Down by the River

“It’s funny what you can do in front of a room full of people that you can’t even seem to do in front of one person.”

- Nina Mosley, Love Jones

I walked slowly down the gravel road, taking in the sights and the hot sun. It was the beginning of October and the heat still had not let up, but that’s to be expected down here in the south. The trees on both sides of the road provided some much-needed shade and the clear blue skyline hovered over the river that was half a mile away. As I continued my journey to the main road, I passed a few houses off to the left of me. The brick, ranch style homes were decorated with freshly manicured lawns and neatly trimmed shrubs. Their long driveways could easily fit six cars, and the attached garages had space for two vehicles. Every time I walked past the properties, I imagined what it would have been like growing up here. It was too quiet for me, but my dad loved this area. He loved being away from the hustle and bustle of city life. He loved being able to walk to nearby neighbors without having to worry about traffic or street signs. No matter how many times I tried to convince him to move back up north with us after he retired, he swore he would never leave the country again.

I made it to the main road that overlooked the river. The river was long, but not too wide and on the other side was miles and miles of forestry. The property was shared between my father’s paternal descendants. My father and aunt explained that the ownership of this huge stretch of land dated back to the 1800s, when slaves and their masters inhabited the grounds. This area housed twelve homes, a couple of horse ranches, and the family cemetery. My father and aunts were born on the family property, but soon after my dad was born, my grandparents divorced. My grandmother moved north to a colder and snowier climate away from my grandfather, who remained on the property until alcoholism put him in an early grave. While living in the Midwest, my grandmother remarried and helped her children complete their education. They both grew successfully in their careers and remained close while starting their own families. The same year my grandmother departed this life, my dad completed his twenty-five years of service in the automotive industry and travelled back home to the south. My aunt and her husband moved back down a year later. It was a blessing that all the property stayed in the family and no one sold it off to outsiders or, as my father would prefer to call them, colonizers. Thinking about that Black Panther reference always tickled me.

I kept walking across the main road to the fence that separated the nearby horse ranch and the open field that led to the outer banks of the river’s edge. I rounded the fence and continued my journey, smelling the water as I neared. The sun and the heat were sometimes unbearable, but I never cared when I came here. The atmosphere was so serene. I was never a fan of the outdoors until my father brought me here as a child to visit our relatives during one of many family reunions. During our trips we would fish, take long walks, or sometimes just sit by the river and talk. The mosquitos had a good time feasting on my O negative blood, but it was a small price to pay to enjoy that time with him.

I recognized his scent without having to turn around. Cocoa butter with a hint of Kool Filter King cigarettes preceded him. My eyes lit up as I turned around and saw my dad sauntering his way towards me. He looked good. He looked healthy. He smiled his cheesy grin and greeted me.

“Hey there baby!” he said in his Mississippi drawl.

I smiled back and joked, “Took you long enough old man!”

He waved his left hand my way and chuckled. In all this heat, he still wore blue slacks and a long sleeve gray t-shirt with General Motors stitched on the left side pocket. His favorite tan-colored fisherman hat adorned his head, and his black leather slides completed his attire. I just shook my head and laughed because I could only imagine how much foot powder he had in those shoes.

He now stood on the right side of me, giving me a better view of him. I took in his 6-foot frame, smooth caramel complexion, neatly trimmed dark brown mustache, and light brown eyes with his long perfect eyelashes. Looking at him now, I could see why my mother was so crazy about him. I could also see why all the other women were crazy about him too. I would never be an advocate of adultery, but my father played the game like a true professional. The things he would say or do to drive women crazy taught me that I could never be that gullible. By the time I was 10, my mother had enough of competing for his attention and gave him his freedom to be the playboy that he was.

He wasn’t the best at hiding his infidelities from our mom, but he was never disrespectful by flaunting various women around us. I was just nosy. On our weekends with him, I overheard conversations between him and his flavors of the week during the times we were supposed to be sleep. I would sneak and read love letters that he would hide under his socks in his dresser drawer. I was even bold enough to erase voice messages from his answering machine from women whose voices I deemed unpleasant. I was a truly spoiled daddy’s girl.

“What’s on your mind baby?” my dad asked, interrupting my thoughts. He had turned his attention towards me now.

“Nothing much, I just wanted to come and see about you,” I responded.

“You didn’t come all the way down here just for that,” he said in a reassuring tone. “I told you before, I’m fine baby.”

“I wanted to see for myself, that’s all,” I said. I looked away from him, shielding my emotions. Enough time had been wasted since he and I had spoken, and I refused to spend this moment being a blubbering mess.

“I told you everything was fine! Property is still in good condition. I check in on your aunt regularly, and she’s doing all right. I haven’t made my rounds to your cousins today, but I probably will a little later.”

“That sounds good Daddy,” I said with little to no enthusiasm. I had something weighing heavy on me and I was still trying to figure out how to address it.

My dad sensed my mood, and he was silent for a moment. He was never big on confrontation and would avoid it at all costs. I wanted to be careful with my words because I didn’t want this conversation to lead to more arguing. I wanted to finally resolve our issues and clear the air. I just prayed he felt the same way.

