Published on June 27th, 2022 | by Alexandria Bolden0
I Didn’t Know If I Could Love You
“I didn’t know if I could love you,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I could love you like my own.”
This was about three years ago when my dad told me this, when his days became more like gifts than expectations. And he told me only twice. I wish I could recall what prompted him or the context of our conversation that had brought about this confession, but I can’t remember those details. I only remember there were things he wanted me to know. And when he wanted you to know something, he didn’t hold back nor mince words. He was always sure, guileless in what he chose to tell others, and he always had his reasons for – as he put it – making sure they knew where he was coming from.
“They had this light baby. I mean real high-yellow, and then they had you – you and your fat head. But wasn’t no way people would believe some high-yellow child was mine. So, we went with you, fat head.”
He teased a lot like that. Daddy was a deep, umber brown. Kid Chocolate, he called himself. Whereas Mama’s complexion, like mine, met his halfway. “I didn’t want anybody questioning whether you belonged to me,” he went on to say.
Yet, he questioned himself, his own capacity – I didn’t know if I could love you.
See, he didn’t know because I wasn’t his own, his blood. My parents adopted me. At three months old, they chose and adopted a baby girl called April and named her Alexandria. He and Mama named me after him, his middle name being Alexander. I don’t remember the exact moment they told me they adopted me, but I must’ve been little because it feels as though I’ve always known. I don’t remember not knowing. What I do remember is the little book they gave me with its big, bold letters: Why Was I Adopted? It had these seventies-fashioned illustrations of white characters with exaggerated, cartoonish features. It’s a thin and dated book I still have today.
When I was in middle school, he renewed the tag for his van, customizing his license plate. It was a burgundy Plymouth Voyager and the plate read “ZANDI,” my nickname. I was tickled but a little embarrassed because it was so cheesy. But Daddy was proud, driving it everywhere well into my high school years.
Mama often recalls how, when I was a baby, she’d come home late from work some nights and find Daddy laid out with me curled up on his chest. And over the years, even as recent as the year he passed, I’d sometimes sit down beside him and lay my head on that very same spot where as a baby, my whole body used to fit. I could smell the Armani, one of the many colognes he kept on the vanity trays in his and Mama’s bathroom. I could feel the thrum of his heart, too, steady in his chest.
“I’m warm, ain’t I?” he’d say before squeezing in a hug. He did the same with my children. It was that love of his; they grew to know it too. In that last year, his last, I’d often watch that same chest as it rose and shakily fell. He’d be asleep in his recliner, and I’d be wondering how much time he had, fearful it was only moments away.
The moment came, though, at a time when I wasn’t wondering. When I wasn’t watching him. It came on a Friday morning when I was at home standing over a pan watching eggs fry, the kids chattering at the kitchen table behind me. On a morning I was, instead, wondering what Mama and Daddy would think of our new quartz countertops. They were supposed to come over that afternoon, after his dialysis.
Except they didn’t.
Except, my husband got a call from Mama because my phone was in the other room, and I didn’t hear it. Except he yelled out for me, my husband did, and he seldom yells.
This time, it was my chest that rose and shakily fell.
“Zandi! Come here. It’s your mom.”
No. They’re coming over today.
Somehow, I already knew what I’d never be ready to hear. Was it the way my husband called out my name? The time of day? I don’t know. What I did know was that my parents were coming to see the kitchen. Really, to see us. What I also knew was that Daddy had asked to come over the day before too.
“Hey Slim,” one of his nicknames for me, “we just left Walmart, can we come see the countertops?” I told him to wait. The kitchen was a mess, still in disarray from clearing out drawers and rearranging items for the contractors to install the countertops.
“Tomorrow’s better. Just come tomorrow after dialysis.”
I never thought tomorrow would be too late. What I thought racing up two stairs at a time to my husband’s call was that Daddy could have seen those countertops. If only I had said yes. Because what mattered more – an orderly kitchen or one more moment with Daddy? It was this reckoning, this regret that gnawed at me for days and into months after his passing.
I thought I knew better than to have let that happen. He’d been sick for years. We’d had plenty of scares before, and I knew every moment mattered. I wrote an essay about it some years back, about tomorrow not being promised, sharing why I called my dad every day. And I did. Either I called him, or he called me almost every day. We’d had him and my mom over for breakfast to celebrate his birthday just the weekend before. So why was this guilt eating away at me?
“You couldn’t have known,” a friend said.
“He knew you loved him,” a cousin.
These were words meant to reassure me. Yet, despite their truth, I wanted desperately to go back to that moment on the phone….
“Yes!” I would’ve said. “The kitchen’s a mess, but...” the words that could have given us one more moment, “come anyway.”
There was more regret. My dad and I had talked again later that night, the night before he passed. I was tired and had already talked to him earlier in the day (remember, we talked when he and my mom were leaving Walmart, wanting to come by). So, I cut the conversation short, “knowing” I’d see him tomorrow.
This, too, gnawed at me for days and even months more – the uncertainty feeding insatiable regret. Did he know I cared, that I wasn’t just pushing him off? It was just one of those nights, and I was exhausted. I didn’t mean to; I love him. Did he know? Yes, I said it before, all the time… just not that time. But he had to know, right? Yeah, he knew! But what if he wanted to hear it? What if he was calling because something in him knew?… Dammit, why didn’t I just say stay on the phone? Or even call back, apologize for being so short? I started to…
That was my uncertainty, and this was his: “I didn’t know if I could love you.”
My mom knew that he could. She was certain from the day they’d gone to pick me up and bring me home. My foster parent asked them to come back later so she could have some time to gather up my clothes, diapers, and toys. “Your Daddy told me to tell her no, that we’d wait. ‘We’ll buy all that ourselves,’ he said. He didn’t say it outright, but he didn’t want to leave you another second without us. I knew then that he already loved you, even if he didn’t.”
I’d have never known of this initial uncertainty had he never told me. I wouldn’t have known because it fell away a long time ago. And I didn’t ask when he finally did realize he could. I didn’t need to. There was never a time I was uncertain of his love for me. Not even once can I recall my dad not being there for me, not stepping fully into the role he had in my life. For the times I was too young to remember, there were pictures, and for the other times, memories: Him with his camera at my dance recitals. Him in the garage helping me and my friend from down the street with our bikes. Him getting a zigzag part in his haircut to match my son’s. Again, him behind his camera at every turning point in my life.
“I didn’t know if I could love you.”
Uncertainty is human, as is hope. As I mature, I’m coming to realize this more about how we choose to do life – the paths we take, the notions we believe, the people we don’t choose and the people we do. My parents chose me. I’ve seen with both, how my dad lived life and now how I choose to live mine – uncertainty is natural, but hope is real. And if you rely on it, lean into it, the hope outweighs the uncertainty and the doubt every time, bringing to fruition a vision greater than you would’ve ever imagined possible.
What I know now? He never was uncertain of my love for him. Not when my kitchen was a mess, and not when I was too tired to talk more.
“Think we made the right decision?” he’d say whenever we talked about my adoption. He’d be grinning and laughing. “I think so,” he’d add, answering himself. Then he’d say, “We love you. You know that?” He’d always repeat himself, “We love you.”
And I’d always respond, “I know. I love y’all too.” Always.