Sidewalk Talk – Absent Fathers

March 17, 2010

Last night on Sidewalk Talk the topic was “Absent Fathers” and the issues individuals face growing up without fathers. I want to apologize because I do not feel we were able to do the topic justice. The show was a bit rushed and sloppy. I don’t want to make excuses, but explain. I am still getting used to the new format of Sidewalk Talk reloaded and I had (kind of thick-headedly) prepared the topic with the old format in mind. In 2006 and 2007 we would spend a full hour discussing the topic in depth, dedicating approximately the first thirty minutes or so to really grappling with the topic and then spending the second thirty minutes or so hearing from listeners’ SMSes, calls, and other “experts” invited to speak in studio.

This time around, with Sidewalk Talk Reloaded, we are given two fifteen-minute slots to discuss the topics. Last night the show felt rushed and we didn’t engage the topic, and bring solutions in the way I hope to do for the topics we discuss. The purpose of Sidewalk Talk is not merely to speak about “problems”, getting emotions stirred up, but to also offer solutions and hope, encouraging action with regards to the specific topic. One listener SMSed that he liked the topic but felt we “needed more time to discuss such a sensitive topic, and there was a lack of expertise in the studio”. I do not disagree and take the full blame for that. Please rest assured that we are working out the glitches, whether we are allocated more time or I have to adjust the way we discuss the topics to fit the timeslot appropriately.

My intentions are most definitely not to cause more harm than good, and though I definitely want to “stir things up”, I do not want to bring up potentially painful topics and leave people hanging or feeling more hopeless. Bear with us as we figure all this out. We will make a plan to readdress the issue of Absent Fathers in the coming months, but please feel free to use this platform and the Sidewalk Talk Facebook Fanpage discussion board to give your experiences, insight, questions, and comments. Also, you can check out some recent blogs I have written on the topic in the following blogs:

From No Father to Know Father

It All Makes Sense: From No Father to Know Father – Part 2

We Are What We’ve Seen. We Are Not What We Have Not Seen: From No Father to Know Father – Part 3

Thanks for your understanding!

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We Are What We’ve Seen. We Are Not What We Have Not Seen: From No Father to Know Father – Part 3

February 26, 2010

The Father Theme has come up yet again. I guess it’s no real surprise living in a country where most fathers are nowhere to be found, and those who stick around are not always the best role models; those facts mixed with the genetically ingrained desire (most especially in young boys) to be like our fathers, please and impress them, receive their praise, and to live lives which are equally as great or better than the lives our fathers have lived. I guess it is a theme that is sure to come up regularly. My recent reminder has come through a young man I will call Mohammad.

Mohammad was one of the first kids I met on the streets of Cape Town when I came here in 1999. He was only nine-years-old at the time and was in a constant state of intoxication, under the influence of one drug or the other, but usually huffing paint thinners as his drug of choice. Mohammad was always so goofed – drooling, slurring his speech, and singing crazy remixes of gospel songs – for the first few months I knew him I actually thought he was retarded. I say that in all seriousness, though we joke about it now. It was only one day, a few months into living here, I saw him sober for the first time; on a Sunday, a day he says the hardware stores are closed making it impossible to buy his thinners. He walked up to me, completely clear-headed and in his right mind. He greeted me with no drool, his words not slurred in the least bit. I was shocked. Knowing Mohammad was not as messed up as he became when under the influence of thinners made it even more difficult to see him in that state from then on out.

Over the years I have seen Mohammad live on and off the streets, in and out of prison, in this organization and that, and with this do-gooder and that. And though he mostly only revealed his best qualities to me, over the years I saw him often allow his worst qualities to trump the better ones in his day-to-day hustle, leading to many bad decisions, followed by many negative consequences. I couldn’t help but realize Mohammad was merely a product of his environment. His parents wanted little to do with him from an early age, and his biggest role model was his grandfather, a renowned gangster and drug dealer who ruled one of the areas of the Cape Flats. Mohammad began using drugs from the age of seven, around the same age saw his own brother shoot his own cousin in a gang related dispute, and learned to shoot people himself around that same tender age.

It was around that time he began running to the streets of downtown Cape Town. Mohammad was the epitome of a grown man in a ten-year-old’s body; seeing, experiencing and doing things way beyond his years. Though it was easy for me and others to forget sometimes, Mohammad was still just a kid. My heart broke for him time and time again. But he has recently made decisions to change his life; something that looks similar to paddling up stream with no paddle, in a canoe with a bunch of holes in it, with the undesirable bag of behaviors and past hurts weighing heavy like an anchor, constantly tugging on him and holding him back. But the reason he made the resolution to change was not so much for him, but for his new born (at the time) son, birthed by his girlfriend of many years.

Mohammad’s son was born right before his last, fairly long, visit to jail. It was within those prison walls he decided he had to be a father to his son, and instead of etching a gang tattoo on his body he tattooed his son’s name, as a forever reminder and inspiration of the life he wanted to live and the person he wanted to be. Since his release in December 2008 he has tried, as hard as he knows how to, to be a respectable man, a supportive partner, and a good father. This year of trial and error has led to great victories and massive failures, but, at least, early this month as his son turned two, a week before Mohammad turned twenty, he had stable employment and had still not seen the inside of a prison cell again.

