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To Dance with my parents, again

By Sarah-Elizabeth Ratliff (Orick)



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Driving in my car one day this week, I found myself flipping stations. This is a usual occurrence for me. Driving in southern California can get so tedious, with its long stretches of freeways. I found myself locked in on 94.7, the WAVE the elevator Jazzy music station. I caught Dave Koz, who is one of the morning drive DJ’s on the station discussing an upcoming song. Playing it for the first time, it is the first released single on the new Luther Vandross CD, due out in a few weeks. For those of you who aren’t hip to Luther, he has one of the most beautiful voices in R&B. His career, which has spanned a couple of decades, produced such memorable hits as "Here and Now", "If Only for One Night", and a soulful cover of "A House is not a Home". Speculations about his sex life (he prefers men to women) and continuous discussions about his weight (yo-yoing from 160 – 250 and back to 160 pounds) have kept him in the gossip columns throughout his career. His recent stroke brought him from the idle gossip pages to the prayers of many. His new song has somehow taken on a different meaning as he lay in a hospital bed, uncertain whether he’ll make it.

The song is called, "I danced with my father, again". A tribute to his recently deceased father, a man he clearly admired and loved. The words and music filled my car, while emotions flooded my soul. In his song, Luther describes an enviable childhood; one filled with love, patience, teaching and learning. He illustrates a relationship between father and son we often hear about, but seldom see. At least not in my world. What big shoes to fill for Luther as he sees for the first time his mother unable to provide all the answers. The song ends with Luther wanting his father back not to fill his own void, but for his mother, "if only she could dance with my father again". He wrote.

I thought of my own father and the loss I have been feeling the past year. He died a year ago, tomorrow. I thought of how we were able to work out our differences within weeks of his dying. As I wrote in my three Sunday Travel Pieces prior to his death, it’s not how I would have liked it, and likely not how he’d have preferred it, but it’s the way it was. Unlike Luther’s father (or at least the image he has presented to us), my father was not many of the wonderful things Luther described his father to be in that song. He was impatient, stubborn, had many unresolved issues of his own. And yet, I am truly sorry my father is gone. I suspect if there had been more time, or in the time of his dying he were somehow given a second chance, I wonder whether we’d have been able to move past our differences and start anew. I think we could have.

A year later, I can’t tell you that I know exactly what I am feeling. Here I sit, now having lost both my parents. I feel a lot of things. My mother would have been 70 years old in April. August will be nine years since she passed on. I know one thing is for certain. And now more than ever, I yearn for my mommy. Today, I am many things; a confident Black woman, a wife, a sister, an in-law, an aunt, a best friend, a "big sister" and mentor, a niece, a cousin, a business owner, and now, an orphan. There is a hole in my heart that will probably never be filled. I feel an emptiness that few my age understand. I have wished I could discuss this with the family my father left behind, they should understand right?

I remember when I was writing a tribute for my mother that I read at her memorial service. Many came to honor this woman, known simply as Emily. You had to know her to understand that statement. Friends, family, clergy, former college buddies and former colleagues came to pay respects to her. My mother was an incredible woman. I wrote her a nine page letter which allowed me to open up for the first time in public about my pain, my joy, my hopes both realized and unrealized. I wrote, "My family is like the Elusion Islands, same name, but no connection". Little has changed in the nearly eight years since I wrote that. The most awful thing about loss is the postponement of grief due to wreckage left behind. I would like to tell you that I have resolved all my issues surrounding his death, or hers for the matter. Indeed I miss him, and wish we could communicate. I miss both my parents. In my father’s case, we’d begun to really open up to one another, and clearly it took his dying to facilitate this. However, many of my feelings of wishing he were alive are more about being selfish. Yes I wish we could have worked on our issues while he was still healthy, and also, I wish death didn’t have to be so complicated. But the thing he left behind in his legacy is a disjointed family. So when people ask how my year has been since his death. I am not sure what to say. Painful may be an understated way of describing this past year. Have I resolved anything? I know that I am no better at communicating with one of my three brothers and there is an estate that remains unsettled because of it. I do know that my favorite brother had a baby only three months after my father died. She is truly amazing and a smile crosses my face to talk to her and about her. I can say that this brother knows real joy and happiness because of her.

I can say with honesty that if I didn’t have a strong, healthy and loving marriage, I think this year might have been unbearable. Paul keeps me grounded. Though he doesn’t always understand (not knowing about dysfunction in his family), and sometimes unable to take that leap of faith, he loves and supports me. I am a truly fortunate woman.

And so this song seems to have a double meaning for me. I long for the father I wished I had, and yet I truly do miss the one he’d started to become. I also wish things didn’t have to be so complicated. I wonder if I could go back to a time when my most complicated relationship was with my Barbie Dolls. Resolutions were as simple as making up a new game.

Thank you for allowing me to speak openly.