My Father James Brown and Me
By Yamma Brown, Robin Gaby Fisher
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2014 Yamma Brown
All rights reserved.
Your Father's Dead
"The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone."
— Harriet Beecher Stowe, Little Foxes
I'D FINALLY FINISHED wrapping all the kids' Christmas presents and had just dropped off to sleep when the sound of the phone ringing shattered the silence of my bedroom. A phone call in the middle of the night is never good news. I froze for a second before picking up. "Hello? This is Yamma," I said, hearing the breathlessness in my voice. I recognized Mr. Bobbit's low Southern drawl right away. "Yaaammaa dear, your father is dead," he said plaintively. I gasped and threw the phone down, as if the receiver had dealt the shock that bolted through my body. "My father is dead!" I cried. "Oh no! God, please!" My husband, Darren, sat up in bed next to me. He tried to pull me close to comfort me, but I pushed him away. I was inconsolable. Tears gushed down my cheeks. My sobs turned to long, sorrowful howls. The anguish I felt shook my entire being. "I'm sorry," Mr. Bobbit said.
Charles Bobbit was my father's longtime personal manager. He had been at his bedside at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta that night in 2006 when Dad's heart just gave out, he said. The doctors had tried valiantly to revive him but with no success. Dad was gone. How could it be true? I had just spoken with him by phone the day before. "Don't worry, Yamma," he'd said. "I'm getting better. I'll be out of here in a day or two." Dad had assured me then that the hospital stay would be brief, because he was going on tour right after Christmas. His doctors had already approved the trip. Yes, that's what he'd said. So what in God's name had gone wrong? How had we gone from getting better to dead in a matter of hours? Had my father lied to me? I wondered. But why? I was overwhelmed by sadness and regret. And the guilt, well, like a tsunami it snuck up and then slammed over me.
I knew my father had been admitted and diagnosed with pneumonia the day before. But even though I lived close by — only a few miles from the hospital — I didn't go to see him. It hadn't been that I didn't want to visit. At least I don't think so. I'd called him on Christmas Eve to say I was coming, but he said he was too tired for visitors and not looking his best so I'd let him have his way. I knew how Dad was about being seen when he wasn't looking his best. He never wanted people seeing him — not even his own kids — when his hair wasn't perfectly rolled and coiffed into his famous bouffant style. I'd wanted to respect his wishes.
Or was the real reason I didn't go what my conscience suggested? That it had been convenient for me to let him have his way. It was Christmastime, after all, and I still had cooking and baking and wrapping to do with hardly enough time to get everything finished in time for Christmas morning. Was that really why I had given in to my father's request — and so willingly, at that — when I should have just gone to the hospital to be with him? I was fifteen minutes away, for God's sake. What would it have taken to hop in the car and pop in for a quick visit? I wondered if that's what Dad had been thinking after our phone conversation, when I'd agreed to stay away. Had he complained to Mr. Bobbit after he hung up the phone? I imagined the conversation.
She only lives a few miles away, for God's sake, Mr. Bobbit. Wouldn't you think she'd be here? After all I've done for those kids ..."
"Well, Mr. Brown, you know how these kids are today."
"I'll let you rest, but I'll be there on Christmas morning," I'd said when I accepted his invitation to stay away. "I won't take no for an answer next time." "OK, baby girl," Dad had replied. It was all a little too easy. Had Dad really been waiting for me to insist on coming? You know parents and their little tests. "Oh no, don't you bother. I know how busy you are, and I'm just fine." When what they really mean is, "Of course I want you here, but you should know that. I shouldn't have to ask." Was Dad testing me? And when I didn't insist on coming, had he watched his hospital door, hoping I'd do the right thing anyway and just show up?
I couldn't bear my own thoughts. My head swirled with "what if" and "if only." What if I'd been with him when his heart stopped? Would he have fought harder to come back? If only I'd known that I'd never again have the chance to say what I'd told him a million times before, but not enough times, that I loved him infinitely and I was so proud he was my father. If only I'd known there would not be another opportunity to say I forgave him for all of the hurt he had caused our family or to ask his forgiveness for the hurt I had caused him. But all the "what ifs" and "if onlys" in the world wouldn't change what was. I had made that terrible human assumption, that there would always be tomorrow to say what needed to be said, to ask for and grant forgiveness, to make amends. Now we had run out of tomorrows.
In the book For One More Day, Mitch Albom wrote, "Have you ever lost someone you love and wanted one more conversation, one more chance to make up for the time when you thought they would be here forever? If so, then you know you can go your whole life collecting days, and none will outweigh the one you wish you had back." Why had I been so shortsighted, so selfish? What had made me think Dad would always be around for one more day?