A few weeks back I received a call from a lady who runs an NGO Mohammad and his girlfriend are involved with. The lady was worried that Mohammad was “spiraling out of control”, after a drunken “performance” at a benefit event, where he embarrassed himself and the project in front of the board of directors and other guests. She asked me to speak with him, and though I spoke to him on the phone I did not get a chance to see him, or sit and chat face-to-face. About three weeks ago the lady called again to say on that Tuesday night Mohammad had gone out and gotten drunk, and when he returned home he got into a fight with his girlfriend; a fight which led to violence. The lady was forced to kick him out of the project and his girlfriend said she did not want to see him again, also making threats that he would not get to see his child again. He came to stay with me on that Wednesday night.

When he first arrived at my house he was broken, remorseful, angry and confused; at him self, others and pretty much the hand life had dealt him. I spoke to him about, or rather listened mostly to, his situation and as he spoke I was struck with the realization that trying to be a good father and a loving partner, for someone who has not seen or experienced a father in his own life nor a healthy relationship, can be about as difficult, if not seemingly impossible, as me trying to pick up a novel written in brail and begin reading away; I would run my fingers over the tiny little bumps, becoming frustrated I was not picking up any information from them. It would not take long before I gave up that undertaking. Though I could see Mohammad felt greatly overwhelmed by everything, I also saw a resolve in him to make things “right” and be the person, father and partner he dreams of being.

The lady from the organization and Mohammad decided he needed a month of what they called his “rehabilitation”, and they decided it was best for him to serve his time at my house. This was all right with me. If he made serious changes the lady would allow him back into the organization. Over the last few weeks Mohammad has stayed with me I have seen how dedicated he is to change; some days it seems he is the tiny David up against the enormous, ugly Goliath, whilst other days he seems like the victorious, passionate William Wallace as he takes on this battle. But over these few weeks, and through many conversations, I noticed that Mohammad is not fighting a battle, but rather a collective of battles, both past and present, with his unhealed battle wounds from the past severely affecting his ability to gain victory in the raging war at large. But each and every day, with each and every positive choice he makes, and with each and every positive word spoken over him washing over him like refreshing waters, Mohammad is strengthened and his resolve becomes greater.

Mohammad and his girlfriend have made amends and he visits them every afternoon after work, before he takes the train commute to my house. Things are good and getting better, but still not perfect, and they never will be. As positive as Mohammad feels now, the realization of the amount of work it takes to be the person he wants to be is again and again sobering for him. But that very sobriety is what he needs to work out all the things he has seen, experienced and done. His environment has shaped him and his undesirable behavior is merely a reflection of the men and fathers, or lack there of, he grew up around. He simply became what he saw, but now wishes to be something totally different. So now he has to continue to fight, figuring out how to be something he has never seen, with only the example of what he does not want to be to guide him on his journey. I pat him on the back for the strides he has taken so far!


From No Father to Know Father

February 3, 2010

The topic of fathers, or the lack there of rather, has come up a lot lately. I recently finished Donald Miller’s new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years where a huge part of the storyline was about him trying to find his dad who he had never known. Last week Caleb, a young sixteen-year-old boy I have known since he was about seven, broke down and started crying while we spoke about his father, who he has not seen since he was three. Another young guy I know just asked me over the weekend if I thought it was possible for him to get his father’s face tattooed on his back, and how much I thought it would cost. He never had the opportunity to meet his dad because he died before the little fellow was even born.

All of these interactions reminded me of the important role the father plays in the life of a child (most especially a boy), even if he is nowhere to be found. It is like there is something inside every boy who cries out for the attention, approval and acceptance of a father. I guess that’s why when there is no father around these needs often find warped outlets through negative influences, gang loyalty and so on. But as Caleb cried and spoke I could see this almost carnal need, deep within in him, to really know his father.

Caleb and I had tried in vain in the past to track down his dad. The other day when he was crying and speaking about it his voice was filled with pain and confusion, “I don’t even know what my own dad looks like. And he doesn’t even know what I look like.” Before the topic moved on to other things about how his “life is so effed up” (his own exact words) we decided to give the search for his father another try. He told me his dad’s brother lived across the street from his maternal grandmother’s mother; Caleb’s great grandma to make it simpler. I told him to get his grandma to get his dad’s details from his great grandma.

A few days later he excitedly called me to tell me he had gotten the uncle’s phone number from his great grandma. We called him together. The uncle said he does not know Caleb’s dad’s address but he can take us to the house. We took him up on this offer. Caleb and I made a plan to pick up his grandmother (because she knows where the great-grandmother lives) and go find his dad, and yesterday was the decided upon day. The day before yesterday I spoke to Caleb about his expectations, and tried to prepare him for both the best and worse case scenario. He said he felt nervous but glad he was finally going to get a chance to meet his dad.

