all in the family

Searching for My Imperfect Fathers

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos courtesy of the subject.

A warm breeze and the sound of the nearby traffic filled Bogue Cemetery as we arrived last January. The first week of my first trip back to Jamaica in ten years felt like a childhood mirage: the red marblelike tile of my grandmother’s veranda, my sister’s elbows turning golden in the sun, the ocean air, cornmeal porridge with chunks of hard dough bread, church music rising out of half of the neighborhood on Sunday mornings, and the patois in every room of my Uncle Donovan’s house.

Though I was born and raised in Ohio, I spent summers visiting family in Jamaica, my mother’s birthplace, when I was a kid. Despite my many sweet memories, my decade-long separation from the island had been intentional. Yet there I was, in a country with leftover colonial ideals about sexuality that had harmed me, trying to find my late father’s grave for the first time in my life.

Days earlier, my Uncle Donovan showed me his paintings, watercolor depictions of nature, in his living room that saved him from going crazy while he was incarcerated decades before. I listened, stoned on his veranda as he read from his journals about waging war between the internal and external self.

“It’s like everyone got to know him but me.” I stared down the long stretch of Blood Lane, the street my mother’s family had lived on since the 1970s. “And since my mom doesn’t like to talk about him, I don’t even get to choose what I know. Can’t tell what parts of him are real or not.”

My biological father was murdered in 1995, when I was 7 months old. As a child, his death fascinated me. I scavenged through old drawers for clues, mined my mother for questions, treated his photos as sacred artifacts. In the second grade, I contemplated sneaking out of my house at night because a classmate who claimed to be a psychic told me that my father was at the cemetery near my house on the east side of Cleveland. The boy’s eyes rolled to the back of his head as he waved his hands over a dictionary. “He’s waiting for you,” he said. “He’s angry.”

My father’s duppy being angry didn’t rattle me. Anger was better than absence. But in the following years, as I battled the dysfunction of coming out to a Jamaican family and grew into adulthood, that boy psychic’s old omen of familial anger felt worthy of exploration.

I visited my stepfather, Dennis, in Kingston when I was 17, a child becoming a man forced to walk the plank. Dennis and my mother met before she had my older brother, then reconnected a few years after I was born. He lived with us for six years. Dennis was charismatic and watched the news voraciously. He never yelled at my mother or shamed me into being less soft. He was my shield against my mother’s occasional angry outbursts. Even after he was detained for drug-dealing charges and being undocumented when I was 12, even after his cousins robbed us, thinking we were hoarding his expensive things, we stayed in touch.

When I came out to my mother two years earlier, she was convinced I needed help and had me talk to her friend, a woman who identified as an ex-gay. When that didn’t work, she sent me to therapy, where I learned to grapple with having a mother who wanted a straight child. When Dennis got out of prison in the U.S. in 2011, he was deported back to Jamaica, and she sent my brother and me to Kingston to visit him for the summer.

I didn’t want to start my adult life with a secret hanging over me; I waited until my last week in Kingston. The guest room was sticky from the heat. I asked Dennis if he would care if I was gay. He closed my bedroom door and turned around. “What did you just say?” he asked, sweat dripping down his temples. He spent the next hour berating my sexuality.

I cried in the plane bathroom on the flight home.

I had one murdered father and another who only wanted the straight version of me.

I spent the next ten years trying to find my chosen family, but coming of age made the hole in my chest grow — and the hole brought me back to Jamaica.

As I weaved through the cracked tombstones and weeds of Bogue Cemetery in search of my biological father’s grave, the conundrum of being gay and fatherless felt heavy; I longed to know the man who made me yet had to acknowledge the violence he was capable of. When I couldn’t find his tombstone, I knelt among the weeds and sobbed.

Ten minutes later, my sister knelt down as well. She prayed, then her red lips started moving. Fast. She gripped my shoulders, and I realized she was speaking in tongues. She had never spoken in tongues to me before, and I was silent with shock.

“I want both of my children to know that I am very proud of them,” my sister muttered among a string of sentences. At first, I was warmed by the possibility that our father was speaking through her, but as the day went on, part of me was angry at my sister’s religion-fueled attempt at resolving the dead.

You can’t speak a dead man into comfort, I thought. It ignores the scale of what really happened. 

Such sentimental fatherly love seldom applied to the gay boy.
Days later, I traveled to Kingston again to see Dennis for the first time since I was 17. My visit with him was cordial but uncomfortable as I watched him care for two new kids, a new family. He kept promising to go on a walk with me to “really talk.” He never followed through.

Do these men long for me in their absence, like some part of me will always long for them? This question ran through my head as I sobbed on the bus zooming away from Kingston, away from an old hope that I had clung to: the chance to go back to a time when I thought I was young and given the permission to be more of myself. Some part of me longs to be in the passenger seat of a car, fast asleep as someone smiles at me. When I awake, it is my father, driving us to safety. In Heaven or my dreams or my words, such a scene exists.

I know my fathers were imperfect. My biological father’s life ended during a drug deal gone wrong. And Dennis had his own dark past. But if being queer has taught me anything, it is that we can hold two truths at the same time and try to face them: We can long for people while also knowing they are capable of violence, physical or emotional; we can long for the safety of a past that no longer exists.

Six months after my trip to Jamaica, I was in Florida with a friend who was grieving a loss. My friend walked to the Atlantic, stared at it, screamed, and dived right in. I watched their hands ball into fists at their side, the ocean screaming back. Then I followed, walking to the shoreline, where I screamed as well, both of my fathers swirling around my mind.

For the first time in my life, I realized they were not the safe place I was looking for. They were the means to my newfound connection to Jamaica, to new memories made there as a fuller version of myself. A Jamaica that is my own.

Searching for My Imperfect Fathers