“Go ahead baby, say what’s on your mind,” he finally stated, reading my thoughts.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen or talked to you,” I admitted. “I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have allowed my stubbornness to come between us.”

“You don’t have to apologize for that,” he started.

“But I do,” I said quickly. “You never deserved to be disrespected or ignored…especially not by me.”

He looked at me in surprise and nodded his head slightly. I never admitted when I was wrong, and he knew that. He also realized how serious I was and the encouraging look he expressed gave me the ability to continue with my speech.

“Our relationship has always been close, and I’m not quite sure when the breakdown of communication happened…but…”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

“…but…huh?” I asked puzzled.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said again, with a smile in his tone.

“It does matter,” I said, my voice cracking. “We’ve wasted so much precious time.”

Another moment of silence and then he blurted out, “You get that stubbornness from your mama.”

We both busted out laughing. It was typical of him to lighten the mood when the conversation was getting heavy, a trait I’m proud to say I inherited from him. I could recall arguments he would have with people and he would try to smooth it over by cracking jokes. Or if my siblings and I would be mad at him for telling us no about something, he would tickle us until we cried laughing. He couldn’t stand negativity, and he hated when someone was mad at him. He would remove himself from any situation if he couldn’t fix the problem. My siblings would eventually call it running away from problems. I always defended him and said he was removing himself from drama. But after years of not seeing one another and barely talking on the phone, I now realized we both were two hardheaded people who avoided issues instead of resolving them. I could only imagine how much unfinished business we had with people because we ran away without seeking closure. That was another trait I inherited, but one I’m not proud of.

“I couldn’t wait for you to come down here,” he said, breaking through my thoughts again. “It was so much I needed to show you. But every time you would visit, it was brief. You always had something else going on.”

“I know,” I said, my words filled with so much regret. My dad had been on me for years to come down and spend more time with him after he moved back, but I always found more important things to do. Work, school, vacationing with friends, getting married, raising kids, and the list grew along with the strain on our relationship. The times I did visit were a quick weekend trip or I was driving through to get to my next destination. My brother and sister would go down to see about him, but my selfishness didn’t realize he needed time with me too. Growing up, my father instilled the importance of family to all of us, and when I became an adult I allowed everything else to become a priority. I knew I disappointed him and that was a regret I had live with.

“I never meant to hurt you or let you down,” I said.

“You didn’t!” he exclaimed. “I always told you to live your life. I lived mine, you deserve to live yours. I just didn’t want you to forget about your daddy, that’s all.”

“I could never do that,” I said, choking up and willing back my tears.

“I know, baby,” he said smiling again. “I know.”

I lifted my gaze to meet his and tried to take in all his features. It felt so good to be around him, talking and laughing like we used to do. I wasn’t sure when I would see him again, and I wanted to capture every part of this interaction.

“The last time I called and asked you to come, I wish you would have,” he said bowing his head.

His words stung, but he didn’t mean for them to. He only spoke the truth. I thought back to about six months ago when he called me. We hadn’t spoken in almost a year and out of the blue he called asking when I was coming to see him. Being the prideful person that I am, I held on to my attitude from our last argument and made it clear I was too busy to come down. I think I referenced that I worked and had a family to care for. He told me he understood but before disconnecting our call he asked again. I hadn’t picked up the hurt tone in his voice. I chalked it up to him trying to get his way, and I wanted to prove a point that I had a life and he needed to respect that. He knew his situation was a lot more dire than he wanted me to know, and my attitude did not help the situation.

By then I’d allowed my tears to flow. I couldn’t hold them in anymore. My dad hated when I cried. He would always do whatever he could to prevent them. But this was beyond his control. It was time for me to face my truths and accept responsibility for my faults.

“I messed up, Daddy,” I said almost in a whisper. “When you called I shouldn’t have hesitated. I should have been right here with you. You should not have been alone.”

He smiled and simply said, “You were here, baby. You’ve always been here.” He signified this by placing his right hand over his heart.

I let our silence linger. I needed a moment to compose myself and he gave me the space to do so. This conversation had been plaguing me for so long and I was so afraid of how bad I would feel afterwards. I never expected his forgiveness, which hurt me even more. I didn’t deserve it, and I didn’t want to accept it. But I wanted my dad back and I wanted to put this behind us. It wasn’t like we could turn back the hands of time, even though I would risk it all to hit reset and be his little girl again. Be his pride and joy that never disappointed him. Be his little assistant when it was time to run errands and his movie date when the latest scary flick would be in the movie theaters. To have him tell me things were going to be all right if someone hurt my feelings and tell me to believe in myself when my confidence wavered.

My dad was my world, and in time I allowed my hormones and ego to forget that. He tried to hold on to me, but I was determined to break loose and lose sight of everything he taught me. I always assumed I would have time to make that up to him. That we had plenty of years left to resolve our issues. That one day we would look back on our issues, laugh at how silly we acted, and move on. I always thought we had more time, but the old saying holds true: Time waits for no one. His heart grew weaker by the day. When he called, he knew his time was limited. I should have been with him during his final moments, when he closed his eyes for the last time and transitioned peacefully in his sleep. I should’ve held his hand the way he used to hold mine and tell him how much I loved him while praying for his soul as God welcomed him home. He needed me to be there for him, but I allowed my selfishness to rob me of that chance. He needed comfort and in return he received a cold shoulder. I would never forgive myself for that.

