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By Ben Carson Cecil Murphey
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Sonya Carson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Goodbye, Daddy"
And your daddy isn't going to live with us anymore."
"Why not?" I asked again, choking back the tears. I just could not accept the strange finality of my mother's words. "I love my dad!"
"He loves you too, Bennie ... but he has to go away. For good."
"But why? I don't want him to go. I want him to stay here with us."
"He's got to go —"
"Did I do something to make him want to leave us?"
"Oh, no, Bennie. Absolutely not. Your daddy loves you."
I burst into tears. "Then make him come back."
"I can't. I just can't." Her strong arms held me close, trying to comfort me, to help me stop crying. Gradually my sobs died away, and I calmed down. But as soon as she loosened her hug and let me go, my questions started again.
"Your Daddy did —" Mother paused, and, young as I was, I knew she was trying to find the right words to make me understand what I didn't want to grasp. "Bennie, your daddy did some bad things. Real bad things."
I swiped my hand across my eyes. "You can forgive him then. Don't let him go."
"It's more than just forgiving him, Bennie —"
"But I want him to stay here with Curtis and me and you."
Once again Mother tried to make me understand why Daddy was leaving, but her explanation didn't make a lot of sense to me at 8 years of age. Looking back, I don't know how much of the reason for my father's leaving sank into my understanding. Even what I grasped, I wanted to reject. My heart was broken because Mother said that my father was never coming home again. And I loved him.
Dad was affectionate. He was often away, but when he was home he'd hold me on his lap, happy to play with me whenever I wanted him to. He had great patience with me. I particularly liked to play with the veins on the back of his large hands, because they were so big. I'd push them down and watch them pop back up. "Look! They're back again!" I'd laugh, trying everything within the power of my small hands to make his veins stay down. Dad would sit quietly, letting me play as long as I wanted.
Sometimes he'd say, "Guess you're just not strong enough," and I'd push even harder. Of course nothing worked, and I'd soon lose interest and play with something else.
Even though Mother said that Daddy had done some bad things, I couldn't think of my father as "bad," because he'd always been good to my brother, Curtis, and me. Sometimes Dad brought us presents for no special reason. "Thought you'd like this," he'd say offhandedly, a twinkle in his dark eyes.
Many afternoons I'd pester my mother or watch the clock until I knew it was time for my dad to come home from work. Then I'd rush outside to wait for him. I'd watch until I saw him walking down our alley. "Daddy! Daddy!" I'd yell, running to meet him. He would scoop me into his arms and carry me into the house.
That stopped in 1959 when I was 8 years old and Daddy left home for good. To my young, hurting heart the future stretched out forever. I couldn't imagine a life without Daddy and didn't know if Curtis, my 10-year-old brother, or I would ever see him again.
* * *
I don't know how long I continued the crying and questioning the day Daddy left; I only know it was the saddest day of my life. And my questions didn't stop with my tears. For weeks I pounded my mother with every possible argument my mind could conceive, trying to find some way to get her to make Daddy come back home.
"How can we get by without Daddy?"
"Why don't you want him to stay?"
"He'll be good. I know he will. Ask Daddy. He won't do bad things again."
My pleading didn't make any difference. My parents had settled everything before they told Curtis and me.
"Mothers and fathers are supposed to stay together," I persisted. "They're both supposed to be with their little boys."
"Yes, Bennie, but sometimes it just doesn't work out right."
"I still don't see why," I said. I thought of all the things Dad did with us. For instance, on most Sundays, Dad would take Curtis and me for drives in the car. Usually we visited people, and we'd often stop by to see one family in particular. Daddy would talk with the grown-ups, while my brother and I played with the children. Only later did we learn the truth — my father had another "wife" and other children that we knew nothing about.
I don't know how my mother found out about his double life, for she never burdened Curtis and me with the problem. In fact, now that I'm an adult, my one complaint is that she went out of her way to protect us from knowing how bad things were. We were never allowed to share how deeply she hurt. But then, that was Mother's way of protecting us, thinking she was doing the right thing. And many years later I finally understood what she called his "betrayals with women and drugs."
