Now that I’m older I can see all the ways I’m like my father. I have great taste in music, I am really witty, and I’m obsessed with Sci-fi. Not to brag but I do also have great hair texture that I’ve also come to love. My family would go on worldwide adventures together, and my parents would always share stories about how they met during dinner time. They had been married for twenty-one years, and first stumbled across each other while my father was driving yellow cabs in New York City in the Eighties. Every marriage has its ups and downs, but I took pride in knowing that when I came home I had a father to come home to, which most times in the black community isn’t expected.
I would always slap down passive aggressive questions about if my father was around while I was growing up, and reply with how long my parents had been together. Although no child should ever have to go through the experience of racial stereotyping, at the time it wasn’t something I completely understood or was bothered by. This all changed when I turned fifteen.
My father had been battling heart problems for as long as I could remember. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and flooded our house, these problems got progressively worse. The stress of repairs after the hurricane, as well as neglected self care took a toll on my father’s health and he ended up in the hospital for months. That following February after surgeries, and a long and grueling battle with heart failure, he passed away.
I remember my mother telling me about his death like it was yesterday. I remember feeling so overwhelmed with emotions and confusion, and still having to pick myself up and go to school the following day. I remember my high school principal announcing my fathers funeral on the loudspeaker, and turning it into a spectacle complete with a sign up sheet. I remember forcing myself to get out of bed and barely being able to sit through classes without crying. Most importantly I remember no longer having the energy to dismiss racial stereotypes, because my parents were no longer married. I was being raised by a single mother now, and at the time thought I had become a statistic.
This disgusting deadbeat dad stereotype in the Black community, made it inexplicably harder for me to accept that I no longer had a father in the home. My mother had lost her husband, I had lost a father, and not only was I grieving the loss of him, I was grieving the loss of a family structure which provided me with so much security growing up.
The truth is my grieving experience, although unique to me, was not unique to the rest of the world. Schools and companies expect you to just “Get over it” and resume business as normal moving forward. Did you know they don’t consider a funeral an excused absence in some colleges? In fact New York State law doesn’t actually require employers to provide employees with bereavement leave. In my opinion it is because our society has a very hard time accepting and speaking about death.
The truth is grief is a unique experience. It comes in waves. For me, although it has been years since my father’s death, I am still sensitive during Father’s Day. I can speak candidly about my grieving experience with others, but still see how uncomfortable and quick people are to apologize to me when I bring up the fact that my father had passed. We have a hard time as a society accepting loss, and speaking from places which require vulnerability. There are so many children who lose parents at a young age. It wasn’t until I got to college that I was exposed to those who were also open to speaking about it.
I remember making a summer friend who told me when I spoke upon losing my dad
“You’re lucky you had a relationship with him.”
She was right. I was lucky to have gotten the time with my father that I did. I was lucky that my parents were married. I was lucky that he was present. While all this is true, I was also lucky to have my mother. We need to redefine the way we see Black family structures. We need to praise single mothers as well, and understand that stereotypes while built on some truth, simply are not the norm for all. When we stereotype a single Black mother, we take away from the actual accomplishments that mother has made for her family and her children. My mother could have decided to give up, yet she put me through college, and still continues to push me now starting my career. When we stereotype, we take away from very real lived experiences and very real people. We are not caricatures, we are human.
So where do we go from here? Well, I encourage you to redefine the way you approach vulnerability. I am aware not everyone is like me in the sense that they are able to easily let people in. I am aware that being raw and open is a skill, and one that I quite frankly did not learn until I actually lost my father. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the traditional American family structure does not exist in the way you think it does.
For me my new family is my mother and dog on Christmas morning. Does this make my family any less important? Does this make my family any less normal? The answer is no. Redefine what family is, and how it is publicly portrayed. When I finally let go of what I expected family to be, I started to actually appreciate and stop being ashamed of my own.
If it’s anything losing my father has taught me, it’s the cliche but true phrase “Life is short”. We should spend more time celebrating our family differences, rather than encouraging stereotypes and expectations. We should spend more time with each other. We should value human life, and revere the loss of it, because it is truly a gift. I encourage you to send someone some love not just today, but everyday, and remember that there is no rush to life and grief. There is no purpose without some pain.
McKenna is a NYC native performer and creative with a BFA in Musial theater from the University of the Arts. She aims to create art that inspires vulnerability and societal change. You can catch her sparking conversations and spreading light on Instagram, exploring the city, or at your local thrift store