An Ode To The Power Of A Stepfather

6 months ago Ricardo Hylton 4

“Braaaap!’ we would all jump off the sofa. The sound emanating from the ether would seemingly shake our small wooden house. You would move lastly, an expression of shock etched across your face. ‘It’s a rat!’ you would shout. ‘Watch out!’ My brother and I would scamper with our trembling feet out the house. Of course all you had done was farted one of your earthquakes. And just like those legendary farts, daddy you shook up my world.

But Is Not My Son

I used to say I could never get into a relationship with a woman who has children. The idea of taking care of another man’s child was enough to give me mind ulcers. And how would the kids see me? Could I discipline them? Would they call me daddy or Dwayne? It was just too messy. But this was a curious position for me to take. Because there is no one in the world that better understands the power of a stepfather.

Mummy was the honest sort. The type that tells her 4 year old ‘your poopa ain’t shit!’ the words splintering and cracking on spittle as they hit the sizzling Jamaican morning air.

Mummy was the type to tell you the intricate details of his insatiable gambling habit, which left the house devoid of spoons, forks, and various other utensils. She was the type to tell her 5-year old of the fury buried in his losses, that often led her to understand and feel the furious power of his mighty fists, and the threat of his security guard’s 9-millimeter gun.

So it was confusing for a 5 year old to meet your gentle presence. 6 foot 5 inches of gentle kindness. 6 foot 5 inches of dark skin, encased in a gentle dark beard. It was the early 1990s. You were still thin then, before heartbreak made you gulp beer like it was sustenance. Before you gave up on life.

 

Is He Your Real Father?

The biggest compliment I could pay you daddy is a memory I have when I was about 10 years old. Our community in Jamaica was truly connected, like wires from an electrical device plugged into a socket. All the children knew each other intimately. I knew that Bigga’s father had run off with a woman who came to holiday in Negril from Texas. And everybody knew that Odane’s sister hadn’t just moved to Kingston; she was pregnant and the shame was too much for her mother to bear.

All the boys (there were more than 20 of us) played football daily, went to each other’s homes, pretended to be Donald Quarrie and He-Man. We had just walked from the canefield, having trespassed and stolen sugary juice when I casually joked that I was being a thief like my “real” father was. I could see the aura of doubt slip across my friends’ faces. ‘So Mr. Lloyd is not your real father?’ they asked in hushed tones. They were truly shocked because all they had seen were you treating me like the most precious jewel there was. The doubt on their faces quickly transferred to mine because the answer to that question was far from simple.

Because slipping your manhood into a woman, and having your sperm swim down her fallopian tube should perhaps cease being the qualification of fatherhood. Surely, this biological definition is too narrow. Because what is a father but what you were Lloyd Edwards? How else would I have learned that the stains of a green star apple could be magically transformed into an adhesive to build a kite? How else would I learn that leeward winds lift a kite much more majestically than those from the west? How else would I know about what a maiden over was or how to play a cover drive in cricket (this was before Google, of course)? Because that’s how we learned back then. There was no IPAD to be an intermediary; to mask the awkwardness. There were no phones or computers. Just the earnestness of your eyeballs meeting mine. And in your light brown eyes, I saw sincerity.

 

Oh those Green Days By The River

A word on cricket. You taught me the game. Those lazy Saturdays. The stories of Michael Holding and Viv Richards and Gary Sobers. They still swim around my head. We would watch the grainy black and white videos of the Three W’s and Rohan Kanhai and Lance Gibbs and you would regale me with stories of your playing days (which I always thought were less glorious than you made out. I forgive you though. I do the same with my kids now). You gave me lessons in the technique of batting and bowling and catching. We played in the yard and I would always beat you. I suspect you let me win though.

The old Wisden magazines you gave me had a huge effect on my love of reading. And who could forget our legendary arguments about Brian Lara. Lara was my first sporting hero. In truth, my only sporting love. But daddy, you hated Brian Lara. For me he was the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing sportsman ever produced. I changed my batting stance to left handed, to mimick him. I read about him (the magazines you gave me) voraciously to counter your arguments against him.

Because for you, Lara was a pompous, entitled, arrogant prick. You were all about the team. You were all about sportsmanship and togetherness. I was all about winning and the splendor of his batting. I am sure arguing about Lara took ten years off both our lives. It was epic at times. Lara would average 50 in a test series and I would walk in all smug. ‘See, Brian Charles in the greatest!’ Then you’d just smile that annoying smile of yours and say, ‘well, you say he is the greatest, why is he just averaging 50? He should average 100. Like Don Bradman. That Lara is no Viv Richards.’ And I would curse you in my head because I had no come back.

