My father, Mitch, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when he was about 19 years old; he was in his second year as a seminarian, studying to be a Catholic priest, and was having difficulty reading the texts. He returned to his mother’s home in Oakland, CA, where the family had been living since the mid-1950s, after leaving Louisiana and Texas, respectively. Back in West Oakland, he’d pick up work here and there shining shoes or at the nearby hardware store as the cashier. No one believed he was blind.
He rarely used a walking stick and it seemed that his faith and sense of humor remained untouched, even as his strength diminished and the epileptic seizures became more frequent. He lived in the back house at grandmother’s. Many of the Victorian style houses in West Oakland are multi-family homes, so she always had room. In high school my dad was athletic, handsome. They would tell me how once he got beat up for being “pretty." In the seminary, he received perfect scores for Latin, even though he never learned to speak the French Creole his parents spoke.
Like so many people of color, they were aware of their “otherness” - especially as Black Catholics. The idea of “Creole” was seemingly rejected - it was the language they spoke, but when I’d ask “What are we?”, confused by the wide range of browns and tans in our family, grandmother would quote grandfather, who died decades before I was born: “We’re a little bit of everything.”
Grandmother learned to speak English in school, before she had to leave the 2nd or 3rd grade to work in the fields as a sharecropper. Within a couple decades, she’d require this of some of her own children. My father, the 11th of 12 children, was able to avoid field work because the family moved to California, where there were more opportunities for Black people. Unlike some of his older siblings, he was able to finish high school and choose a life for himself— until he was asked to leave the seminary due to his diagnosis.
Sometimes grandmother and dad would take little trips to visit family (their only "vacations"); my grandmother came from a family of 16, and many of her own children and grandchildren, siblings and in-laws were scattered between the Bay Area and Southern California. Faithful Catholics for as many generations that anyone could remember, my grandmother and father went to mass every weekday morning, as well as Sundays, of course. Vacation was no exception.
During one visit to Long Beach, dad and grandmother were staying with one of her younger sisters, a very kind woman who loved elephants. Like any other weekday morning, they attended mass across the street, after which they’d have coffee and cake at the house, often inviting the priest or folks from the church to join. This time, my great-aunt invited a woman who had been a nun, studying for 7 years before she herself had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. As the story was told to me, this woman was in the kitchen helping my great-aunt get the cake and coffee when she laughed - loudly. My father turned to his mother and said, “I’m going to marry that woman.”
Concerned, grandmother responded, “You know she’s White.”
6 months later, my parents were married at a Catholic church in West Oakland. I was born before their 2nd anniversary.
We were living with grandmother when my dad was diagnosed with cancer of the gums, throat and lungs. I was about 6 years old. He stopped smoking, went through chemo, had surgeries and fought to live; this is something drilled into me: “Your daddy loved you more than anything and he desperately wanted to see you grow up.”
He was sick for about 2 years before he died. This mantra, "daddy loved you", was my north star through grade school, high school, college and grad school.
My mother’s health plummeted after daddy died; within a year, she had to move into a convalescent home for 24 hour care, where she remained until she died during my first year of graduate school. Meanwhile, my extended family did everything they could to keep the promise that had been made to my dad: I would be cared for. Over the years, I lived with nearly every relative available; first cousins became Aunties and second cousins would share their bedrooms with me - everyone wanted a turn to help raise me, because they promised my dad that they would.
8 years ago when I was planning my wedding, one of my of aunts called to share something her mother remembered. “Your dad was beat up something special in high school,” she said. I recalled this story - it was because he was “too pretty.” “Yeah, a group of guys were mad that your dad was getting all the girls. They jumped him -- even pulled down his pants to check if he was a boy! He was never the same, like he had a brain injury or something. He started having seizures and lost his sight. Mama forgot all about this, but it was pretty bad.”
A brain injury? From getting beat up?
My parents had bonded over their shared diagnosis of MS (as well as their faith), but there’s a chance my father didn’t have an autoimmune disorder at all. Another aunt, when she was drinking heavy, would tell me family secrets; about my father she’d say, “Your daddy was misdiagnosed. Those doctors didn’t help him none.”
Today, it almost doesn't matter if he had MS or not; there's a thousand other questions I'd rather ask, a million other moments I’d want to experience with him. For over 30 years, I’ve mined these few and fleeting memories to keep him close. The anecdotes have become the story line, like how he would pour the perfect amount of cream and sugar into his coffee to match his skin tone. He loved German chocolate cake and hated strawberries. Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr. were his favorite entertainers, despite the fact that grandmother rarely allowed secular music to be played in her home. Among his closest friends were the the guys who hung out in front of West Oakland's many liquor stores, as well as a priest named Father Ray, to whom I took my first steps on Christmas Day at 11 months old. It’s always a tender moment when someone recognizes me and hollers out, “Hey, ain’t you Mitchell’s girl?”
He would have turned 80 years old this year.