“You have to,” I heard my father saying.

“I have to what?” I asked him, avoiding eye contact.

“Forgive yourself,” he said.

I quickly turned my head to face him with a quizzical look. He winked his eye, confirming he was reading my mind again.

“I don’t think I can,” I said honestly.

“Yes, you can,” he said. “You can’t change anything about the current situation. What matters most is you’re here now.”

The sun was starting to set and the orange hue in the sky was breathtaking. I wiped my face with the back of my hands and attempted to lighten the mood.

“I’m mad at you for not staying around long enough for me to outcook you,” I said.

He laughed and retorted, “It’s not enough time in the world for that to happen.”

“That was cold old man,” I said chuckling. He got on my nerves with his comebacks. They were effortless. Unfortunately, that was the trait that skipped me.

“Just know that this old man is proud of you,” he said. Seeing the shocked look on my face, he elaborated. “I don’t want you to ever think that I’m not proud of your accomplishments and what you’ve become. Just because I didn’t say anything, didn’t mean I wasn’t here supporting you. I wish I would have told you sooner.”

The orange hue began its transition to a darker crimson, signaling the sun’s descent. The crescent moon was making an appearance between the trees on the other side of the river, casting a stunning white glow over the water.

“Well baby,” he said. “I have to get back.”

I was dreading hearing those words. I knew our time was coming to an end, but it was hard for me to let him go. This time it felt too final. I looked at him, noticing the transparency now. He was fading from this world. God was calling him back to the other side.

“I don’t want you to go,” I said, my voice quivering. I hated myself for being so dramatic, but this pain was extreme.

“You know I’m never far away,” he said, taking a step closer. He stretched his left hand out to me, and I did the same with my right. Even though he physically could not hold me, his essence gave me the comfort that I needed to keep from falling apart. “You know I’ll still be here whenever you need me.”

At that moment, I received what I’d been praying for: His confirmation. His words literally filled the void in my heart that I thought would always be there. We wasted precious time not speaking and avoiding our issues while he was here on Earth, but God allowed us the peace we needed spiritually. There was no need to hold on to what we couldn’t fix; it was time to move on and heal. He reminded me that he was still my daddy and I’ll always be his baby girl.

“Can I ask you a question before you leave?” I asked closing the small gap between he and I.

“What’s that?” he asked with concern.

“Will I see you again?” I asked, my heart aching with each word.

“I’ll be checking in on you,” he said playfully. “When you least expect it.”

“I love you, Daddy,” I said.

“I love you too, baby,” he said. He was almost gone now, but I could still see the faint outline of him as he began to walk away. “Now go on home, it’s getting dark out here. I’ll be fine, don’t you worry about me. Your daddy is doing just fine.”

And just like that I was alone again. I turned back towards the water, soaking in the now purple glow from the sky. The moon had risen higher and was more prevalent. I noticed the buzzing of the bugs off in the distance and the last of the birds flying around before their night time slumber. I allowed myself to cry a little more, releasing the rest of what I’ve been holding in for so long.

I remembered what my father said about it getting dark and began my 10-minute trek back to my car that was parked in his drive way. The other houses had turned on their porch lights, which helped light the way down the gravel road. As I approached my dad’s house, I saw the living room light shining through the open front door. I scolded myself for forgetting to lock everything up before I made my way down to the river. My brother, sister and I, decided to keep my dad’s home as a vacation spot for us when we decided to come in town. In between visits, our aunt would come over and check on the property for us. She said she didn’t mind, it allowed her to remain close to her brother. A few weeks after we laid my dad to rest, we decided to take what we wanted back to our respective homes. At the time we were all in such a daze, we didn’t consider how messy we left things. I decided to make the trip alone and get his house back in order.

As I walked around the two-bedroom home, I made a final check to make sure I didn’t forget to clean anything. Each bed was made, and the bathroom was clean. All my dad’s clothes that we couldn’t bear to give away hung neatly in his bedroom closet. All the dishes in the sink had been washed and put away in the cabinets. The good dishes were neatly placed in his china cabinet in the dining room.

Satisfied, I began walking through the family room, past the L-shaped tan leather sectional, and I noticed something that was on the coffee table closest to the front door. I gasped as I saw his tan-colored fishing hat resting next to the remote control. I picked it up and sniffed it, inhaling his Cocoa butter and Kool Filter King cigarette scent.

Tears threatened to erupt again, but I blinked them away. Instead, I placed his hat on top of my head and turned back to face the inside of my father’s house for one final sweep. I felt a sense of peace as I glanced at the family pictures that adorned the pale-yellow walls. I reached towards the light switch on the ride side of the door and with one click, darkness filled the space.

“Until next time, Daddy,” I said, closing the door behind me.

To my dad in Heaven…I hope you’re proud of me.

#father #forgiveness #remembrance #love #south #family #spiritual #faith #daughter