 

More Than A Game

 

I guess you were right though. The things you valued are the lessons I’m trying to teach my kids. Individual excellence is great but what good is it if it doesn’t serve a greater purpose. What’s the good of a doctor who doesn’t save lives? You would be sad to know I no longer watch cricket much. Damn the current incarnation of the West Indies team.

Cricket, you told me, is more than a game. For you, it was a message to young black boys and girls that they can achieve anything with hard work. Less than a generation ago, black people were told they couldn’t play the game. Apparently, we lacked intelligence. A black man could not be West Indies captain until Frank Worrell burst through. Then the West Indies took England’s game and bust their ass and everyone else’s.

You wanted me to swallow that message. You wanted me to understand that I should not be contained by my circumstances in that small Jamaican ghetto. You wanted me to understand that I could be great.

 

An Impasse and Confusion

 

Which was curious daddy because you never celebrated my achievements. When I passed the Common Entrance exam, you said congrats. And that was it. When I passed my CXCs it was a similar low-key affair. My degree elicited a parallel response. Bitterly, I have played with this at the base of my mind for years.

Would it have been different if I were your real son? Would my footballing prowess have excited you if I were an Edwards? My fears seemed confirmed when Chad came along and your excitement at his first steps or googoo- gaaging was extraordinary. You would regale Banga and everyone at the shop with stories of his cleverness and it would irk me. Jealousy seeped into our relationship.

But I now know I was wrong. In so many ways I was your favorite. We share memories that are exclusive to us. The barbershop moments that Chad sadly never had. You would use me to fill out your horseracing card when you struggled to decide which horse to place a bet on. I was your sage. You always thought I was so clever. You would call me to the workshop to read to you when I was only 5 yeas old. As I grew, you started listening to and respecting my political opinions long before they had any credibility. You pulled me into your left wing thoughts, and shaped my passion to rail against an unjust Jamaican society. You bragged about me to your friends. They too didn’t know that your sperm didn’t bear me.

And why should I deny that particular, unhinged joy at your only biological son? It’s just that your love had become the food that fed my arteries. I jealously protected it. Chad has grown to be the man you would want him to be. Truly immaculate. You would be so proud. But he will never know you like I did and that will forever be a sad thing. He will never have you in the prime of life, laughing and playing dominoes and dropping life nuggets like a Steph Curry assist.

 

Boyz In The Hood

My childhood friends eventually started to take a turn for the worse. Robbery, common assault, and drug peddling seeped into their lives. They didn’t always have a father around. And their stepfathers walked through the doors of their lives the way alcoholics walk through the swinging saloon gates of the Western movies you loved so much. Their love for my friends’ mothers never transferred to them. They were kicked, pushed, beaten, ignored.

You disciplined us rarely. To be fair, mummy was already heating our backsides, early and often. She was the aggressor, determined that her boys were going to be something. You took a subtle approach, an approach that I questioned at times as the years rolled by and you had your own children with mummy? Was it because you didn’t care about me? Were you unsure about how to approach another man’s kids?

But then I learned that you found other ways. That the shout wasn’t always mightier than the whisper. That the example you set was as powerful a teacher as the mightiest slap. That look of disappointment was enough for me to run to the hills seeking atonement. And when you did draw for a belt, then I knew for sure it was deserved. The good cop, bad cop thing you and mummy had going on surely had us fooled for a while there. But the contrast was powerful and effective.

And who could forget that fateful autumn mid-afternoon when my older brother walked in with the waist of his pants straddling his knees. You gave him a look of profound disgust and asked him if he was available because that was how men in American prisons demonstrated their sexual readiness to fellow inmates. He never again claimed to be a boy in the hood.

 

Unconditional Love

 

You loved my mother with a love that was apparent even to a 5-year-old boy. You helped me understand how to love a woman. You would walk in from work and slip your day’s pay down her bosom. Nothing was too much for her. In retrospect, it sounds silly to say it but you probably loved her too much. I say this because you lost where you started and she ended, so immersed were you. You seemed to dissolve, and disappear, the way some alkalis do in water.

And with the eyes of an adult today, I look back and wonder if that love didn’t suffocate her. My conflicting thoughts on this issue have probably complicated my own relationships. Should you love a woman stupid, crazy and let her lose her edge and respect for you? Or will this make her really appreciate you and love you back?

Or do you present her with “rational” love, that keeps her reaching, and wanting for more as you drip feed her your emotions? As you can probably tell, I really don’t know.

