I Don’t Know Who My Real Father Is

[Word count: 922. Approximate read time: 4-5 minutes]

IDontKnow

Father’s Day is always weird for me. I never met my father. He died before I was born. My sister and I used to debate which is worse: a bad dad or none at all. I would argue, “At least you have one!” She would counter by reminding me hers was a lying, abusive, philandering absentee. And really, that won the argument. But I would still smirk to myself, “At least you know.” I hate not knowing.

In a way, I know my father well. I’ve studied everything about him. I have his personal items. Old records, military effects, and photos from infancy to adulthood. I know the sound of his voice from audio letters he sent while stationed in Okinawa.

I’ve interviewed countless family, friends, and co-workers about him. Cousins told me of his wicked sense of humor. An aunt said he was always kind. My mother said he was even-tempered and accepting. Former co-workers lauded his intelligence. Friends told me he had a way with the ladies.

I know him as well as one knows the complex flavor of a truffle when they’re too expensive to afford to taste. I know him as well as one knows brain surgery after having read about it and passed the written exam. I am fully an expert. Also, I know nothing.

Like my mother’s advice on taking tests: “Don’t leave the answer blank. If you don’t know, just make something up. It might be right.” So I spent my life making my father up. I even got help once.

When I was 11 or 12, a guy who looked uncannily like my dad’s photo moved in next door. He wasn’t so tall, and didn’t have quite the voluminous afro, but he would do. His cheeks were a little bony, but otherwise, his slim frame and light skin formed the closest approximation I had seen. My grandfather dismissed the similarities, but this doppelganger of my dead father presented a golden opportunity. I needed to study him. So I asked to watch TV with him. I didn’t care what was on TV. I had some math to do and he was my placeholder.

As he sat close to the television, I took mental notes from a seat behind him and off to the left. Watched the speed of his walk and length of his gait as he disappeared to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of beer. If I squinted to blur his image in my mind’s eye, I had space to quickly scribble a sketch of my father onto his frame. For once, I could upgrade my patchwork image to a 3D model. It was a thrilling moment to have even though it was artificially manufactured.

My father exists as a construct in my head. Everything is cobbled together from other people’s precious scraps. Then one afternoon, I dreamt of him. All the data I took in, everything I studied, wove itself together and walked around for awhile and talked to me. Again, what a thrill! But how authentic is what I saw? I still didn’t meet him. How authentic is that posthumous Michael album or the infamous hologram performance created with CGI animation?

I know about him, but I don’t really know him. All I have to go on are stories. They’re great stories, but nothing takes the place of a living example. However, some stories raised questions. My aunt told me he smoked weed, something my mother probably knew but elected not to tell me. A female cousin said he was stubbornly sexist. I thought my dad—with his afro of legendary circumference—would look proudly on my waist-length dreadlocks until I heard he frowned on men with long hair. For all the stories I’ve heard of his Black-and-proud militancy, his older brother accused him of being “a White boy.” Well, hell. How am I supposed to reconcile all that? I wish he were here to straighten it all out.

This mirrors other questions I have. How many third parties and their biases make up my construct of Jesus? Did these people know him well enough to be credible? Did they know things they elected not to tell? Is the Bible literal or culturally relative? Were the “lost books of the Bible” meant to be included or excluded? What about aliens and dinosaurs? And seriously, is Jesus against me having hair down to my butt or was that just Paul giving his opinion?

Like my father, I’ve never seen Jesus, and everything I know about him I either read or heard from someone else. I wish I could ask Jesus about politics, Islamophobia, LGBT issues, feminism vs. patriarchy, faith healing, and prosperity gospel and hear answers straight from his mouth. Maybe his answers would be vastly different from what those who represent him tell me he would say.

If my father had lived, I would know the difference between what people say and who he really was. I wish I knew so much. I wish I knew how he felt about long hair. And women’s rights. And whether he would cuss a little whenever my mother wasn’t around. Or a lot. And if we would’ve become good friends or clash like Titans. And whether he would have really liked D’Angelo’s Black Messiah because I think he would have. And what his feet smelled like after a long day at work. I wanted all these things. But it’s okay. I can just make something up. You never know. I might be right.

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