Tears And Prayers For My Father
My father has always been one to disappear from my life. The first time he did so was shortly after my teenage mother told him she was pregnant with me. Over the next few years, he would suddenly “reappear” and without warning “disappear” again. These so-called “appearances” were never in person, but rather through telephone calls and letters across the ocean from his home in neighboring Trinidad to mine in Barbados. His “here today, gone tomorrow” routine made for a rocky relationship between us and led to my mother raising me as a single parent. It would take almost a quarter century for him to finally appear physically before me.
During my young adult life, my dad and I eventually and miraculously built not just a parent-child relationship, but also a very dear friendship. We evolved from hostile father-daughter interactions to a daddy who doted on his beloved first-born and a daughter whose heart danced on answering the phone to hear her father’s sweet singsong Trinidadian accent. It seemed then as if my dad had retired as a magician – he was no longer pulling disappearing stunts. For almost a decade he remained a constant in my life and albeit late, I came to know and love what it felt like to have both a mother and a father. Three years ago, my father again disappeared for what might have been the final time, as today I fear he’s dead.
I never called my father “Daddy” or “Dad.” To me, he was simply Lee, short for Leonard. It was weird for me to address him as anything else, even after we’d formed a close bond. I met Lee the year I turned 23. It was a year of many firsts: my first trip to Trinidad; first time participating in that nation’s renown carnival and first time traveling with friends to another country to watch our wonderful West Indies cricket team play. It was the latter reason that resulted in meeting my father for the first time. That moment remains one of the most emotional of my life. And it was initiated by neither of us.
At the time, my dear friend and now late West Indies’ cricket legend Malcolm Marshall who had retired from playing, was the team’s coach. Maco, as he was affectionately known, was intimately familiar with my story and had long encouraged me to meet my father. Knowing I’d be in Trinidad that weekend, Maco, contacted my father and invited him to the Holiday Inn (now Crowne Plaza), where the team was staying. Saturday morning, en route to Queen’s Park Oval for cricket, I stopped by the hotel to pick up my tickets from Malcolm. He was already in the lobby when I arrived. There standing with him was a strange but familiar looking man and the most adorable little boy of about 7 or 8 years old. As they gazed upon me, the man began to walk in my direction and for some inexplicable reason, I started to tremble.
As Malcolm uttered the words, “Queenie, this is your father,” the strange man grabbed and held me tightly, breaking down in tears. I too started to cry as did the little boy – his youngest son, my brother Lyndon. “My daughter, Maquita,” were the first words Lee said to me through his tears adding, “I am so sorry.” Then he said, “You’re beautiful.” I returned his embrace still shaking, speechless, in shock. Malcolm stood there watching with his signature smile, but in silence. When my father and I regained composure, Maco sat us down. He advised me to forgive and pleaded with my father to take his role seriously and for us to work on building a healthy, happy relationship. He then gave us the tickets for cricket to go off and enjoy the match together.
My first impression of Lee was that he was an amicable man, a charmer and social butterfly who easily established rapport with fellow spectators and was seemingly well admired among his many friends at cricket. I lost count of how many times people walked up to him and in the rawest of Trinidadian dialects, asked: “Lee, is how she look like you so, uh dat yuh daughtah?” He was ever at my beck and call, bringing drinks, food, and repeatedly checking to see if I were doing okay. That day, I felt proud to be called his daughter and to call him my father.
A couple of years later when I moved to Trinidad to freelance with the Trinidad Express newspaper, the sister to the one I’d been working for in Barbados, my father insisted that I come live with him and his wife Rosie of almost 20 years. On arrival at their home, I froze on entering the living room. There on the wall were framed photos of me throughout the years. Even when he had not been responding to my letters during his “disappearing” bouts, my father had been saving and mounting all the photos I’d continued to send him. He had also kept every letter. When my stepmother Rosie showed me my room, again I was in awe. They knew of my love for teddy bears, so adorning my bed were a few of varying sizes and to protect me from the vicious Trini mosquitoes, they had secured an insect net over my bed. They did everything to make me feel at home, including buying groceries to prepare my favorite meals and Rosie, knowing my love for cooking even taught me to prepare several local dishes. Among the highlights of living there was accompanying my father to his favorite entertainment event – Panorama – a steelband competition and vital part of Trinidad’s Carnival.
When I eventually went back to Barbados to join the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation as a reporter/producer, Lee and I kept in contact weekly via phone. One day, Rosie called to say that he had to be rushed to the hospital and was in critical condition. I immediately hopped on a flight for Trinidad, where we discovered that he almost went into a diabetic coma. He had not known that he was diabetic. Once out of the hospital, Rosie helped nurse him back to great health, changing his diet and keeping his blood sugar under control. His condition ensured that I stayed in contact when I migrated to New York to return to school. Lee and I would talk several times a month and like a true dad, he was always concerned about if I had enough money for college or rent. From time to time, either he or Rosie would call to say, “Go to Western Union, uh send something fuh yuh.”
Lee and I never missed each other’s birthday or any other special occasion and one thing that stood out with me was when he said, “I know if only one of my four children calls me, it would be you.” So when I tried without success to reach him for his birthday on November 30, 2008 I knew that something was wrong. Lee never answered or returned my calls. A month later for Christmas, I still could not reach him. I was especially worried as he had been depressed from a few months before in April when he’d called with the tragic news that Rosie had died suddenly after suffering a heart attack. Then at the start of summer, he called to deliver another equally sad message; his mother, my grandmother had also suddenly taken ill and died. While I didn’t think he was so deeply drenched in grief to take his own life, I was concerned that both deaths were unbearable for him.
In January 2009, after countless efforts to get some word on Lee, his boss (from the company where he’d worked for several years), called me from Port-of-Spain. I was listed as his next of kin and she informed me that he had been missing from work since early December and searches by colleagues for him yielded nothing. A missing person report had been filed by my aunt and brother Lyndon, but the police also came up empty-handed. Lee’s passport, other important documents and all clothing were found at his home, but none of his friends had heard from or seen him and when anyone called, his cell phone would ring continuously. To this day, Lee’s phone still rings. I’ve endured endless sleepless nights. I have cried my eyes dried. I have exhausted all possibilities for help on the matter. And every day I pray for an answer. I wish I could get some closure. Wherever you are Lee, I hope you are at peace and with all my heart I love you and wish you a Happy Father’s Day.
~ I Keep It Irie ~