He is also going through a, what I would consider to be fairly “normal”, 16-year-old rebellion phase, and is also displaying quite a bit of anger about…well, I don’t even think he knows why. As I said, a fairly “normal” 16-year-old phase. I had hoped that meeting his dad could be a good experience and maybe help him be a little les angry. But I also worried, if the dad was a total jerk, it could set Caleb back, deeper in his anger.

Yesterday on the way there I could see Caleb was pretty anxious about it all, and he expressed that to me a couple of times during the car ride. We went to the great grandma’s house and then to the uncle who took us to the father’s house. The long-awaited moment had arrived. Caleb took a big, deep breath and smiled nervously as he climbed out of the car. I asked him if he was alright. He inhaled again and, as confidently as he could, said yes. We entered the house and were first met by Caleb’s grandmother (whom he had never met). She did not seem to be bothered in the least bit that he was a blood relative, and more worried that we were coming to “cause trouble” in the form of demanding child support from the years not paid.

When we insured her that we were not looking for trouble of any kind, she called Caleb’s father from the back. It being an incredibly small house he must have already heard the reason we were there, and therefore knew very well that the tall, lanky, handsome young man in the living room was his son. But he shook Caleb’s grandmother’s hand first, and then mine, and then took a step back, without even looking at Caleb. I said, “This is your son.” And he finally took his child’s hand with about as much love and interest as someone greeting a stranger in the form of an old, boring rock. We sat. The adults mostly talked. Caleb’s father barely looked at him. But Caleb stared at his long-lost dad. I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I kept trying to direct the dad’s conversation towards Caleb, and the grandmother’s talk away from money, insisting that the reason we were there had nothing to do with money but it was Caleb’s wish to finally meet his father.

As the grandmother tried again to bring up the many years of child support not paid I interrupted her, rudely one might say, “Actually, the reason we are here has nothing to do with money and so I do not want you to get that thought in your head. Neither I nor your son care about this money thing. We are here because he,” I pressed my finger on Caleb’s chest, “wanted to come and see you. He doesn’t want your money. He just wants to know what his dad looks like, what his voice sounds like, if he bears any resemblance to him. He wants to know you!” The dad smiled a smile that was somewhere between pride and fear.

Caleb said nothing the entire time. When it was time to explain where he lived and what he was up to, he passed the mic to me. I explained that he lived in an institution for young men in Salt River. And then gave the father mine and Caleb’s cell phone number. After looking down at the page where i had just written Caleb’s name and number, Caleb’s dad finally looked at him, addressing him directly, “Your name is Caleb, nuh?” Caleb nodded his head as his grandmother suggested that she and I step out and give the two of them a chance to chat. I looked at Caleb on my way out and asked him if he was ok. He, maybe not so sure himself, said yes. The two grandmothers and I stepped out of the house and left the newly acquainted father-son duo, giving them a chance to “catch up”.

I stood out in the yard, protective of and, nervous for Caleb. I could hear soft conversation on the other side of the cracked door. It sounded friendly enough. I relaxed and played with my cell phone to pass the time. After a few minutes I heard Caleb’s father’s voice raise to a high decibel. I walked quickly over to the door, ready to bust it down and kick his face in. The last thing Caleb needs is a dad who just walked onto the scene, already yelling at him. But as I got close to the door I stopped and was relieved to hear it was loud talking inspired by laughter. Shew!

After about ten whole minutes Caleb emerged from the house. Promises of visits were made, goodbyes were said, hands were shook, and we climbed in the car and drove away. Caleb seemed pleased, but a little dazed, like someone who just woke from a dream. After we dropped his grandmother off I asked Caleb how it was. He smiled and said it was great to meet his dad, and then he began to tell me all about their “talk”. Caleb was pleased that his dad had remembered his birth date. Apparently his dad was also very pleased that Caleb mentioned the last time he saw him (when he was 3) he remembers his dad giving him five rand. His father promised to visit the place where Caleb stays. 

Caleb even had the courage to ask his dad why he left, and was very pleased with his father’s open and candid answer that had everything to do with his mother and nothing to do with Caleb. He seemed very pleased with the outcome of the visit and that made me happy. He had a certain peace about him that I cannot explain. Maybe it was a peace just knowing that his father didn’t leave because of him, maybe it was as simple as just seeing his father, knowing what he looks like, what he sounds like, and how he sits. “I wanted to hug him at the end but it was kind of awkward so I just shook his hand.” Caleb said shyly.

“There will be plenty of time for hugs buddy. This was the first of many meetings.”

Maybe ironically, Caleb is staying with me this week because he is suspended for a week from the place where he stays for his 16-year-old rebellious behaviour. Last night, as he laid on his bed I could see from the other room his mind was swimming through the events of the day. I went in and sat on his bed. “You think he will actually come visit?” Caleb asked. “I don’t know. But I do know that he really wants to. Sometimes things that people want do not always translate into action, but I could tell when he said he would it was something that he really, really wanted to do. Caleb was pleased with that answer.

“So is life a little less effed up now?” I asked with a smile.

Caleb exhaled a sigh of relief and smiled, “Yeah, it’s a lot less effed up now!”