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The Greatest Man I Never Knew- Memories of My Dad Through the Death of XXXtentacion

*****DISCLAIMER This is an extremely personal blog for me. I do not excuse any of XXXtentacion’s behavior. It was behavior that reminded me of a man I knew so I wrote this blog.*****

“Come home.”

It was two words I never thought I would hear from my Dad. I hadn’t seen my father in years, and now I stood in the community room of a battered woman’s shelter, payphone to my ear hearing the voice of a man that I had long forgotten tell me and my three-year-old daughter to come home.

I would like to say I don’t know how I ended up in that shelter but I do, bad decisions followed by wrong choices led me there. My mother had kicked me out of the house when I was just 16. I ended up staying with a boyfriend and his family until I graduated. I managed to graduate in the top ten percent of my high school class. Every college I applied to, I was accepted.  I sent my mother a graduation invitation. She never replied. I don’t know if she was at my high school graduation or not. She says she was there. I never saw her, and so began my journey in life. But the course of my life had been set years before I walked across that stage and received my high school diploma. My childhood was a childhood of hell peppered with moments of heaven. Dinnertime was always together. I played Barbies with my friend Meagan who lived across the street. I read books, lots of books. My dad was an avid reader. I read the encyclopedia and National Geographic. I read Encyclopedia Brown, Ramona Quimby and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I always asked God, “Are you there? It’s me, Hannah.” God never seemed to answer me. Never seemed to care about the horror going on in my house.I do not recall what I did. I wish I could. I have searched my mind a million times to remember. I suppose that memory is buried deep in a place that I do not want to go. Whatever I did I know I was getting in big trouble. Spankings were not just spankings in my house. They were events. Events that caused shadows and whispers to descend on the house, shut up the curtains, lock the doors and keep love from coming in. The hits were swifts as I laid across the stairs to take my beating. There is no other way to describe it- it was a beating. Not with a switch but a 2×4, connecting with my nine-year-old flesh. I remember crying and my body turning just as the piece of wood came down and landed against my left knee. My body buckled spilling underneath me like ice on hot concrete. I laid there as my body transformed into a puddle. No one comforted me. Tears were for fools in this house. I remember my mom wrapped an ace bandage around my knee as if that would make my now sideways facing knee socket go back into place. It didn’t. The pain was excruciating. I limped to the bathroom, to the kitchen to my bedroom.  To this day I believe my father felt proud of what he did in that moment. He had shown me he was bigger, stronger, more powerful than I would ever be.

I went to school the next day. My teacher asked me about my knee. I lied. We always knew to lie. “What happens in this house stays in this house.” I was conditioned to keep the secrets. Always keep the secrets.

I swallowed secrets down like sour candy. My tongue adjusting to the shock of the bitterness before accepting it as normal. This is how families are, right?  No one took me to the doctor. My father wrote my prescription, yelled it out to me as if my weirdly placed kneecap was bothering him. Perhaps he felt guilty every time he saw me limping around. “Ride your bike!” That is it. That was the prescription. Every day I came home from school I was forced to ride my bike, down the sidewalk, through the lot, up the alley, down the street over and over again. Until one day, boom! My knee popped back into place, and I rejoiced that finally, I could walk normally again! That begins my acceptance of defining normal, recovering from the pain a man had given me.

So it was no surprise that I would end up in a battered woman’s shelter after having a baby stomped from my body.