As I sat on the edge of my bed, I wondered if my father had known he was dying. A few hours before he passed, he told Mr. Bobbit, "I'm going away tonight." Mr. Bobbit said he didn't know what to make of it and tossed it off as the fever talking. I asked myself, Had Dad heard God calling him home? And, if he did, why hadn't he said something to one of us? How sad, I thought, that he'd taken his last breath without the comforting words or the soft touch of someone who loved him. He should have been surrounded by family when he passed, not people on his payroll. I should have been there with him. I should have insisted on it. But it was past the time for shoulds. I would never have the chance to see my father alive again.
Still, I had to see him.
It was two in the morning, and I looked in on my kids before I headed out to the hospital. Sydney was curled up in a tight little ball under her soft, pink Beauty and the Beast comforter and clutched her stuffed horse. Carrington was turned upside down, his head at the foot of his Mickey Mouse bed, his feet on the pillow, and his pajama top with images of fire trucks on it hiked up to the middle of his back. Looking at my sleeping children, I envied them their innocence. As much as I wanted to wake them — to shake them and cry, "Your grandfather is dead! Your grandfather is dead!" — I couldn't. Not on Christmas. Sydney was seven and Carrington was five, and they both still believed in Santa Claus. Their biggest worry that night when I'd tucked them in was whether Santa would find the plate of cookies and glass of milk they'd left for him on the mantelpiece. Broken hearts could wait until morning, after the last presents were unwrapped and after they'd had the chance to see the glass of milk empty and platter of cookies gone.
Trying not to awaken them, I closed the doors to their rooms and padded down to the kitchen to get Christmas dinner started before I left. Standing at the counter, stuffing the giant turkey, I wondered, Why in God's name am I doing this? Why am I not already in the car and on my way to the hospital? What's so important about preparing the bird when my father is waiting? I didn't have an answer. At that moment, my head was in a fog, my emotions dull. I dusted the turkey with herbs and spices and slid the roasting pan in the oven, then ran back upstairs, grabbed some clothes, and pulled them on. I didn't even know what I was wearing. Grabbing my car keys, I headed out to the car, hoping I would be able to see well enough through my tears to get to the hospital in one piece. As I backed out of the garage, I heard a loud bang, then a scraping sound. The garbage cans, I thought. I just ran over the garbage cans.
I didn't have time to stop. Putting the car in gear, I drove out of my neighborhood and headed for the hospital. The night was crystal clear but cold for Atlanta, and I shivered against the chill. The road was pretty much all mine — not too many people out at that time — and the trip took less time than I'd expected it would. I felt a strange mix of dread and urgency as I pulled into the hospital parking lot. My anxiety heightened as I rode the elevator up to Dad's floor. The elevator doors rattled open and the nurse at the desk looked up. "Can I help you?" she asked. "My father is James Brown," I said. The nurse smiled a sad little smile, got up from her chair, and led me to Dad's room. I walked inside, closing the door behind me. Dad looked so peaceful, as if he were soundly sleeping. For years he'd been complaining about how tired he was. I dropped down beside him and took his hand in mine. It was still warm. "You can finally get some rest, Dad," I said, laying my head on his chest. I inhaled deeply, taking in his familiar scent. He smelled the way he always did, clean and outdoorsy, like his favorite fragrance, "Lauren." I remembered how once I'd pointed out to him that it was a woman's perfume and how he'd shrugged and said, "Doesn't matter to me, Yamma. I like how it smells."
I closed my eyes and memories washed over me. So many memories. I remembered Dad sitting with my older sister, Deanna, and me in the den of our home in Beech Island, South Carolina, his hair rolled in huge, pastel-colored curlers, telling us stories from his past, the same stories, over and over again. Stories other people would pay to hear, and we, as his children, took for granted. Each time he started one, Deanna and I would roll our eyes as if to say, Oh no, not again! He told us about how he'd helped prevent rioting after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination with a televised concert that calmed people down. He talked about visiting President Lyndon Johnson in the White House, and how proud he was when Look magazine put his picture on its cover and asked: "Is this the Most Important Black Man in America?" "And I was!" he said, his chest puffed out with pride every time he told the story.
He told us about visiting President Richard Nixon and lecturing him on race issues. They liked each other, odd couple that they were. Dad played at Nixon's 1969 inauguration and then endorsed him for a second term four years later, even though he knew it wouldn't be a popular move with many of his fans. Dad didn't give a rat's ass. He was too imperious to care. He was James Brown, a celebrity among presidents and superstars. I thought about the time Denzel Washington came backstage and how proud I felt when I saw that Denzel was starstruck meeting my dad (but Dad was unfazed!), and I recalled those times when Dad would pick me up, tuck me into the back seat of our big, black van and then drive for miles on dirt roads for his favorite foot-long chili dogs. Sometimes he'd have two. I never let on that I hated them.
