Sunday, June 19, 2011

Who's your Daddy?

Father's Day 2011, Breakfast-on-couch

Ankle shackled to a bed. Eyes wild and angry. Mouth spewing vitriol in every direction. This time, admitted with some kind of infection. Last time, some kind of drug ingestion. Looking through his archival it became obvious that he wasn't a stranger to Grady. The dictations described prior hospitalizations with similar circumstances--in police custody, positive urine drug screens, abusive and impossible behavior on the ward. And not even thirty years old.

"Hey there, sir. I'm Dr. Manning."

"Okay. Get to it 'cause I don't feel like a whole bunch of extra shit." He rolled on his back, folded his lean brown arms and placed his hands behind his head. The security officer mandated to sit at his bedside cut her eyes sideways in his direction and then rolled them with a tiny shake of her head. She gave her finger tip an exaggerated lick and turned the page in the paperback novel sitting on her lap.

"I came to see about you this morning along with the rest of my team of doctors. We'll be the ones taking care of you while we try to get this infection under better control."

"Tell them to bring me a double portion. I want a double portion on my tray."

I looked at the shining metal cuff locked snugly around his right ankle. The left foot was covered with a blanket, but occasionally the other that was bare and exposed would reflexively fight against being restrained with a backward pull. A telling red ring on his skin was evidence.

His body smelled of rebellion, and his matted hair and poor oral hygiene made it a little hard to look at him. Especially when combined with how unabashedly rude he was.

"I think we can get you a double portion. That's not a big deal."

I then asked his permission to examine him. Normally, I would ask more questions or recap what the residents had told me on rounds, but in this instance I knew that he could kick us all out at any minute. I carefully inspected his thin and muscular body, searching for clues about his recurrent infections. The skin was smattered with excoriated bumps and picked scabs, likely related to his lifestyle outside of the hospital. I moved on to start pulling back dressings and gingerly removing packing from an infected wound.

"This seems to be draining pretty well, sir. You know the packing helps you as it heals. We're also giving you some antibiotics through an IV because this infection is hard to treat with just pills."

"Hey!" he suddenly yelled out to a nurse's aid that walked in to pick up a pill cup. "Why you didn't get me the apple juice I asked for? Get me two. And some ice!" He shook his head hard and muttered under his breath (but quite audibly) some expletives involving his feelings about Grady Hospital.

"Are you from here?" I asked, working to quickly deflect him from further picking on the aid.

"Bankhead, shawty." He smiled wide, like he was proud of his west side Atlanta neighborhood. "What you know about Bankhead?"

I smiled back and shrugged. "Not that much. . . .but. . .isn't that where the rapper T.I. is from?" I recognized how lame I sounded by using the words "the rapper" before the artist's name. So forty-something of me.

"Aaiight, then, Doc. You know wha's up! Yeah, he from the west side. He from Bowen Homes. Tha's al-right that you know that!"

I felt a bit of relief wash over me as his eyes softened in my direction. After looking at his arms and palms, I reached for his hand. Surprisingly, he allowed me to hold it.

My purple glove and yellow infection control gown separated our contact somewhat, but in that moment, he stilled. I covered this hand with my other hand and allowed the team of onlooking interns, students and residents to blur in my peripheral vision.

"Sir. . . Where is your family?"

"I don't have no family," he quickly responded. I could hear the venom rising up in his voice again as he drew his hand back.

"No family? Where was your family? Your peoples? Like. . .who raised you up?" I had to know because black folks in the south rarely have nobody. Everyone has a "mama'nem" or "play cuzzin" or two.

"Nobody, like I said. The state. The system. Shit, nobody." He laughed when he said that part. This inappropriate chuckle that was laced with pain and cynicism. I didn't flinch so he kept talking. "Yeah. My mama was a crack fiend. My daddy was a n--a she prob'ly let do her for a five dollar rock." Again that strange and unsettling laugh. His use of "the n-word" made it even more uncomfortable than it already was in the room. The security officer lifted her head the minute he said it, freezing for an instant and then returning to her book.

"I'm sorry." I squinted my eyes and then asked, "Did you get much time with your mom? I mean, before she . . I mean, before you had to go to foster care?"

"Yeah, shit. . .too much time. Basic'ly I was right there while she was gettin' smoked out and f--d by anybody and everybody so she could get right. I remember all that shit. Somebody would come in there and beat her ass like a dog in the street and she turn around and get on her knees." Another laugh.

"On her knees?"