It was another fight on top of the endless battles. What is one more punch or slap when you are pregnant?  How could I value the life growing in my belly when I didn’t even appreciate my own? I do not write this blog as if I am innocent. I gave as good as I got. All I knew was fighting and dysfunction. I hit, he hit back, He hit, I hit back. He kicked. I didn’t kick back. I clutched my stomach as I lay on the floor feeling life go from me.  I slept in my daughter’s bed that night. I remember she had sheets with some Disney character she liked on them.  When I awoke, I noticed that blood had filled her twin bed sheets. She slept silently next to me oblivious to the fact that her brother or sister had just been expelled from my body. I moved her so she wouldn’t be covered in blood. So much blood. A child that didn’t need to be born in this world of chaos that I had created. I felt sad for me but happy for the child that never was. That baby deserved better. Perhaps the Universe reabsorbs innocent souls and sends to a family that is more deserving. Evidently, I wasn’t worthy. My life was one big mess of confusion, drama, pain, and heartache. I was stunned the Universe saw fit to give me a daughter in the first place; surely it knew not to give me another child. So I absorbed that pain but resolved to leave that day. It was my 21st birthday when I found myself sleeping on the floor of my best friend’s apartment. I couldn’t stay there. I never wanted to be a burden on anyone. I called around and found a shelter that could take me and my daughter. This was only temporary. Right?

Temporary turned into a month and another month into two. It was the second month that I was walking through the common space when the payphone rang. I don’t know why I picked it up, but I did.

I froze. My heartbeat went from calm to chaotic seconds.
“Dad?” I asked. I hadn’t heard his voice in years, but I knew it.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Your mom told me.” I froze. My mom told him? My mother who knew I was in a shelter with her only granddaughter but didn’t open up her home to me. My mom that turned her back on me for reasons I would never understand until I was older.

I was silent. I didn’t know what to say. He did. “Come home.”

I had nowhere else to go. My life was spiraling fast. So I hopped a Greyhound and said goodbye to the only place I ever called home and headed to Kentucky.

The road was long, traveling through states by bus that didn’t have anything but flatland, fields, grass, and corn. I thought I would go delirious but then I made my way across the Ohio River, a few more stops and I would be home. I didn’t know what that meant. Home to what? I had left chaos and wondered if I was traveling to more confusion. I got off the bus expecting a ticker tape parade. There was none. There were no reality TV tearjerker reunions. It was matter of fact. Was I home?

I looked at the man that had terrorized me my entire childhood. He looked the same only I was bigger, smarter, wiser. I would not tolerate his abuse. But he had none to dish out. He had changed. Made peace with his past. But I hadn’t. I was angry, and I wanted him to hear me. He did. He didn’t respond how I wanted only saying that God had forgiven him. Who gave a damn? I didn’t forgive him. I stayed at his house for a few weeks before leaving to stay with my brother. I couldn’t be in his home. He didn’t understand me. He didn’t realize what he had done to me, how the abuse had altered who I was as a human being and the course that was designed for my life. He couldn’t get off that easy by invoking forgiveness. Fuck forgiveness.

But slowly I started to turn. I wanted my daughter to have a relationship with his man that I never knew. Watching him interact with her was like watching a stranger. I remember my daughter did something and I yelled at her at his house, and he told me, “Don’t yell. Be gentle.” I was stunned into silence. Be gentle? I never got that when I was a child but it made me reevaluate how I interacted with my daughter. I was always so hard, abrasive, coarse. I was who I had been conditioned to be. But when you know better you do better and this man that had made my life hell was challenging me to do better as a parent so I did. Slowly. As much as I didn’t want to admit that I was him, it was him staring back at me in the mirrors and shadows as I yelled at my daughter, humiliated her and spanked her. I wish I could take those years back but didn’t know any better. I just did what was my normal. And this man that was my monster was showing me a new normal.

My daughter gravitated to him, spent days and nights at his house, ate pizza rolls and snuck him candy bars which he shouldn’t have had because of his weight. My daughter didn’t care. That was her Poppa Daddy as she called him. They were inseparable. They grew tomatoes together, she would water the plants as he looked on. They laughed and watched movies together. When he got sick and needed a trach and oxygen, she learned how to work his oxygen tank. They were pals. Then one day I was out of town, and he asked me to come get her. I raced home and snatched her up. She would not be made to feel like an inconvenience. Perhaps he was not feeling well that day and just not wanting company. Before we could get into the house, he called asking me to bring her back. I never did. That was the last day my daughter ever stayed the night with her Poppa Daddy. It was my baggage in the way of letting them continue their relationship. Perhaps baggage and fear that she would be made to feel insignificant like I had as a child and I wanted to protect her. But now I understand I kept her from spending time with someone that had so much to give that life didn’t allow to give until it was ready. That is how life does. It swallows you whole and regurgitates you when it is ready. But you have to go through the yucky part first.

