Biographical Non-Fiction posted June 21, 2015

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Undelivered Father's Day card

The Change

by Sis Cat

I hated Father's Day when I was growing up. Come every June, my grammar school teacher assigned her class the task of making Father's Day cards and gifts. I scribbled those crayons, splattered those paints, shredded those papers, and made the best Father's Day card and gift the world has ever seen.

But when I arrived home, I had no one to accept my masterpiece. I remembered the pained expression on my mother's face. She whispered, "I will make sure he gets them."

For the first time in my young life, I realized I differed from other children in school. I did not have a father who lived with his family. So Father's Day always reminded me of the father I lacked.

Four years ago, I arrived in Albuquerque before Christmas. I discovered my father's stepchildren had moved out of his home and his third wife would be leaving on a visit to her brother. For the first time since the divorce, I had Dad all to myself.

Albuquerque's oldest black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, planned an awards dinner to honor my father for his long career in pottery. Before I had arrived, and before his wife had departed, my father was planning to attend his award dinner alone. Suitcase in hand, his wife had turned from the opened door and gazed at me. "It's a good thing you're here, Andre, because you can go to the awards dinner with Fred."

I thought, "Hmm, this is interesting. My father never once came to my birthdays, graduations, or award dinners. Now he expects me to come to his? It would be real easy right now for me to say, 'No, Dad, I'm busy tonight.' Let him go to that awards dinner alone and experience what I felt when I looked from the stage and found his empty seat in the audience." But, if I treated my father the way he treated me, I would be no better than my father. So I said, "Okay, Dad, I'll go with you."

Keys jangled in my father's hand. He shuffled towards the door. "I'm ready to go."

My eyes widened. I stared at my father's baggy sweater which seemed as if it had come from Mister Rogers' corpse. His clothes were splattered with clay that had spun-off his potter's wheel. His bald head sported a road-kill fur hat. Floppy, Goofy-eared flaps covered his jug ears. In features, but not in dress, I mirrored my father. I thought of how embarrassed I would feel to stand beside this man at his awards dinner. I barred the door and held up my hand like a traffic cop. "Dad, Dad, Dad. I know it is cold outside, but you cannot go out like that."

Some of us have Norman Rockwell memories of our parents fussing over our suit for a bar mitzvah, or our tie for a graduation, or our dress for a wedding. I possess no such memories with my father. This was it. I will never have this opportunity again to live vicariously through my father and prepare him for his awards dinner as I had wanted him to prepare me for mine. I reversed roles and became the father he had never been to me.

I dressed an absent-father who had never once changed my diaper. I enlarged his cancer-wasted body with an over-sized leather jacket. I adorned his skinny neck with a shark tooth necklace, and I crowned his bald head with a pill-shaped Hausa cap.

He rubbed an exposed ear. "But my ears will be cold."

"You'll be fine, Dad. We won't be outside that long." I stood back from him and tapped my upper lip. "Wipe the food from your lips." My father complied and my face brightened. "Now you look like my father."

We drove to his awards dinner. The Indian casino resembled a Mayan pyramid. The Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters gave Dad an etched glass award. He looked regal in the clothes I had picked for him. He thanked the sorority sisters as I applauded him from the audience. Yes, he is my Dad.

My only pictures of Dad and me together were my baby pictures. So, when I saw the event photographer, I paid him to photograph my father and me in front of the ballroom Christmas tree. Dad held his award.

Three years later, Dad died of prostate cancer. Before the memorial service, Bill, my boss, called me into his office. "Andre, the California State Legislature has awarded you a Certificate of Recognition for your work with the developmentally disabled."

I burst into tears.

My boss leaned over me and placed a hand on my shoulder. "What's wrong? Aren't you happy?"

"No," I sobbed, "I wish my father was here to see me receive this award."

Bill hugged me as a father would hug his grieving son.

A month later, as I accepted my award, I stood at the podium and searched the faces in the audience. A stranger sat in the chair Dad should have occupied.

During Christmas that year, I took out the picture of my dad and me from his Alpha Kappa Alpha award banquet and placed it on my mantel. I left our picture on this altar next to my award on the wall. Whenever I would get good news, I would smile at the picture and say, "Dad, you would not believe what happened today."


Story of the Month contest entry


"The Change" is not only about me having the courage, humility, and forgiveness to change the clothes of "an absent father who probably never once changed my diaper," but it is also about my courage to change myself and treat my father better than he treated me.

I developed "The Change" as a spoken word story performed at the Moth Story Slam, a national storytelling competition. Here is my rehearsal video filmed in an Oakland park two hours before my performance in San Francisco The storytelling contest theme in June 2014 was fatherhood because of Father's Day. While other storytellers told stories extolling the virtues and vagaries of their father's, I spoke of losing my father and finding him again later in life.

The photo accompanying this story is the actual undelivered Father's Day card I made for my father when I was ten. Four years had passed since my mother divorced him. I began to become aware at that point that I did not have a father and that my cards and gifts were not delivered to him.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was a popular American children's television show. The host began and ended his show by changing sweaters.

I thank mvbrooks for her edits.

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