More Die of Heartbreak: A Eulogy for My Second Father
by Dax-Devlon Ross
Years ago I picked up a copy of the late Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak for a buck at a stoop sale. It might’ve even been free. I can’t remember exactly. Nor does it really matter because I never really read the book. I started it a couple of times. Even got through thirty or forty pages. But like a few of Bellow’s books, I was never able to finish. But I could never get rid of the book either. The title alone was worth the shelf space. Whenever I see it I’m reminded of its truth.
Nearly seven years after the death of my biological father, the man who I will always call my second father has passed away. It happened a week ago today, but it didn’t hit me until 4:00 in the morning five days later.
On the surface my two fathers were very different men. Beneath the surface they shared a sensitivity to and for the world that I recognize as one in the same. Of course you had to know them only the way a son can know his fathers to see beneath the masks they wore for the world. Because of the times they came up in and the color of their skin, they learned to hold their masks in place as a means of survival. My biological father was stoic, proud, reserved. My second father was crass, candid, loud. One was a square; one was a street lifer. One sought to escape his heartbreak and disappointment through spiritual transcendence; the other found temporary relief in chemical dependence. They were both fighters to the bitter end.
My second father entered my life at a precarious moment. I was close to finishing high school when my mother started dating him. I remember he started showing up at basketball games my senior year and quietly sitting in the stands. Little did I know that he was regarded as one of the best basketball players the Washington, D.C. area had ever produced. Ever. A solidly built 6’3” shooting guard, he made the prestigious All-Met team twice. At the University of Miami he dominated on the freshmen team, which, at the time, was the custom. By his sophomore season he was a starting guard on the varsity squad. He’d later tell me that he was well on his way to a star-studded career when he developed an illness that landed him in the hospital and ended his season prematurely. The next season Miami shut down its basketball program. Per NCAA rules he was forced to transfer and sit out a year. He chose Cincinatti in part because the school offered family housing and he had a new wife and son. Though he never fully recovered from his illness, he managed to get drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers after his single season of eligibility. He didn’t make the roster, though. Over the near two decades I would know him, the rest of his basketball story would creep out here and there over the years. He didn’t like talking about his playing days and by the time he came into my life he’d long since put down the ball, but from time to time while we were drinking Hennessey and smoking Kools on the back porch late at night he’d let go of bits and pieces. There was a tryout with the Bullets. There was a tour that took him out of the country for a period. At some point he went back to school to get a Masters in Sociology.
There was also the son he lost. Junior was his everything. Then one afternoon someone took Junior away. He was in Georgetown shopping for his back-to-school gear when some fool with a pistol ran up on him and pressed him for his sneakers. It was the ’90s in D.C. The streets were loaded with crack money and cheap hand guns. The real enemy was envy, though. If one kid saw another kid with anything he wanted, he felt entitled to take it by any means necessary. Junior wouldn’t give up his merchandise or didn’t move fast enough. The assailant shot him. Killed him. Ended his brief stint on planet earth over some sneakers.
It wasn’t bad enough that he buried his son and namesake; he blamed himself for the death. See, he was supposed to be with his son that day. They were supposed to go school shopping together. Father and son. That was the plan. But my second father had too much to drink the night before. When he son came calling, he couldn’t get himself together. He handed him some money and asked Junior to take a rain check. That was the last time he’d ever see his boy alive. I can’t tell you how many nights I watched him sob, how many sodden tears he shed. As I got older, I would become one of his closest confidants and he mine. He never stopped blaming himself and if you even attempted to lessen his burden he’d fly into a rage. He wanted to carry the full weight of his son’s death on his shoulders alone. He didn’t want forgiveness. He didn’t want vengeance. He wanted his son back.
Over the course of a decade he became a part of our family. Although he never surrendered his bat cave in the heart of downtown D.C., for all intents and purposes he moved in with my mother in suburban Maryland. He was there for Sunday dinner. He was there on vacations. He was there at my college and law school graduations. He went with us to my grandmother’s home in Richmond for Thanksgiving dinner. My sisters, grandmother, uncles, aunts, cousins all knew him and couldn’t help but care for him. My friends all knew and loved him as well. He was that kind of guy, easily lovable despite his deeply-rooted troubles. At his best he was warm, generous, fun to be around. When I was coming of age he taught me valuable lessons about loyalty. As learned, well-traveled and endlessly curious about life as he was, he never relinquished his D.C. identity. He’d been raised on the streets, had honed his game and made his name on playgounds throughout the city. For better and worse, he’d never turn his back on his history. And people knew that about him. Walking or riding around town at his side, which I did often, was like being with a local dignitary. People routinely flagged him down, chatted him up. But like too many black men I’ve known, he just didn’t or maybe couldn’t love himself enough to defeat his inner demons.