"Yeah, you know what I'm talking about. On her knees talking 'bout, 'Daddy I'll be good' so she could get high. Gettin' dudes off right in front of me. A lot of them cats was dealers, and my mom was pretty even though she was a crack fiend so they would still do her. But you know, them cats ain't stupid. . . they wasn't lookin' to die or nothin' so they would just let her take care of them with her mouth, you know. 'Cause shit you don't have no idea what these fiends out here got. The AIDS, whatever. But yeah. I was right there seein' all that shit. And I was just a little man, too."

"Did anybody ever try to touch you?"

"Touch me? No. Shit, nobody even knew half the time I was even there."

"Then what happened? How did you get out?"

"One day some white people came in there and saw how f--d up everything was and took me out. But where they took me was just as f--d up." I noticed a pattern. With all of the most disturbing parts of his story, he chuckled.

"There wasn't any other family?"

"Naaah. Plus I had behavior problems and nobody was trying to f--k with all that, so yeah, I went to foster care so yeah whatever, you know? It's f--ked up out there. Ha ha ha. . .now here I am." He held his hands out like tah dah.


He leaned back in the bed and scratched his abdomen. It was covered with crude, jail tattoos. With a bored yawn he asked, "So, why you want to know all that? Wha's that got to do with anything?"

"I want to know because I'm looking at your eyes and your face and wondering who let you down when you were a little boy." He gave me a puzzled expression, like genuinely puzzled. I went on. "That's the truth. That's why I'm asking all that."

Because that was why I was asking and I did want to know that. I looked at him and wanted to know-- who let him down? Who? And yeah, I know. A lot of folks have hard lives and yet they somehow at some point pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get their act together.

But what about when you don't even have any boots to pull straps on?

So that's what I'm reflecting on this morning. It's Father's Day and, honestly Father's Day always gets me thinking about parents in general. Probably because there's so much symbolism tied up in the role of the patriarch. Like, your dad is supposed to be your bridge over troubled waters; he's the one you jump behind when something goes bump in the night. And for a lot of folks--and I do mean a whole lot of folks--that father in the traditional sense wasn't there. But if they were lucky somebody else stepped up to the plate. So I guess that's what gets me thinking about Father's Day this way. I think about it in terms of what having one affords you. And what it denies those who don't.

This morning while standing in my kitchen I was thinking of that patient. . . this beautiful, cocoa-complexioned manchild whose ankle was locked to the end of a bed. I remembered his round brown eyes and dark, lush lashes. I could see the chicken pox scar on his cheek and the distinct facial features. I wondered if he was, perhaps, the spitting image of someone who never knew or cared to know of his existence and what that might have meant to his entire life. I also wondered how it all would have turned out if he'd just had someone looking at him lovingly on a daily basis.


As I cracked eggs into a sizzling frying pan and sauteed steak for Harry's Father's Day breakfast in bed, I asked myself--What is the best thing a parent can do for a child besides love them? And then, while stirring creamer into a steaming cup of coffee, I thought about this:

A parent, in whatever capacity they are a parent, should fight tooth and nail to stop anyone or anything from robbing their child's innocence before it's time. Period.

Kid eyes just don't seem wired for processing overly mature and overly awful visual images. Hell, adult eyes don't do such a great job at it either. But it's worse for kids. And I'm not sure how you can have a fighting chance when at seven years old you saw your mama on her knees calling somebody who just called her a bitch to her face "Daddy."

Up until I was about twenty years old, nearly everything I did or did not do was out of wanting to make my parents proud of me (or not disappointed in me.) At some point, things shifted and I wanted to do the right thing because of myself, but sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have been forced to figure out all the things I've figured out with the help of loving parents on my own. I needed those wagging fingers and swats on my behind for coming in after the street lights came on, and I thank God for the standing ovations I received for fourth grade performances and at medical school graduations. More than all of those things, though. . . working at Grady has shown me how blessed I am that my eyes were shielded from things not meant for them. And for real? I thank God for that.

For some folks, it's in their DNA to make it despite a hard childhood. But most folks? It isn't. At all. Turn on a television and watch those Penitentiary/Lock up reality shows and you'll know it's true. Story after story of childhoods ruined by innocence lost followed by broken adult existences. Which sucks because there's not a whole bunch you can do to fix that.

Damn. Father's Day is supposed to be a feel good day. I didn't mean to get heavy like this. But the point of it all is this--if you had somebody waiting at home for you, expecting the world for you, covering your eyes for you, and sacrificing for you, you might want to call them up and tell them thanks. Not just "Happy Father's Day" but, for real, thank you for slugging it out for me. Thanks for letting me be a kid during the time when I was supposed to be a kid and for kicking me squarely in my behind when I tried not to be one. And if your parent failed at some parts of it, tell them I love you anyway because at least you tried. Because one thing I know for sure is that a whole, whole lot of people for a whole, whole lot of really complicated reasons don't try. At all.

