It was four o’clock in the morning. Cleve could not sleep. The street noise outside his window had quieted down — the boisterous laughing and arguing of young punks, the pounding of rap music from boom boxes, the hollering from car windows. It was not the night-sounds that had kept him tossing and turning. The din of the street was like background music he had grown up with. He scarcely noticed it anymore. No, what disturbed him was something much closer than the street, something inside. Inside him. It was that damn question again that was haunting him, the same tormenting doubt that had dogged him for as long as he could remember. It would be embarrassing for a massive, self-confident 50 year old black man to even admit to such a thought, and so he didn’t, not to anyone, not even to himself when he could help it. But this night the sheer force of his will was failing him, the brute mental strength that for so many years and through so many disappointing circumstances had enabled him to straight-jacket his emotions. Intrusive ghosts from the underground cages of his memory escaped their restraints and invaded his sleepless mind. They pulled to the surface with them vivid pictures... of his mother going out the front door to work, too consumed with the survival of her brood to pay them — pay him — much attention. He figured that she did love him — she certainly needed him to watch out for his younger brothers and sisters - but try as he often did he could never recall her actually saying so. He had always wanted to ask her the question but he never had. He never would. She was now asleep in her grave.
And once again that indelible tape of the encounter with his father, the only time he had ever had a conversation with this man who had abandoned his family before Cleve could remember. He had replayed the scene in his mind a thousand times, each time castigating himself for not being able to muster the courage to ask the man if he loved his children — loved him — but the air between them had been far too charged, too strained to risk it. But then, what good would it have done anyway? Cleve already knew the answer.
The tangled bed sheets were damp from perspiration. He would get up for a while and read. He stared at the words of a book that had once inspired him but the determined intensity of his gaze was not enough to keep his mind from wandering, traveling back, back... to his marriage to Erika, the one pleasant meadow in his life when it seemed that the question was finally being satisfied. Oh, there was passion, that was for sure. And Erika had told him repeatedly in the early days of their romance that she loved him. She had claimed, too, that she loved her children that she brought with her into the marriage, and perhaps she did, as much as she was capable. But Cleve increasingly found himself their primary care-giver, excuse-maker, as Erika disappeared for longer and longer periods of time, lured by the siren call of the street, driven by the demons that raged within her. After a few years of volatile, tormenting struggle, Cleve reluctantly admitted to himself the devastating truth: Erika loved alcohol more than she loved her children — or him. And now she too was gone, pulled away by the undertow of her deadly addictions.
One face, a white face, peered out repeatedly from the jumble of recollections that churned in his mind. Bob the youth worker, that was probably the best way to describe him, a Vietnam vet from up north somewhere who had started a program for Atlanta street kids, most referred from the juvenile court. Cleve’s younger brother was one of those kids. Though it was now troublesome to admit it, this white guy, wise in the ways of the world but naïve in the ways of the street, doubtless had more impact on him than any one person alive, at least that’s how it used to be. Bob became a sort of father-figure to him, saw value in him, encouraged him to go to college, even hired him for a time as a counselor in his youth program. Bob believed in him, at least that’s what he always said. But over the years they had drifted apart, Cleve needing to stretch his wings and prove to himself that he could make it on his own, Bob busy at building an effective community development organization. There was a time when Cleve believed without question that this man truly cared for him, like a father was supposed to love his own flesh and blood children. Cleve counted on that love, drew security and strength from it, pushed himself to excel because of it. He longed to hear words of approval from that man, perhaps too much. He still did! My God, that was thirty years ago!
Had he believed a lie? Was he just one among scores of other urban kids useful to a white man’s adopted cause, a needed participant for a successful program, a valued pawn? Why else would Bob allow their relationship to fade as he chased after new dreams and visions? Oh, sure, the man did donate sporadic dollars to efforts that Cleve was trying to fund, and did rescue him from an occasional personal tight spot, but only when asked, never because he was interested enough to inquire on his own. Cleve lifted himself out of his chair, shuffled over to his desk, and pulled out several sheets of blank typing paper. What was to lose? He was 50, for heaven’s sake! For once in his life he could ask the question straight-on, couldn’t he? He began scrawling a hand-written letter to the father-figure who was long absent, yet somehow very present in his life.
