I didn’t think he would show up, so I spared myself the disappointment by not telling him we were visiting. We would only be in town for four days, and I made plans with everyone I could, except him. After years and years of disappointment, you learn to bottle the resentment, the pain, the “why he don’t want me, man?” mantra and turn it into a trophy of sorts to remind yourself of why you never needed him. I reasoned that if I didn’t make plans with him, he wouldn’t know I was in town; he couldn’t show up, and evidently, I could not be disappointed. I wanted to visit quickly and leave quietly, as I came; like a real-life Santa Claus who takes back the presents, the only gift I brought to show everyone was you.
It wasn’t until the second day into our visit that my brother, your uncle, as hard and stern as he could be sometimes, looked me square in the face while he fed you in his arms for the first time and said, “Dad should meet him.” He was right. The sins of the father should not visit upon the grandson—or whatever that quote said.
With much reticence, I called him on the spot and, without giving him much time to prepare, told him I would be at your grandmother’s the next day but would be leaving at six. He sounded disappointed. He got off work at four, and it would take two hours, two buses, and two trains for him to travel from Brooklyn to where Grandma stayed in Jersey.
He asked about the following day.
“I’ll be in Flatbush tomorrow with friends. If you’re free, come by,” I said.
He assured me he would make it. Your grandfather would never tell you no but always had an excuse for why he couldn’t follow through. When I was young, I imagined he had a Rolodex of excuses for every time he could not make due on a promise—he never seemed to run out.
We drove that afternoon to Flatbush, Brooklyn. It’s gentrified now, adorned with unattractive apartment buildings, nondescript fonts for building numbers, and businesses that stand out like sore thumbs. Parts of this Flatbush are unrecognizable to me now, filled with translucent faces who would much rather be in Park Slope or Bed-Stuy, but this is all their pockets could afford—being next to Prospect Park would have to do.
We are meeting Nova, her partner, and her baby in Flatbush Market—the new and mixed-use Flatbush Market. This place once housed every vendor from the Caribbean islands who sold their spices, flags, foods, and all other wonderful Black goodness in a yellow-and-green warehouse structure—questionable to a stranger on the outside but beautiful and bustling on the inside.
But few vendors are here now, and an ugly building has been erected in its place. The food, still Caribbean, caters to a foreign tongue with a lot more dollar signs now. A plantain sandwich filled with goat meat is $23, a sweet plantain boat topped with jerk chicken is $18, the menu reads, and loaded sweet plantain fries are $20. Laughable, but understandable.
We find Nova’s family in the market. This is the first time you are meeting them. She, too, knows all too well about the journey of trying to conceive. We relish this moment that we both yearned for but could not see—yet here we are, with the children, the fruits of petitions, manifestations, and prayers, over a meal.
As we begin to order, I step out and call him. He answers, sounding like he’s outside, not at home, a little occupied. I feel that familiar sensation I used to experience when I was young, right before he would pull one of those excuses from his Rolodex. I tell him where we are, and he says he has to take two dollar vans to meet us. I know the route well—it’s a perfect L. One dollar van straight down Utica Ave, the other right down Church Ave. Not much of a walk to Caton Ave.
In less than an hour, and after some back-and-forth calls between us, I meet him outside because he couldn’t find the place. “I’m right here,” I say through the phone and wave my arms. I see him swiveling his head on the corner of the street until he finally notices me. He walks over with the all-too-familiar swag of a confident Black man whose hair is freshly cut, even though he too is bald like me.
He tells me he no longer recognizes this place. Gentrification is like that—it squeezes the culture out of a mango and charges you double its price when they soak its skin in boiling water and now it’s mango-infused. Wait until he sees the prices of the plantain sandwiches, I think to myself.
We hug, and he smells just as he has since I was a little boy. Like all of his clothes were anointed in cologne, and even after they were washed, you could still smell it. One thing about your grandfather, he wasn’t always there, but when he was, he always smelled good.
I walk him inside and give him a quick pep talk. I let him know your mother is here, we’re eating with friends and their baby. He says okay, in a way that makes me realize he couldn’t care less if the people I was eating with weren’t even human—he looked determined.
We get to the table where everyone is eating their overpriced Caribbean sandwiches and fries. “This is my dad,” I announce to the group. I call out Nova and everyone’s name like he’ll remember them—I save you for last.
“. . . and this is your grandson,” I say. You’re comfortably sitting on Nova’s lap. There’s a smile on his face as I pass him some hand sanitizer.
As he makes his way to you, I grab my phone to capture the moment. My dad is a fast walker, but my hands are faster. I hit the red “record” button, but it freezes. I just got the phone about two weeks ago—God has an interesting way of telling us all to be present.
He takes you off Nova’s lap with a confidence and entitlement that says, this is mine. He doesn’t even ask if it’s okay—I love it. He walks back around to a chair I have set up next to me, puts you on his lap, and has that same smile I could recall from the brief moments of joy we had together.
He looks at you with such ease, joy, and contentment, and has a full conversation with you as if for those minutes you’re the only thing that matters to him. I’m looking at you both in splendor like a snow globe that was just shaken, but emotions mixed—I’m finding it hard to be present: grateful I listened to your uncle, happy your grandfather did not disappoint as he has done many times before, but slightly envious. I remember desperately wanting him to look at me and treat me like I was the only thing that ever mattered in the world.
As quickly as he arrived, it’s time for us to go. Because we made plans with everyone but him, we have another trip to make. I can tell he’s disappointed—this must be what prisoners feel like when visiting hours are over. But here, we’re free—all of us. The only thing between us seeing each other is not bars, but distance. We live 900 miles away now, and I want to believe that if we were closer, these visits would be more frequent. But my mind circles back to the days when he lived a ten-minute walk away, and I still did not see them—there was always a Rolodex of excuses why.
I am not sure how to end this letter to you. I want to say that you’ll see him again soon, the way people always say when they depart. I want to promise you that my feelings and resentments, which I am trying to let go of, won’t get in the way. I want to tell you that people change, and we should forgive them not because they deserve it but because God has commanded it. But I’ve forgiven seventy-seven times, and the outcome remained the same.
When you met your grandfather last week for the first time, I desperately didn’t want him to show up. I wanted to keep him in the same dim light where I had confined him. But he showed up. He held you, smiled with you, and even though it was just for a moment, I had to remind myself that he wasn’t holding me in his arms—he was holding you.
My inner child is still healing. To be honest, the more I write to you, the more I realize these letters are more for my healing than for your benefit.
I’m trying to write myself into a future I can’t guarantee I’ll be in. At the same time, I am trying to convince myself that you need me because, deep inside, I know I need your grandfather, my father.