It’s been about 16 months since I met my father for the first (and what looks like only) time. It would be difficult to describe his presence in my life. For 40 years, he was an absence, a void, a ghost in the machine; one that I can’t say I missed. He was like a sense I never had, which I understand all too well because I lack the ability to smell and have since birth, so I don’t know what it’s like to smell marinated meat on a grill wafting through the air or coconut-lime Bath & Body Works lotion on a freshly showered body or my own sweaty, musky funk after four hours of basketball on a Saturday afternoon. I’ve never intimately known the aromatic details of those sensations, just like I had never known him.
But the world doesn’t make a big deal about grilled meats or shower gels or funk unless there’s some financial gain and, well, there are highly lucrative markets built around the sense of smell. The reality, though, is that I’m not considered less of a man for this deficiency, but there are academic programs and an industry of data collected to study the impact of fatherless families on individuals, families, communities and society at large. And that’s not even getting into the specifics of being a black male raised without a man in the house.
Before we met, I made due with the snippets of stories and character traits I could piece together from family members willing to offer a hint or a glimpse, but there wasn’t enough in all that to stitch a patch to cover the void. So I ended up borrowing strands from other sources, other men, writers like Albert Camus and John Edgar Wideman, musicians like Prince, Jeffrey Gaines, and Jeff Buckley, and a host of filmmakers who told stories about fathers and sons, fictional and non.
Film intrigued me more than any other reference point because you could see the faces, the dynamic between boys and men, adult sons and their fathers and fill in the gaps. I will forever be drawn to Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, which chronicled the 1950s quiz show scandal. It was the story of Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes), an intellectual who gains notoriety and wealth but is undone when a Congressional investigation reveals that he and a number of contestants teamed up with the show’s producers to hoodwink the viewing public.
The film focuses on the relationship between Van Doren and Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), the investigator who helps to expose the deception, but I return time and again to the fleeting moments shared by Van Doren and his seemingly all-powerful father Mark (Paul Scofield). The son, Ivy League-educated with classic good looks, adores his successful father, yet yearns to be his own man, to make a name for himself, and a confrontation develops when the scandal is about to break over the very idea that father and son are linked, forever, by their good name.
Face-to-face with my own father, I failed to see much of anything that tied us together. We are bound by genetic material — specifically, a predisposition for prostate cancer. Diagnosed in my father, his two brothers and their father, the disease has claimed my grandfather and my father’s older brother. That is my line.
Yet despite all that, my father became even less present right before my eyes, talking about how God brought me to him after all these years. I’m a fairly religious man, but I know it wasn’t God at the wheel. I’m pretty sure I was the one who finally got off his butt, tracked my father down and arranged our initial little half hour chat. I did give him the chance to follow that brief encounter up, since he went on and on about how I should meet his mother, surviving brother and anyone else willing to hook up with my long-lost behind. But alas, the next day came and went without any effort on their part to reach out to me.
I have seen him with my own two eyes, but now, two Father’s Days later, he remains an enigma as mysteriously unknowable as God. His jumbled narrative a gospel of half-baked rationalizations and not-quite Satanic verses he so desperately wanted me to believe. What little sense there is belongs to him and only him.
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