Page after page he rambled, through decades-old memories — camping trips, learning to drive a stick-shift, intense talks about God, graduating from junior college — treasured father-son experiences that build confidence and character into a young man’s life. But the memories dredged up pain as well. The loss of closeness once enjoyed. Long periods of estrangement after heated arguments, usually power struggles and racial misunderstandings. Turn-downs to his funding requests that always felt like very personal rejections. “Am I a thorn in your side that you could really do without?” Anger burned as the biting remark spilled out onto the paper, more indictment than question. His meandering thoughts were now laser focused. His breathing was noticeably heavier. He had arrived at the dangerous precipice and peered directly down into the smoldering issue that burned at his insides. He was at last giving it voice. “Was our relationship a mere necessity of your inner-city work? Was it a mistake to assume that we had a long-term relationship?” Though the questions he penned were in the past tense, oblique, laced with accusation, this was as close as Cleve’s courage and ego would allow him to approach the naked heart of the matter. If a father-figure had a whit of sensitivity, he would hear what the real question was: “Did you love me? Do you love me?”
Cleve’s hand-written letter arrived in my mailbox two days later. It took two stamps to mail the nine pages. From the first line I knew that it was not the usual “how-you-doin’” letter or another “can-you-help-me-with-my-youth-program” request. It began: “It is four o’clock in the morning as I write this letter.” The opening paragraphs recounted pleasant memories that softened my heart but the penetrating questions that followed cut me like a straight razor. Raw emotions spilled from the pages that grabbed at my heart. My feelings vacillated between compassion and defensiveness, sorrow and guilt. I had no idea the anguish our turbulent relationship had inflicted upon him. I, who had always known the security of a strong loving father, was clueless as to just how overpowering was the desire in the soul of a fatherless man-child for a father-figure. I should have known. What courage it had taken for him to verbalize it to me!
My response to Cleve would not come quickly or easily. He had stirred up too much sediment from the bottom of my comfortably focused life to permit clear visibility. Should I apologize, reassure him, try to make amends? Any overtures would likely come across as disingenuous, too little too late, after so many years of ignoring him. What was he asking of me, anyway? To become buddies again? I could, perhaps should, invest a bit of energy in supporting the youth program he had been trying to get off the ground. I could invite him out for lunch, something I had not initiated since he was a young leader in my youth program. I worked through a string of options that might serve to mend our frayed relationship. And then, suddenly, I was aware of just how little I wanted to do this, how much it felt like an obligation, a weight. Was it true? Was Cleve really a thorn in my side that I could do without? Do I use people, then abandon them when they no longer serve my latest mission?
My viscera recoiled at the thought. I am a visionary, yes. I do mobilize people around causes, compassionate causes, causes that make a difference in the city. And once organized, I leave each mission in the capable hands of others with better management skills than my own and move on to the next challenge. I can disconnect with people quickly and reconnect just as quickly. But use people? Discard relationships? A very harsh accusation. Do people really feel that way? Obviously that’s how Cleve feels.
I should answer his letter in a conciliatory tone, apologizing for my insensitivities, for ways I have let him down. That I can do. With integrity. I doubt that it would accomplish much but at least I would have acknowledged his feelings. This will do little, however, to change the dynamics of our relationship and absolutely nothing to alter the way my personality seems to be wired. As friendly and out-going and embracing as I am on the exterior, I am, fundamentally, on the inside, an introvert. Visions hatch inside me when I am alone, pushed back in my recliner, mowing the lawn, staring at my laptop screen, riding my Harley. I am energized by them and I am somehow able to energize others around them. I think it is a gift. But must there be carnage left in the wake of these ventures? Will those who join with me in mission always feel let down when I move on to the next challenge?
I can hear you now, Cleve: “There he goes, blaming his lack of loyalty on genetics, spiritualizing abandonment as a calling.” Maybe so. Maybe I have gotten so good at rationalizing my mode of operating as a pre-programmed personality trait, as uniqueness suited for inspiring but not sustaining relationships, that I have allowed large blind-spots to grow unexamined within me. One thing is for certain. Since receiving Cleve’s letter these characteristics, whether gifts, quirks or flaws, no longer remain “unexamined.” I thank you for that, Cleve, like I would thank a radiologist for an x-ray that shows up an undiagnosed dark-spot on my heart.