When my youngest stepbrother, M., called me, it was 8:30 on a warm, sunny July morning in 2020. I was oiling my legs, after getting dressed and ready for work. I was also mentally preparing to conduct a long day of psychotherapy sessions, already beginning to sweat. But then that's what happens when you’re going through The Pause. You sweat all the damn time--or at least I did.
Anyway, when my Apple watch flashed my stepbrother’s name, I looked at it, and wondered, Why’s he callin’ me at 8:30 in the morning? See, we don’t have a close relationship; we only call or text one another if something’s happening with Dad, my ninety-one-year-old stepdad.
As soon as I finished thinking the question, I knew. I knew why he was calling. I knew what time it was. Okay. I’ll call him back when I’m done, I thought and continued oiling my brown, muscular legs. I scooped up some of the fragrant cocoa butter and shea butter body balm that I’d made months ago. I rubbed the small mound between my hands until the solid balm melted into flowing oil. I worked the mixture into my ankles and then worked some more into my feet until they were perfectly moisturized and glistening.
When I finished, I put on my flip flops, and tightened the lid on the body balm’s clear glass jar. I rubbed the last bit of it into my hands, working the remainder into my cuticles until my skin was a healthy shade of dark chocolate. I put away the jar in my armoire, and checked my hair and my dress in the full length mirror across from the bedroom. Then, I shuffled out into the living room to check my phone. I pressed the home button, saw the notification that M. called. But I didn't listen to the message, I just called.
“What’s up? I saw that you called.”
“Yeah…Dad died,” M. said.
“Okay. When? What happened?”
He told me that Dad was getting ready to be transferred from the hospital to a rehabilitation center. The same rehabilitation center my mother had been in after she had her last open heart surgery in 2006. Dad had fallen down in his apartment three days ago after trying to stand up on weakened legs. Pre-Covid, Dad walked with a cane and begrudgingly went to the gym once or twice a week, but the pandemic robbed him of the opportunity to exercise. As a result, he lost what little muscle tone he had in his legs and when he fell, he was taken to the hospital.
The morning that M. called me, Dad was getting ready to leave the hospital. He’d already been bathed, shaved, dressed, and just as he was preparing to leave, he had a heart attack.
As I sat and listened to M. tell me this, I nodded. Resolute and calm, I said, “Okay. So what now?” I’d been waiting for Dad to die since 2014, the year my mother died. It’s fairly common for the elderly partners of those who die in old age to die some time thereafter. Dad was twenty years my mother’s senior and she died at sixty-four, so I thought it was safe to assume that Death would come for Dad soon. But I was wrong.
“Well, he wanted to be cremated….”
“Right…that's right! I remember,” I said. “So, what do you need from me? Tell me what you need. Tell me what you need me to pay for. Just let me know and I’ll Venmo it to you.” Dad raised me as his own, so I treated him like blood. I can’t drive and I work for myself, so I knew that all I could contribute to the process of tending to Dad’s affairs was money.
“Okay, I'll let you know.”
All the while I was thinking about my mother's ashes. I was thinking about the two-thirds of Mom's cremains that were in Dad’s apartment. The two-thirds that I still had to scatter according to Mom’s wishes. I was also thinking about the gold and sapphire ring my mother always wore. The ring that Dad still had and wore a gold chain around his neck. He wore it along with the Life Alert pendant that I nagged him to wear so that if something happened to him. So that if he fell again, we, his six children would be alerted.
“Alright. I'll be in touch.”
“Okay, cool. Let me know whatchu need.”
I leaned back on the bench in my alcove, looked up at the clock and noted that it was 8:45 in the morning. It was a Wednesday, my busiest day at work and sometimes, my emotionally heaviest day. I took a deep breath and sighed as I weighed my options. I was trying to figure out whether I was supposed to go ahead and work or whether I was supposed to take the day off because my dad just died. Dad—the parent who nurtured me, the first feminist I’d ever known, and the one person who wept tears of joy at my wedding dinner—was suddenly dead.
I heard my wife, SJ, heading towards me. She looked at me, tilted her head to the side and asked, “What’s up?”
“My dad died.”
Her face fell, as if it was her dad who died. “Oh, Boo Boo! What happened?”
SJ came over and sat down next to me. She put her arm around me and held me as I told her what happened. But I didn’t need to be hugged. I didn't need to be consoled or comforted. I was fine with my dad dying. See, just nine days prior, on the day before my fifty-first birthday, I had a heart-to-heart with Dad. It was the kind of final conversation that I didn't get to have with my mother. It was the kind of conversation that allowed me to let Dad go when it was his time to die.
Memories get tucked away. Memories get locked up. Memories get buried. Memories disappear. Memories play hide-and-go-seek— even though you don't wanna play.
It was a conversation I never expected to have, but a part of me wanted to have. I didn't expect to have the conversation because other parts of me had whispered over the years:
Girl, don' tell him that! He don' need to know.
