Life Lessons From an Absentee Father

To the best of my knowledge, this Plaque and old hat, are the only things left of Walter Williams II. These are the sole earthly possessions I retain as keepsakes to remember my father.

Walter Williams II was the type of guy who became popular wherever he went. He was funny, gregarious, easy going, quick to laugh, took little seriously, and had the ability to find humor in the worse of situations. He loved the Rolling Stones, Steven King’s novels, horror films, and Mad Magazine. He had this ability to do seemingly anything he set his mind to.

Despite all this, he was not a good father. If I were to be honest, were it a contest, he would not have even won a bronze medal.

My father was not cruel or abusive. On the contrary, he loved children and staunchly believed it was wrong to ever physically discipline them. When he was around, we had some of the most amazing times together. The problem is those times were rare. Walter Williams II was an absentee father.

Some of my earliest memories of him involves receiving short letters he wrote from prison or hoping he would call us. On several occasions, we visited him in facilities or halfway homes. At other times I eagerly anticipated a rare visit. Contact with him was sporadic at best. There were many nights I would lie awake wondering where he was or hoping he was safe.

The last day, I saw my father, was when he came by for a visit. Though, he did not stay as long as promised, he still gave me $5 so I could have fun with my friends at a local arcade. He promised he would see me again later.

Later never happened.

Barely two months after his visit he was gone. Murdered in some petty dispute with an equally petty man. I was 12 when the funeral director handed me the memorial plaque on that rainy afternoon next to his open casket. The funeral home was all but empty. Those rare and few individuals my father genuinely called friends were dead long before him.

I do not write this to slander him all these years later. While I do not condone his behavior, or poor choices, I do feel genuine sympathy and love for my father. I can see him more clearly then I did as a child. I understand his inability to be a good father stemmed from a lifetime of untreated trauma. It began when he was only a boy, growing up under the violence and contempt of his father, Walter Williams I. My father never understood why his father seemingly hated him so much or why his mother never protected him.

My father experienced many tragedies throughout his life. One of the worse was the lost of his older brother, Anthony. His brother was more than the only family he had. He was also my father’s best friend. While in their 20s, they stayed in a dangerous part of Los Angeles. One evening, after hanging out, my father told Anthony he would catch him later that night. A few minutes later, while still on his way home, he heard gunshots.

On the rare occasions my father ever talked about this event, he admitted, even while running back as fast as he could, he already somehow knew his brother was dead. He would sit with Anthony’s body until emergency services arrived. In these sorts of neighborhoods, even if no one talks to the cops, they still do talk. It did not take long for him to find out who was responsible for killing his older brother. So, my father got a gun, tracked that individual down, and emptied his weapon into them. Tossing the gun to the street, he sat with the killer’s body until the police arrived.

“They can only hurt you if you let them in”, was a phrase he frequently said.

My father did not let people in because he was still frightened. He was still afraid of loss, of having his trust broken, of being hurt, or taken advantage of. Hiding behind his anger and laughter was a persistent fear.

Walter Williams II was a flawed, troubled, and complex individual. He never laid a hand on his family but was known and deeply feared for the extreme violence he would unleash when angered. He laughed a lot despite his pain. He loved us but he failed to be there.

It was having a lack of a father that made having my own child a terrifying prospect. My daughter was born a little over 2 months before my 19th birthday. There were two Walter’s before me, and both were bad fathers. The first was abusive, the second absent, and I feared myself, as the third, would only somehow continue the cyclical failure.

How could I be a good father without a role model to mold my approach after? Sometimes, I thought it would be best I leave than miserably fail or ruin my daughter’s life somehow.

It was not until she was born, and the doctor’s placed her in my arms for the first time, that I had this epiphany that broke through the seemingly impenetrable dread. It came to me while briefly wishing my own father was alive to see my child. I would imagine the dad I always wanted as a child, the one I wished was around, then I would try my best to be that parent.

It would be a lie to say it was easy after that. That, like in a movie, everything fell into place and made perfect sense from that point on. At times, I still wanted to be young, to hang with friends, and spend money on ridiculous stuff. Being a parent is difficult. Being a young parent is even more so. I doubt I did everything right in the beginning. I stumbled, fell, questioned my approaches, and at times I felt like a failure. But I never gave up. I did not miss the invaluable opportunity and joy of being a dad. Many of my happiest memories involves spending time with my daughter.

To this day, 20 years later, we have a tradition that has persisted since she was 13. In the evening, a couple of hours before either of us call it a night, we speak by phone while playing a co-op game together online. We discuss various topics, I ask her about her day or what’s on her mind, or we talk about nothing of importance at all and just enjoy the game.

I have heard it time and time again, from guys of all races, ages, and walks of life. “I don’t know how to be a father because I never had one.

I truly empathize and understand. However, to that, I also implore any man reading this, do not just walk away from your child/children. Do not let that be the excuse that continues the cycle. Imagine the dad you always wanted while growing up. Imagine, one who took time out to learn about your interests, who talked to you, offered guidance and support. Then, be that dad. If you need to do self-work to get there, or to heal from past traumas, then do that.

But whatever it is you do, don’t give-up.

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