Our plan was to deliver Harry breakfast in bed. We took longer than expected so it ended up being breakfast on couch, but he seemed to like it all the same. I knelt down next to Isaiah and Zachary outside of the kitchen and whispered to them before we brought the tray to Harry. I wanted to make sure they knew what to say.

"Tell him Happy Father's Day," I said. "But make sure--no matter what--that you tell him 'Thank you for being a good daddy to me.'"

And Isaiah asked, "Mom, is it hard to be a daddy?"

I grabbed his face with both hands and looked in his brown eyes--round with sprawling lashes just like my patient's. Then I answered, "No, son. . . .not when you know how."

Happy Father's Day. To all y'all.

Now playing on my mental iPod. . . .the song I danced to with my father on my wedding day. Eva Cassidy sings this in a way that stirs my soul. Maybe you can add it to your mental iTunes, too.


  1. So beautiful, this post and ultimately not depressing but necessarily sobering and -- well -- life-affirming. I'm so blessed to "know you" here. Happy Father's Day to your wonderful man --

  2. You are so right. As a high school teacher I see the results of broken families and absent fathers. One student pops into my head...a young, african-american male, in the special ed program for behavior disorder. But, there is something so likeable and charming about him. I have taught him for two years now, because he failed my class the first time. No matter what I, or my co-teacher does, we can't counteract the effects of this boy's parents who are absent from his life. I have poured a lot of my time, energy, and prayers into this kid and just when I see some hope...he will backslide.

    I finally met mom after two years, she has been in jail. Dad is who knows where. And my student? Arrested this spring for selling drugs. Now, he is a statistic...a young african-american male who probably will not graduate from high school and has already been in jail. I am not sure if he will come back to school. I have tried to get him to meet me and my co-teacher for lunch to try to talk about some options for him, other than the street.

    I just can't seem to counteract what he is missing. And believe me, I am trying (along with some other teachers/coaches). But when your momma doesn't care, it is hard to belive why anything matters.

  3. I know it's Father's Day, but what I'm moved to say is: What a wonderful woman you are!

  4. Grady what a moving post you wrote today and hearing Eva Cassidy sing one of my favorite songs just was profoundly moving.

    You are amazing and I just am thinking that what you did by trying to connect with that young man was huge. You may have been the only one in a long time that actually spoke to him in a way without judgement or disgust. You may have left him with a memory of a person who took the time to be nice.

    We all have a story....and sometimes our stories are full of joy and sometimes they are just full of sorrow. But we have a story..and that story goes on till the day we die...

  5. If your father, your very own DADDY doesn't care enough to stick around, it's really, really hard to grow up with any sense of self-worth.
    I know.
    This got me to my heart. I have more in common with that man than anyone looking at us would believe. No, my mother was not a crack whore, but still, there were shades of what he was talking about with my growing up.
    But I DID have boots. Dammit, I did, and for that, I am so grateful.
    Boots AND strong bootstraps. It was only up to me to pull them up.
    Can I just tell you that I love you, Gradydoctor? Can I say that?
    I hope so.
    Because I do.

  6. This was a good one KDM... And kudos to you and your strong bootstraps Ms. Moon!!

  7. Well now I am heading toward the "ugly cry" and feeling emotional about all of the poor children (adult children too) who had their childhood stolen and will struggle to repair their souls.

    When I see screwed up people, mean people, criminal people I often see them as sad children. It helps me with compassion rather than blame.

    Everyone needs those straps on the boots to pull themselves up. Sometimes those straps are the compassion of others. We can only try...

  8. So well written, parenting is challenging but to see the effects of failed/lack of parenting is so very much worse.
    thanks for writing.

  9. Elizabeth sent me here and I'm glad she did. I work in an inner city hospital in Northern Alberta and see the same thing. It breaks my heart to hear the stories of people but I listen because we all need to tell our story.

    You might enjoy reading a book written by a Vancouver doctor, Gabor Maté. It's "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts". He works with street people and addicts in downtown Vancouver.

  10. This made me appreciate the level of effort required to be a good father..

    You are good!!!!

    Much love, PoopDeck

  11. Dr. M-

    Wow, you say this so right. I was lucky enough to have more than one father figure, and they all tried. I am so blessed. But I know exactly what you mean by not even having boot straps in the first place. You're not kidding on that one.

    I really think you are the only person around with your voice, and I love it. I love how you talk about the hard stuff with so much compassion. You bring it every single day...thank you!


  12. You have a such a compassionate heart. Thanks for sharing your insights with us. I pray that your encounter touched that patient in some positive way.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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