I had so many sweet memories of Dad, but there had been plenty of sadness, too. Until I was grown, every time I heard him raise his voice, even when he was talking business on the phone, I shook with fear. I had heard that rage so many times as a child, and it usually meant he was high and pummeling Mom behind closed doors. I was just seven when, a few days after one of those beatings, Mom picked up Deanna and me at a Halloween party at a neighbor's and, instead of heading home, drove all the way from Beech Island to Washington, DC, where our grandmother lived. She was finished with the abuse. After that, Deanna and I spent only summers in South Carolina. When Dad was on the road, we were left in the care of the housekeeper, a kindly woman named Miss Ella, who had as much to do with raising us as our parents did. When Miss Ella wasn't around, we were usually watched by one of Dad's girlfriends, and they were all pretty strange.
Holding Dad's hand and remembering those times, my mind turned to thoughts of his companion. Her name was Tomi Rae Hynie, and she was a real doozy. The last I'd heard she was in rehab somewhere in California for what she'd said was an addiction to prescription drugs. I wondered if she even knew Dad died. Had Mr. Bobbit called her? I wondered. It wasn't my job to tell her. Tomi Rae was nothing if not a drama queen, and I didn't have it in me to deal with her right then. I just wanted to spend as much time with my father as I possibly could before I would never be able to see his face or touch his skin again.
I stayed in that hospital room for what seemed like a long time, a daughter stealing a few final moments alone with her father, the scenes from our times together playing over and over in my head. As so often happens when a loved one passes, I chose to let the bad times fade away, at least for those last few minutes of holding onto him. I didn't want to let go, so I held on even tighter. I was grateful that nobody bothered us, that nobody tried to hurry me out of the room. I may have been thinking that if I stayed just a few minutes longer, my father would eventually open his eyes and I would tell him about the things I had been thinking about while he was asleep.
I prayed hard for divine intervention. Please God, let this be a colossal mistake. Wait! Was that a heartbeat I heard? Did Dad's eyes flutter open for just a split second? Did I feel his breath on my cheek? I tried to shake off the tricks my mind was playing on me. I couldn't accept that my father's heart was no longer beating, that blood no longer coursed through his veins, that, after nearly forty years of having a father, I no longer did. My father was dead. There would be no miracle, not that day, not for Dad and me. I asked him questions anyway. "Did you really love me, Dad? Why was it so easy for you to walk away?" I told him what I should have when I knew he could hear me. "I understand, Dad. You did the best you could. No one ever taught you how to love. I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry for you, and I'm sorry for me."
I don't know how much time passed when it finally dawned on me that I could sit there at his beside for an eternity and it wouldn't make any difference. My beloved father was gone. And I had to tell my family. As I stood to leave, the glint of his silver bicycle chain bracelet caught my eye. It didn't seem like his style, but he wore it all the time. I gently removed it from his wrist and placed it on mine, an inexpensive but priceless symbol linking me to him even in death. I still wear it every day.
I have never felt as alone as I did walking out of that hospital room. I knew Dad was dead, but I couldn't believe he was gone. I stood in the hallway and tried to stifle my grief, but it was no use. I slid down the wall into a heap on the floor and sobbed. "It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow," Toni Morrison wrote in Sula. Yes, that was it. My grief was infinite, with no bottom and no top, "just circles and circles of sorrow." That was it exactly.
I thought of my sister. She was especially close to Dad, and she was going to take his death really hard. Deanna was somewhere in Mexico on vacation, and I had no idea where she was staying or how to get in touch with her. But I had to try to find her. I hoped that she'd mentioned the name of the hotel to one of her friends. I'd have to try to find phone numbers for the names of the friends I knew. I didn't want Deanna to get the news from someone else, some talking head on CNN or the BBC. It wouldn't be long before the story was carried around the globe. The press had already begun gathering outside the hospital, which gave me a strange sense of pride, knowing that reporters and photographers from all over the world would record the event. Yes, the death of a music legend was an event. There was no way around it. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, had millions of fans, and they deserved to know that he was gone.
Mr. Bobbit found me and informed me that a press conference had already been arranged. Did I want to speak? Really? I get that business is business, but I thought it was an odd request. I had just lost my Dad, and he was asking me to face a group of strangers looking for a sound bite — even before I'd had a chance to talk to the rest of my family. Why couldn't Dad's "people" ever separate the celebrity from the man? I immediately switched from the grieving daughter to the take-charge woman I had to be. No, I told Mr. Bobbit, I didn't want to talk to a group of reporters. Wasn't that what he and the lawyers and the publicist and everyone else Dad had employed to spin James Brown were paid the big bucks to do? All I cared about was getting my father's body out of there before someone from the National Enquirer had the chance to sneak in the hospital and take a picture of him on his deathbed. And I needed to get in touch with my family members before they got the news from a reporter. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Cold Sweat by Yamma Brown, Robin Gaby Fisher. Copyright © 2014 Yamma Brown. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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