Fathers and Angels
Wes stared back at me after I’d asked my question, letting a moment pass and a smirk flicker across his face before responding.
“I really haven’t thought too deeply about his impact on my life because, really, he didn’t have one.”
Wes leaned back in his seat and threw an even stare at me.
“Come on, man,” I pressed on. “You don’t think about how things would have been different if he’d been there? If he cared enough to be there?”
“No, I don’t.” The lower half of his face was shrouded by the long beard that he’d grown, an outward sign of the Islamic faith he’d adopted in prison. His eyes danced with bemusement. He was not moved by my emotional questioning. “Listen,” he went on. “Your father wasn’t there because he couldn’t be, my father wasn’t there because he chose not to be. We’re going to mourn their absence in different ways.”
This was one of our first visits. I had driven a half hour from my Baltimore home, and into the woody hills of central Maryland to Jessup Correctional Institute to see Wes. Immediately upon entering the building, I was sternly questioned by an armed guard and roughly searched to ensure I wasn’t bringing anything that could be passed on to Wes. Once cleared, another guard escorted me to a large room that reminded me of a public school cafeteria. This was the secured area where prisoners and their visitors came together. Armed guards systematically paced around the room. Long tables with low metal dividers separating the visitors from the visited were the room’s only furnishing. The prisoners who were marched in, shackled and dressed in orange or blue jumpsuits, or grey sweatsuits with “DOC” emblazoned across the chest. The uniforms reinforced the myriad other signals all around us: the prisoners were owned by the state. Lucky inmates were allowed to sit across a regular table from loved ones. They could exchange an initial hug and then talk face-to-face. The rest had to talk to their families and friends through bulletproof glass using a telephone, visitor and the prisoner connected by receivers they held tight to their ears.
Just as I was about to ask another question, Wes interrupted me.
“Let me ask you a question. You come here and ask me all these questions but you haven’t shared any of yourself up with me. So tell me, what impact did your father not being there have on your childhood?”
“I don’t know--” I was about to say more when I realized that I didn’t really have more to say.
“Do you miss him?” he asked me.
“Every day. All the time.” I replied softly. I was having trouble finding my voice. It always amazed me how I could love someone so deeply, so intensely, that I barely even knew.
I was taught to remember, but never question. Wes was taught himself to forget, and never ask why. We learned our lessons well, and were showing them off to a tee. We sat there, just a few feet from each other, both silent, pondering an absence.
“Is Daddy Coming With Us?”
Nikki and I would play this game: I would sit on the living room chair while Nikki deeply inhaled and then blew directly in my face, eliciting hysterical laughs on both sides. This was our ritual. It always ended with me jabbing playfully at her face. She’d run away and bait me to give chase. Most times before today I never came close to catching her but today, I caught her and realized, like a dog chasing a car, I had no idea what to do. So, in the spirit of three-year-old boys everywhere who’ve run out of better ideas, I decided to punch her. Of course my mother walked into the room right as I swung and connected.
The yell startled me, but her eyes are what I remember.
“Get up to your damn room,” came my mother’s command from the doorway. “I told you, don’t you ever put your hands on a woman!”
I looked up, confused, as she quickly closed the distance between us.
My mother had what we called “Thomas Hands,” a tag derived from her maiden name: hands that hit so hard you only had to be hit once to know you never wanted to be hit again. The nickname began generations ago, but each generation took on the mantle of justifying it. Those hands were now reaching for me. Her eyes told me it was time to get moving.
I darted up the stairs still unsure about what exactly I’d done so terribly wrong. I headed to the bedroom I shared with my baby sister, Shani. Our room was tiny, barely big enough for my small bed and her crib. There was no place to hide. I was running in circles, frantic to find a way to conceal myself. And still trying to figure why I was in so much trouble. I couldn’t even figure out the meaning of half the words she was using.
In a panic, I kicked the door shut behind me, just as her voice reached the second floor. “And don’t let me hear you slam that --” boom! I stared for a moment at the closed door, knowing it would soon be flying open again. I sat in the middle of the room, next to my sister’s empty crib, awaiting my fate.
“Joy, you can’t get on him like that,” my father’s baritone voice drifted up through the thin floor. “He’s only three. He doesn’t even understand what he did wrong. Do you really think he knows what a woman beater is?”
My father was in the living room, ten feet from where the entire incident began. He was a very slender 6’2 with a bushy mustache and a large afro. It wasn’t his style to yell. When he heard my mother’s outburst he rose from his chair, his eyes widening in confusion. My mother slowly reeled herself in. But she wasn’t completely mollified.
“Wes, he needs to learn what is acceptable and what is not!” My father agreed, but with a gentle laugh, reminded her that cursing at a young boy wasn’t the smartest way of making a point. I was saved, for the moment.
Excerpted from THE OTHER WES MOORE: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore. Copyright © 2010 by Wes Moore. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.