 

Summer Love

 

Daddy, you remember when I came home for the summer holidays when I was 16? I’m sure you do because that will always be remembered as the summer of love. Ok, maybe that’s just in my head but bear with me. It was the summer I came home, giddy as a soaring butterfly, escaping the slimy confines of a caterpillar’s skin. I walked into your workshop. You were there with Banga and Mark on the sewing machine, stitching a chair’s floral material to a piece of mahogany. Your two apprentices were equipped with hammers, pulling out errant nails. I remember all this because I walked in eyes wide open. The sun peeked in, found a chair and rested. I walked in feeling like manhood had grabbed me. Kayonne had grabbed me. Love gobbled me up and I was quick to tell you about her. Her light brown skin, her intelligence, our love.

What was your reaction daddy?

(a) Did you ask for more information and encourage me?

Or

(b) Did you, Banga and Mark fall from your chair and laugh and point at me and laugh and point some more, with joyful tears staining your cheeks?

 

Well (b) of course. You guys teased me all summer. ‘Miss Kayonne, it’s Dwayne here,’ you would mock call, with your fingers bent into the shape of a phone. ‘Should we get married?’ and you guys would keel over laughing. I was so annoyed by it all.

‘You don’t understand,’ I can still hear myself pleading to you. ‘We are in looove!’ But one fine day later that summer, we trespassed on the neighboring common to ‘steal’ limes for lemonade and you were wearing that mischievous little grin that told me something was up. We sat on the grass and you told me that you were just teasing me, giving me tough love.

You told me to take it easy and don’t get too caught up with love because within a few years I would be saying ‘Kayonne WHO? Just enjoy yuhself,’ you assured me. Of course, I rejected that advice and thought you were just an old man who no longer understood the youthful passion of love and desire. Of course, I returned home that Christmas from school and Kayonne was a distant, painful memory.

 

When Love Hurts So Much…

 

But this story is poignant for another reason. Because how could I have doubted that you lacked passion when you loved mummy so. Dear reader, please understand the love I’m talking about. A few years ago Tom Cruise was married to Katie Holmes. He sat on Oprah’s coach and when asked about Miss Holmes, he beamed as bright as the afternoon sun and bounced around like a loose cat. That is as close as I can get to describe your love for mummy. You were a senseless child around her, though you were about 10 years older.

I remember when you guys broke up and you moved to the countryside. We visited and I can still remember us leaving in the back of a fenderside truck, the tears coursing down my cheeks, feeling like the love of my life was gone forever.

But you were my superman. You returned in a blaze of glory to reclaim your woman. And I for one was happy for it. You came to the shop, grabbed a meat cleaver and bolted for the man who was now claiming my mother’s affections. I hoped to see his head fall the way the Jacobins decimated their enemies in the French Revolution.

He was not you daddy. He treated my brother and I with contempt. My mother hardly any better. The crowd intervened. I saw you collapse to the floor and cry. And inside, a little part of me died.

Your heart broke daddy. It splintered into tiny pieces. And anyone who has swept up broken glass from the floor knows that putting it back together is an impossible task. Daddy you died of a broken heart. You left us in 2011 but you died that night. You were never the same.

You were with another lady for a short time but your heart wasn’t in it. I knew where your heart was. It was with mummy. It was with the woman you met in the 1980s who had two young babies and whom you decided to make life with. It was with her two boys that you decided to make your own. Your chest was gutted of your heart and your blood flowed iffy. You were truly lovesick.

Soon after I arrived in England in 2004, you got a stroke. The doctors were baffled. But they were merely the last in a long line to be met with bafflement at your actions. You lived and exhibited a life of kindness and selflessness. Thanks to you I always have the joy of saying my father raised me. It is this that drives me; makes me determined to be a good father to my children. You showed me what love is; how transformative love is; how necessary love is.

I saw you stroke-stricken in the summer of 2006. Chad and Enese were there. Your walk was unhurried and your speech slow. We hung out and watched the World Cup. I wanted England out as soon as possible but you just laughed at me. Most of your teeth had fallen out by then but you were as handsome as ever. I am hardly religious but I have knelt to my knee hoping to have hair like you had. Alas, I don’t think it will be. I think I have a tiny bald spot in the crown of my head though my friends tell me that it’s just my deepest fears manifesting itself. Your Afro was always so immaculate and when the flecks of grey seeped in, you had a bit of the Mandelas about you.

So now I live through you vicariously. I have digested the lessons and the love you gave. You were a better man than I will ever be. You embraced a little boy who was abandoned by his biological father. Because of you, I was never lost. Because of you, I knew my father. I have never felt unloved because of you. So please be assured, your grandkids will know your name, Lloyd Edwards The Great!