I don’t pretend to know all that was in my second father’s heart. I knew what I knew. I’m also not going to sugar coat his memory for the sake of posterity; he was difficult to be around when he was drinking. (Imagine if Otis “Bad” Blake from Crazy Heart was a dual-degree holding black dude from inner city D.C.) Though never violent, he could be belligerent and reckless. He liked to press my buttons, test my limits, get a rise out of me. He wasn’t always the most positive influence. But I always knew we loved each other as much as we could and in the way we could. We were, after all, surrogates for one another. It wasn’t lost on me that when he came in to my life I was roughly the same age as his son when he was killed. Nor was it lost on me that once my biological father moved west, he became a more active and present fixture in my life. I was becoming a man and he was the model before me. And though my biological father would remain my spiritual guide and financial supporter from a distance, in many ways my second father would influence my twenty-something self’s ideas about black masculinity. Even as my biological father nourished my intellectual and artistic aspirations, my second father fed me with a socio-political street sensibility that I needed in order to negotiate this American landscape. After a while, depending on who I was with, I’d speak differently, move differently, even perceive the world differently. Around my dad I was like my dad. Around second father I was like him. At a certain point I can distinctly remember feeling like I was betraying both of them, like neither of them really knew me. And on the rare occasions they were together – my graduations – I worried that my double life would be discovered. In those instances, I overcompensated. I was careful not to spend too much time with either one, mindful to pull them aside separately in order to acknowledge the appreciation I felt toward them. I didn’t know how to connect them. It never occurred to me that they already were.
After almost ten years together my mother and my second father called it quits. It didn’t come as a surprise. I knew his demons were getting the best of him. After they broke up and I moved to New York I saw him less and less. Calling him became a labor intensive endeavor. What I’d hear about him was never good. Fights. Hospitals. A short stint in jail. Then his health started to fail. When my father died we spent a night out on the town, one of our last. I’ll never forget him telling me my dad was a good man. That meant a lot to hear. Two years back I visited him over the holidays. His younger bother had just died. By then he had emphysema. Clothes that once fit him were baggy. His apartment was a shambles. I remember him rummaging about until he found a pair of jeans he’d bought but couldn’t fit. He wanted me to have them as a Christmas gift. It wasn’t long before he asked me to take him around the corner to the liquor store. I resisted at first. But then I took him. Then I sat and drank with him. Later that day we decided to have dinner at his favorite seafood restaurant. He struggled to walk down two flights of stairs then concealed himself behind a wall. He didn’t want anyone to see him breathing so heavy. In his neighborhood weakness of any kind was an open invitation for larceny. He was in rare form by the time we got to the restaurant. As scrawny as he’d become, he was as loud and crass as ever. When the bartender refused to serve him any more alcohol, he became indignant. We were asked to leave. On the way out he asked me if he’d embarrassed me. He apologized if he had. I told him he hadn’t, but after that night I distanced myself from him even more.
Eighteen months had passed when my mother called me a month ago. He was dying, she said. He had six months to live. I was in New Orleans. I called him. He grasped for air after every sentence. His lungs were shutting down. His heart was weak. His liver was bad. He’d seen specialists, gotten second, third and fourth opinions. No one could save him. His doctors were amazed he was still alive. I told him I was going to eat seafood. He sighed and moaned. Back in the day we’d drive to Wharf, pick up crabs and shrimp. Then we’d get a case of Heineken and a fifth of Hennessy. Then we’d head home and feast.
Though he lamented his choices and encouraged me to take care of my health, the conversation wasn’t all doom and gloom. He’d been inducted into his his high school hall of fame. A number of prominent former players from his generation had paid their respects. He was surrounded by family. I promised I’d visit him. Last Friday I drove from New York to D.C. with every intention of seeing him on Saturday. It wasn’t in the cards. Just as I was about to pass out in my old bed my mother knocked on my door. He’d passed away.
I was relieved. I’d seen my biological father at the end of his line. I knew what near death looked like. Selfish as it sounds, I didn’t want to see another father figure lying in a bed, shriveled before his time. Just as I prefer to remember my dad cruising the California coast without a care, I prefer to hold on to that last memory of my second father berating a bartender for more of the medicine that soothed his aching heart until it beat no more.