for was being a good daddy. I can say, without hesitation, that his mission was accomplished. He was my hero, my strength, my best friend, my rock. He is the man by whom all men will forever be measured, and I am so extremely honored to love him and to have been loved by him. Though my world has shifted on its axis, this I know is true: grief is the price one pays for love. I am fortunate to have known my father’s love so completely and so intensely, to have had him there to walk me down the aisle at my wedding and to have seen his face at the hospital when I gave birth to my two older sons. I am grateful that he was there to wipe my tears and hold my hand for thirty-one years.

Almost a year after my father’s death, I gave birth to my son Reid. Family and friends call him my dad’s twin and it’s true. From the light in his eyes to the way he tilts his head, he reminds me so much of my dad that my heart aches with joy and pain. More than anything, I wish he was here to play with the grandson whom he didn’t have the chance to meet. I wish he was here to let Reid splash in the bathtub until water gets everywhere and, later, smooth the bed and pat his hand on the empty space beside him—my signal to “give him his baby.”

Late at night, when everyone’s asleep, I find myself talking to Reid and running my fingers through his hair just as my father did with me after my mother died. I tell him that his grandfather would have given him the moon on a string and put the stars in his pockets, just to see him smile. And he looks deeply into my eyes as though he understands every word.

* * *

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

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Denene Millner

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.

One Comment

  1. Beautifully written!

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