The last words we received from him: “I love you all, but I hate myself.”
Thanks to a neighbor who recently shared this video with me - found on a VHS tape in an attic - I just heard Dad’s voice for the first time in 15 years.
Oh, his way with words. His tone. Silky flow. Weather worn. Southern drawl. It could sooth just as it could cut. Eloquence colored by the language of a sailor.
I remember as a small child his reading me Cinderella and the sound and vibration and depth of the clock striking midnight as he slowed for dramatic effect - BONG! BONG! BONG! - my head resting against his chest. Feeling the vibration.
His life was brutal within - those vibrations - but most never knew it. He was charming and gregarious and made you feel like you mattered - no matter who you were or where you’d come from. He knew others’ darkness in ways no one else could understand - ways others didn’t even understand about themselves - and loved them for it. He also fought for those people, his people - in schools, in the neighborhood, anywhere he found them.
He took on challenges - in court as an attorney and in life as a Dad and Husband and as a community activist with my Mom in rebuilding our neighborhood - that just begged him to fail. I actually sometimes think he wanted to fail. It would have proven him right about himself. Fulfill the darkness.
But, he didn’t fail.
Yes, he had failings and weaknesses and flaws like any of us. But, somehow, he transformed his deepest demons into a life of beauty.
Today, amid the noise and all of the activity of our daily - often transactional - lives, we look but we never see. We do but we rarely just be. I am as guilty as any.
There is no nuance. There is no suggestion. We are missing the thrilling contradiction of bold humility, the creativity of belief, and the acceptance and ownership of the battles between our demons and our best selves. We are missing beauty.
But, we cannot have beauty without honesty. We cannot have beauty without vulnerability. We cannot have beauty without tragedy.
This is the truth of the human condition.
This is the truth of my Dad’s life in hyper-focus. This is the truth of my memories. Our lives. This month. A suicide and a birthday. The contradiction. The tragedy. The beauty.
Dad’s words in this video about our violent, crumbling, and forgotten neighborhood - an undeniable metaphor of his inner life - ring profound today as I reflect on it all:
“You’d have to be blind not to see there was some beauty there.”