“You’re such a strong woman, but you know you can be completely honest with me. You don’t have to maintain the strong exterior for my benefit.”
“I’m just so tired. And I can’t believe he just….left….”
“I’m here for you. And you know what? Fuck him.”
The preceding conversational exchange has happened, in some form or another, with many close female friends over the years when a boyfriend has called it quits on her in a cowardly way. It takes on a more serious tone when they were married, and it becomes even graver when they have children.
So when the voice on the other end of the phone is my sister-in-law and the scoundrel in question is my baby brother and I can hear my three beautiful nieces playing in the background as she tries to mask her audible sadness, I just don’t know what to do.
Yes, I’m putting my family business on Front Street. I know that some people would frown upon this, but my Adventures in Internet so far have included telling many personal stories and I’ve been grateful for, and benefited from, others who’ve shared as well. Life can get complicated, and as we aim to unpack the baggage of where we’ve been and move toward where we’re headed, it helps to have someone say Hey, I feel you.
Many families are messy, and mine is messier than most. But this has hit us out of the blue; no one saw it coming.
When I was younger, I had to take care of my brother a lot because our mom has significant mental illness and my parents divorced when I was seven. He’s almost six years younger than me, and there was not much functional visitation with our dad growing up, so they never had much of a relationship.
This made it all the more wonderful to watch my brother grow into being one of the best fathers I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around. To watch him with his girls was a delight. Working in music production, sometimes he’d stay out all night at the studio, and he’d jokingly text me “Pulling a Nicky Santoro,” referring to Joe Pesci’s character in the movie Casino, a murderous gangster who’d stay out all night but always get home in the morning to make breakfast for his child. He did this, as the movie voiceover tells us, “No matter what.”
And now he’s gone.
Over the past year, he’s grown distant with me. Distance happens sometimes, but we went from very close to sporadic contact to almost nothing. So I knew something was up, but I kept trying to make contact and I prayed it was some internal conflict of his or work crap or even that I had monumentally pissed him off in some way that I was unaware of. I would rather have him hate me than to have left his wife and children with no word and no notice.
Marriages fail sometimes. I understand this. But addressing issues and ending a union are a world apart from just not coming home one day.
I’ve been so conflicted. He’s my brother, and he always will be. But I love my sister-in-law and my nieces immeasurably, and to hear their little voices say “Daddy left” or “Daddy won’t be back for my birthday, huh?” It makes me want to pulverize him. Brother or not.
And his youngest is not yet a year old, so I’m not hearing her say anything; I’m just looking at her and wondering what her relationship will be like with him. Hoping that she has one at all.
He’s been gone for a few months now. My sister -in-law tells me that when they finally spoke, he said some utterly hateful things to her about it being “over,” with no room for discussion.
I know that no matter how close we all were, there are things that go on in a marriage that only those two people can truly know. I’ve reached out to him, to hear his side, to try and understand, but he’s chosen not to talk to me. A few months ago he actually answered one of my calls to say that his phone battery was dying and he’d “call me right back.” That call never came.
Maybe he’d been mentally checked out long before he actually left. Maybe there was/is another woman. Maybe he wasn’t really in the studio when he was pulling those all-nighters. Maybe he was overcompensating with the Casino breakfasts. Whatever the reason, I’m heartbroken for my sister-in-law, I’m crushed for my nieces, I’m disappointed as his sister, and if we can set all of that aside for a moment, I’m crushed as a black woman who aims to stick up for black men.
We have to fight the persistent narrative of the Black Absentee Father every day, and it sickens me that my own flesh and blood has now joined the ranks of those who contribute to the storyline that much of the mass media perpetuates. When Iyanla Vanzant can pause during her opportunistic televised visit to Ferguson and casually ask local black young men there IF they knew their fathers and I change the channel out of disgust only to hear the one black character on a major network sitcom joke about how OF COURSE he never knew his father, it’s clear how present the stereotype still is.
I thought my brother was One Of The Good Ones. I remain single and childless, and he and his wife and kids were the one “normal” component of what looks like family life that I could point to within my gene pool. Instead, I will now look to others, like the inspirational smiles in activist and TWiB host Feminista Jones’ photo essay Don’t Believe the Absentee Hype, a collection of images of black men with their children that is beautiful in its ordinariness. In the context of my present struggle, these pictures of fathers fathering bring tears to my eyes, but there is celebratory joy mixed in with the sadness.
I know that black men do stick around and can be fantastic husbands and fathers. I’m ashamed and upset at the path my brother is on, but you know what? Fuck him.