Bury The Lead
For the past couple of months, on weekly walks to the park to go workout, I pass this billboard showing a man with his arm around a woman as he smiles at her. The billboard displays the caption, “My daughter’s breast cancer saved my life.” The billboard is like one of those things that once seen cannot be unseen. My immediate reaction was, “WOW DUDE! WAY TO BURY THE LEAD…way to make the story all about you.” Granted, the purpose of advertising is to be provocative; even I in my ignorance of marketing and branding (to which my daughter Asha can attest) understand that. Still, this billboard provoked the most unsettling questions starting with, “What was the outcome for the daughter? Did she survive? Did she have to have a mastectomy? Did she test positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes? Was she married? Did she have children? What is her long-term prognosis?”
Understand, I am not trying to be judgmental, just honest about my first impressions. Even in that I am subject to the scrutiny of, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” So, let us look at the plank in my own eye. Is it possible that my emotional reaction is really projection? Some, possibly even my own daughter, might likewise accuse me of burying the lead in the title of my first book, “The Asha Chronicles”, which indicates that Asha is the subject of the book. While there are some delightful vignettes sprinkled throughout the book depicting Asha being entertainingly Asha, a lot of the book seems to be autobiographical material from the author’s life, the author being Asha’s Dad, aka me.
Some of the autobiographical material can be easily justified because it is framed in the context of answers to questions Asha asked. However, some stories seem so obtuse and abstracted that the reader, especially the one for whom the book was written, might have difficulty seeing the relevance. To uncover the relevance the reader must understand that The Asha Chronicles is an anthology of essays and poems beginning with an allegory, “A Gift for a Special Child.” It is as much a story about being Asha’s father as it is a story about Asha as a child. As much as I have an alliterative affinity, anthology, abstraction and allegory do not amass as an algorithm for good parenting. This is hardly a how-to book on being a good father.
To the contrary, I accepted the role of father with full knowledge that I lacked the tools. I have not seen my own father since I was thirteen years of age. At the time of Asha’s conception, I had no contact with him in fifteen years. I considered my father as an example of what not to do as a father; never abandon your children. After my parents’ divorce, I did get a couple more years with my father than my sisters. After the “We are getting divorced talk,” my mother admonished me, “Your sisters and I are going to California. Your father is going to Germany. You can come with me to California, or you can go to Germany with your father. If you come with me to California and act the way that you do, I will have you institutionalized.” I knew she was serious because she had tried while my father was away on an assignment in Korea. In retrospect I can see where a woman would not want to be stuck with four children on her own when one of them, me, was not 100% neurotypical.
The good upside of not being 100% neurotypical is that it takes me a long time to interpret social cues and be discouraged from a relationship. Thus, I came back to California for high school without fully appreciating that my mother had encouraged me to go with my father. If I had to describe my relationship with my mother, I would use the phrase, “It’s complicated.” On one hand she is the woman responsible for my faith. I remember in high school coming home and finding her with her Bible open and being drawn into these one-on-one Bible studies when she asked me questions. On the other hand, I survived in high school avoiding further institutionalization by spending as much time away from home as possible through music, sports and some student government activities. My mother always maintained, “You’re sick and psychotic like your father. That’s your genetic heritage.” There were other things she would say over the years, even long after I left home. Even after Asha was born, I got a forty-page affidavit my mother had submitted to the court which detailed how I was sick and psychotic like my father and I had ruined her life. And that, oddly enough, was part of the inspiration for The Asha Chronicles.
After I got one of my mother’s long letters replete with a litany of accusations, I realized that much of it had nothing to do with me at all, but her rage toward my father, and her disappointment in life. I realized the best thing to do was tear it up and throw it away. In reply I wrote to my mother telling her that she had this very interesting life story that began in her childhood being raised by a sharecropping father in Arkansas. Her mother died when she was six. My mother was among the three of the eight siblings that survived and helped raise her younger brother Joseph and sister Lenora, my beloved aunt. In my reply I asked my mother to write out her life story. I realized that for the most part I only knew my mother as a role, mom, and not as a person. Her story could give insight to her pain, struggles, fears and attitude. My mother never responded, and I was left for years after her death trying to gain understanding by just reviewing over-and-over what I did know of her.
The opening allegory to the Asha Chronicles is “A Gift for a Special Child” with the theme, “It is important the gift you give to a child, because the gift that you give to a child will shape who the child becomes.” I must admit that the allegory was not originally written for Asha. It was written for a young woman from Africa, the father of her child, and her baby conceived out of wedlock. I had been in a store to buy a gift off the registry for the shower when that still quiet voice told me, “You can buy those baby monitors, but that is not the gift you need to give to this child. . .The gift you must give is the story you will tell.” I had no clue what the story was when I went to sleep, but the story was in my head when I woke up. The story was written with true empathy for the couple struggling to become parents within the context of a turbulent relationship; been there; done that.
I told the story at the baby shower wearing the colorful dashiki which is The Story Teller’s shirt. Two twin brothers from Nigeria listened intently to the allegory set in Africa. After the shower, I realized it was the perfect story to be the intro to The Asha Chronicles. The book was meant to shape who Asha becomes. Although in the book I recoil in horror at Asha exploring Emile Dickinson and writing poetry, I go on to give her personal examples of me expressing myself in poetic form. The book was written with the awareness that at some point Asha would come to realize my deficiencies as a parent and ask why? The book gives Asha some clues as to why, but it was only meant to give her confidence to asks further questions.
The gift was not only meant to shape who she becomes but respond to who she is. Asha is my daughter who grew up loving stories would read up to ten books a week in her childhood; the biggest trouble she got into in high school was library fines. The Asha Chronicles was presented to Asha on her 16th birthday, a Tuesday. When I picked her up on Thursday, she had already burned through all 253 pages. She remarked, “That was good Dad, when is the next one?” I stared at her questioning, “Does she think I can just poop out 253 at will?”
One of the most important things I learned in relationships is, “It is important to know where you end, and the other person begins.” The Asha Chronicles was just the intro volume. I am NOT meant to be the author of Asha’s life; I just wrote some stories for her in the first volume to give her a guide and a start. All subsequent volumes will be really her work.