He’s ninety-something-years-old! What he gonna do
with this information?
Why upset an old man? Don' tell him, don' bother.
He can’ do anything now.
And so, I didn’t have a conversation for decades… until we had the conversation. I was away on vacation/writer’s retreat at an Airbnb, and Dad and I were chatting on the phone. Chatting about the past.
I still had questions about things that I wanted to know about his past, about my past, and about Mom’s past. I knew that the only way to get answers to these questions from a ninety-one year old man was to ask. To open the door, open the box, open the pages of the book of his life. Flip through them and figuratively point to this paragraph. Point to this picture. Point to this memory.
I had a list of questions typed up on my laptop. But I’d been waiting to ask, waiting for the right moment to ask. And that day, the day before my birthday, was the right moment.
I don't remember if I called Dad or he called me. But no matter, we had a conversation. We talked and laughed in the way that you do when you share confidence with someone. But there were also moments when Dad said, “Girl, I don’t know. I can’ recall….” So many moments when my dad said, “I… I… don’t remember.”
Even though parts of me were frustrated, other parts of me understood what happens to the mind as you get older. Memories get tucked away. Memories get locked up. Memories get buried. Memories disappear. Memories play hide-and-go-seek-- even though you don't wanna play. Memories sneak away. Memories act like they never happened.
“I… I don't remember. I don't know. I can't recall,” Dad said over and over again. When he wasn't telling me stories and laughing with me, Dad got angry at certain parts of his story. The parts where white people and other non-Black people in positions of power at work treated him like he was ‘just’ a janitor, rather than the Chief of Maintenance at his former job.
Then Dad said something that stopped my breath. “Boys will be boys.” Something in me… flipped. Twitched. I blinked. I shook inside without realizing I’d shaken inside. Something cracked. And that voice came back, that voice that I swore wasn’t my own, murmured to me:
You need to tell him.
He needs to know.
But, that day, I did not shut her down. I did not talk her down. I did not talk her/myself out of telling our/my story.
“I'm sorry. Whadju say about ‘boys being boys’?” Attitude crept into my voice and surprised me. I try to always be respectful of my elders and had never spoken to Dad like that before.
“Yeah… Well, you know. You know how boys are….”
“No, Dad. I don't know what that means.” My voice sounded so cold and distant that I didn’t recognize it.
“Well, you know? It was just you. You were the only girl…I mean, you and your mother. But so… That's why I put up that door for your bedroom….”
“Dad, it was a folding door.” There was a mix of pleading and annoyance in my voice. I sounded like a primary caregiver who was cross with a toddler but trying to mask it.
“Oh, it was?” Dad sounded surprised.
“Yeah, Dad.” I rolled my eyes as I held the phone to my face. I felt a mélange of emotions this time: resignation because I understood his challenges with memory and frustration because part of me suspected that he wouldn’t remember no matter how much I needed him to remember.
“Oh.” I could tell by the sound of his voice that Dad didn’t remember the door. But he could remember the sayings from his childhood. He remembered what boys were like when he grew up in the 20s and the 30s. He remembered intuitively knowing that I would not be safe. I, the little girl, the only girl. I, his first daughter, would not be safe from his sons, my stepbrothers. My Four. Older. Stepbrothers.
And so, I told him. I said the thing I’d told myself I would never tell him. I’d told myself that I wouldn’t tell Dad because I didn’t want to burden him. I didn't want to trouble him. I didn't want to mess up his image of himself. I didn't want to disturb, disrupt, dismantle his belief that he had done The Right Thing. That he’d done the best that he could. That he’d been the best stepdad he could’ve been to me.
“Well, Dad… You know…they touched me.”
“Yeah.” Then I corrected myself, to amend the clearest part of my hazy childhood memory. “W. touched me. At the very least, He touched me.”
“Oh, boy,” Dad said. It was as if I told him that I couldn’t find the pistachio ice cream that he loved.
And that was all Dad said.
It's not like I didn't give him room, space, time to say more than that. But that is all my dad said. That was Dad’s gift to me the day before I turned fifty-one.
Now I know some will say, “Well, he probably didn't know what to say,” or, “What could he do? What could he say?”
But, when I told my wife about this conversation the day Dad died, again, her face fell. As if it was her dad who had disappointed her. “That's all he said?” SJ asked haltingly.
I looked her in the eyes and answered, “Yeah, that's all he said.”
SJ’s broad shoulders sank as if it was her father who failed to care for her in the most important way a little girl needs.
Lourdes Dolores Follins comes from a long line of intrepid, working class Black women. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rigorous, Watermelanin, What Are Birds, HerStry, Feminine Collective, Writing in A Woman’s Voice, Writing Disorder, Sinister Wisdom, and elsewhere. When Lourdes isn’t writing, she works as a psychotherapist. Check her out at www.lourdesdfollins.com and @DrLourdesD, on Twitter and Facebook.