I didn’t know that.

We still visited him at home. He had a curio cabinet filled with copper pots that he cherished, and no one could touch. He called me to his house one day and said, “Go back there and divide the copper pots between you and your sister.” I did, and I said, “I will not cook in them and will display them in my house.”

“Don’t take them if you won’t cook in them,” he said.

He was still finding ways to shock me. He treated those pans in the curio cabinet like they were gold but now he regarded them as nothing but cookware. There was something in the way that he said don’t take them that resonated with me. Everything he was had passed away. He was a new person. He chose a different path. He was a caterpillar that had transformed into a butterfly in front of my eyes.

I didn’t forget my childhood. How could I? But I wanted to know this man that I never knew. And not long after I made that decision, he was gone. There are so many things I wanted to ask him. So many things I wanted to know. His last days were quiet. I spent them in the hospital with him. It was a Friday. I left him to spend the weekend with a friend. I told him that I would be back Sunday. Sunday never came. He died just hours after I said goodbye. And I wept for him. I missed him. Missed the Dad I never knew. There is a song by Reba McEntire I listen to often called The Greatest Man I Never Knew that reminds me of him. He was the greatest man I never knew.

His friend made a documentary about life. I didn’t know my father had a life worthy of a documentary, but he did. I popped the disc into the DVD player one night with a glass of wine and watched him. He was a ghost dancing across my TV. And he told stories of his life, stories I never heard, stories that made me laugh, stories that made me cry, stories that made me long for a dad that I only knew a short while. In one moment on the TV screen, I heard him say, “My ex-wife did the best thing she could do and that was to get away from me and she should have did it a long time ago. She shouldn’t have waited 20 years. I made her life miserable. I was miserable and my kids were probably miserable.” My dad goes on to say, “My whole life has been one as an abuser.” Pause. There it was. Something I had been seeking for years. Acknowledgment that he didn’t give until years later. Yes, I was miserable and who I was as a person had already been formed, carved out to melt into walls in this misery.  My existence was one to fade away, not be seen, take up the least space. But I was learning that it was okay to take up space, to exist, to be, to let the world know that I am here.

There was an incident at work that placed me back in that role as the little girl, abused by men in power that condone and punish women for a man’s bad behavior. And that day I quit. I wasn’t that little girl anymore. I didn’t have to and wouldn’t tolerate being chastised because a man wanted to abuse me and I walked away. And when I looked back, I saw so many memories down that road, memories I longed to forget all came springing up like flowers from the earth and somehow I knew my father in his transformation would be proud of me and would tell me, “Hannah, keep walking.”  So I did.

The greatest man I never knew lived just down the hall,
and ev’ry day we said hello but never touched at all.
He was in his paper. I was in my room.
How was I to know he thought I hung the moon?

Change comes in many forms and happens in people we may never expect. I did not know XXXtentacion. I read of his deeds. Deeds that brought back far too many memories. I watched the back and forth on social media in the aftermath of his death.  I understand the struggle of loving and hating someone that hurt you. The tug of war that takes place with your mind and your heart, the rational battling the irrational. I do not make any excuses for XXXtentacion’s behavior. Truth be told, I do not even know his work to be a fan and this is his memory’s cross to bear. I don’t know why I read the article about him, what drew me to it. I do not understand why his death saddened me. Perhaps it’s because I saw my father in him. A broken man, that broke others along his road to redemption. The only difference was that my father had time to change and I had time and the desire to forgive.

The greatest words I never heard I guess I’ll never hear.
The man I thought could never die has been dead almost a year.
Oh, he was good at bus’ness but there was bus’ness left to do.
He never said he loved me. Guess he thought I knew…

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