The first and only time my father told me he loved me occurred just hours before his death — succumbing to lung cancer after being a longtime two-pack-a-day smoker.
While he expressed his love for me in a myriad of ways, he never actually said it. I suppose because of his own upbringing in rural Alabama with a father who ruled the roost with fear and intimidation, a loving relationship with his father was something that he’d never experienced.
Besides, Black fathers don’t tell their sons they love them. Such expressions are reserved for our daughters who we smother with our affection. Those closest to me would tell me that my father boasted about my accomplishments, glowed with pride over even the smallest things I did, even beating on his chest like a giddy male gorilla whenever he and other fathers began to compare and brag about their sons.
But he never said it to me. He never said, “I love you.” And I wanted, no, I needed to hear it.
In what would be his final hours of life, my mother looked my old man in the eyes and told him to “say it” and “tell him.” She would have to repeat her admonition several times before Daddy finally said what I’d been waiting to hear for my entire life.
I’ve come to understand that being a Black father to a growing Black boy in a society that tends to express disdain for us, to fear us, to belittle us and to throw barriers in our way without remorse, can be an overwhelming task. But we cannot afford to shirk our responsibility. And while I have nothing but love for those sisters who find themselves raising their sons on their own, there are some things that mothers cannot pass on to their boys. Some aspects of the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood need to be handled “man to man.”
These thoughts came to mind when my own son, now 24 and working in New York City in corporate America, called me a few evenings ago. He was frustrated by the way his superiors are treating him. He wants more but doesn’t know exactly what that “more” entails. And he cannot understand why the playing field remains skewed because of race.
I had to pull his feelings out of him and I did so, gently but firmly. And we talked longer than we have in a very long time. Then, as our conversation drew to a close, I said to him, “I love you.” Then, I said it again. And then, just for good measure, I said for a third time.
He kind of mumbled something back which I knew equated to his own sharing of those “three words” — and I smiled to myself.
I didn’t care that he hadn’t chosen to shout it out to the heavens, nor did it matter that he had not adopted the “Super Bowl shout out” that athletes tend to do, thanking their mothers with words of endearment after their gridiron victory while often saying nothing about or to their fathers.
You see, I had done my job. And the next time we talk, or sit down together, I’m going to tell my man-child over and over that I love him. I’m going to remind him that I’ve got his back. I’m going to recount the reasons why I’m proud of him.
Stevie Wonder said it best: “These three words, sweet and simple. These three words, short and kind, these three words always kindle an aching heart to smile inside.”
The world may not encourage my little boy who’s now all grown up, but I certainly will.
Words still matter!