And We're Running: My Father & My Friend
* This article was first published on Blavity, sponsored by the Fences film
There's a safety that comes with having my dad for a father. A safety that only four people on this earth will ever know — me, my two sisters and my brother. It's a type of security that I can't describe. One that leaves with him and cannot be replaced by anyone else's presence. It's as though he is our guardian angel.
I am 4 years old. Papi and I are playing a game of tag, or at least I think we are. He sprints out the front door headed for the car. I don't let him out of my sight. I fling the screen door open and dash after him.
I lose my footing on the cement stairs.
I wake up and my eyes are swollen shut — kind of like Michael B. Jordan’s in Creed, but wayyy less fine. My two front teeth have bled so much that they turn black. My dad lets me sleep and drink out of a straw. He gives me treats when my mom isn't looking and mostly makes fun of me when my teeth don’t heal for picture day. In hindsight, it’s quite possible that we were not playing a game of tag but that he was legitimately running away from me..... nah...
I am 12 years old and just landed my first professional acting job. Six nights a week, I play Young Nala in The Lion King at The New Amsterdam Theatre in Times Square.
*Mama I made it*
My dad speeds down the West Side highway, attempting to get me to the theater on time. I remind him of the rule — 10 minutes late and your understudy performs, and we only have 9 minutes — 8 minutes — to go. Traffic. Seven minutes. We inch up. Red light. Five minutes. Papi puts the car in park and swings his door open. He looks at me and it’s clear — we’re running. Papi and I run down 42nd street, racing time.
Papi destroys his knee but I get to the theater on time.
I am 15 years old and we are running again. I am a cross country star — or least Papi thinks I am. I am running the biggest race of the season. The only thing getting me through is that my favorite bakery is across the street. I see Papi at the start line. “Keep your head down! In through your nose! Out through your mouth!” He shouts. The race begins. Mile one and I already feel like crawling off the course.
“In through your nose, out through your mouth!” I think. Then, "In through your nose, out through your mouth!" I hear. How is this possible you ask?
My dad is running the race with me. LITERALLY. He follows me the full way, and somehow I run three miles in the same time my 45-year-old father runs three miles. Only difference is, I’ve been training all season.
I am 18 years old and my parents are dropping me off at college. Boston University. I decided not to go to the matriculation ceremony because Papi tells me he would buy me Chipotle instead. We eat our burritos in silence mostly. My heart aches to say goodbye. As the car pulls off, my dad gives me a quick hug goodbye. We aren't doing the emotional thing right now. We don't have to, we both know how we feel. In the four years that follow, my father would stay at the office later than a human ever should just to pay my tuition. He would drive four hours at 9 p.m. to come pick me up because I had a broken heart and asked him to on a whim. He would eat Froyo with me and let me listen to my '90s music the whole way home.
*Let it be noted that he would also tell me to cut the sh*t with the partying — rightfully so.*
I am 22 years old and I am lost in the most crippling of ways. I struggle to find happiness after graduation so all I can speak of is starting my own business, making my own films, writing my own work. My dad tells me that I have to. So I do.
I am also 22 years old when my grandfather dies. My family stands around his body watching the life slip away from him. Every breath he takes is closer to his last. My heart is heavy as we say goodbye to this grumpy old man we love. I watch his daughter stand over his body as she watches the man who taught her everything lose color in his face, then neck, hands, feet and toes. My father holds me tight and I am rudely awakened by the thought of one day having to say goodbye to him. My stomach turns at the thought of this. I feel like a toddler who has just learned what death is. My dad has been my guardian angel — every hurdle I've had to jump he's helped me over. So from that day on, though he might not know it, I monitor every piece of food he puts in his mouth, I push him to get into the gym and turn off his morning alarms when I know he needs more rest.
I do this because it's time for him to have a guardian angel too.