Long before Mother knew about the other family, I sensed things weren't right between my parents. My parents didn't argue; instead, my father just walked away. He had been leaving the house more and more and staying away longer and longer. I never knew why.
Yet when Mother told me "Your daddy isn't coming back," those words broke my heart.
I didn't tell Mother, but every night when I went to bed I prayed, "Dear Lord, help Mother and Dad get back together again." In my heart I just knew God would help them make up so we could be a happy family. I didn't want them to be apart, and I couldn't imagine facing the future without my father.
But Dad never came home again.
As the days and weeks passed, I learned we could get by without him. We were poorer then, and I could tell Mother worried, although she didn't say much to Curtis or me. As I grew wiser, and certainly by the time I was 11, I realized that the three of us were actually happier than we had been with Dad in the house. We had peace. No periods of deathly silence filled the house. I no longer froze with fear or huddled in my room, wondering what was happening when Mother and Daddy didn't talk.
That's when I stopped praying for them to get back together. "It's better for them to stay split up," I said to Curtis. "Isn't it?"
"Yeah, guess so," he answered. And, like Mother, he didn't say much to me about his own feelings. But I think I knew that he too reluctantly realized that our situation was better without our father.
Trying to remember how I felt in those days after Dad left, I'm not aware of going through stages of anger and resentment. My mother says that the experience pushed Curtis and me into a lot of pain. I don't doubt that his leaving meant a terrible adjustment for both of us boys. Yet I still have no recollection beyond his initial leaving.
Maybe that's how I learned to handle my deep hurt — by forgetting.
* * *
We just don't have the money, Bennie."
In the months after Dad left, Curtis and I must have heard that statement a hundred times, and, of course, it was true. When we asked for toys or candy, as we'd done before, I soon learned to tell from the expression on Mother's face how deeply it hurt her to deny us. After a while I stopped asking for what I knew we couldn't have anyway.
In a few instances resentment flashed across my mother's face. Then she'd get very calm and explain to us boys that Dad loved us but wouldn't give her any money to support us. I vaguely recall a few times when Mother went to court, trying to get child support from him. Afterward, Dad would send money for a month or two — never the full amount — and he always had a legitimate excuse. "I can't give you all of it this time," he'd say, "but I'll catch up. I promise."
Dad never caught up. After a while Mother gave up trying to get any financial help from him.
I was aware that he wouldn't give her money, which made life harder on us. And in my childish love for a dad who had been kind and affectionate, I didn't hold it against him. But at the same time I couldn't understand how he could love us and not want to give us money for food.
One reason I didn't hold any grudges or harsh feelings toward Dad must have been that my mother seldom blamed him — at least not to us or in our hearing. I can hardly think of a time when she spoke against him.
More important than that fact, though, Mother managed to bring a sense of security to our three-member family. While I still missed Dad for a long time, I felt a sense of contentment being with just my mother and my brother because we really did have a happy family.
My mother, a young woman with hardly any education, came from a large family and had many things against her. Yet she pulled off a miracle in her own life, and helped in ours. I can still hear Mother's voice, no matter how bad things were, saying, "Bennie, we're going to be fine." Those weren't empty words either, for she believed them. And because she believed them, Curtis and I believed them too, and they provided a comforting assurance for me.
Part of Mother's strength came from a deep-seated faith in God and perhaps just as much from her innate ability to inspire Curtis and me to know she meant every word she said. We knew we weren't rich; yet no matter how bad things got for us, we didn't worry about what we'd have to eat or where we'd live.
Our growing up without a father put a heavy burden on my mother. She didn't complain — at least not to us — and she didn't feel sorry for herself. She tried to carry the whole load, and somehow I understood what she was doing. No matter how many hours she had to be away from us at work, I knew she was doing it for us. That dedication and sacrifice made a profound impression on my life.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my mother." I'm not sure I want to say it quite like that, but my mother, Sonya Carson, was the earliest, strongest, and most impacting force in my life.
It would be impossible to tell about my accomplishments without starting with my mother's influence. For me to tell my story means beginning with hers.
Chapter TwoCarrying the Load
They're not going to treat my boy that way," Mother said as she stared at the paper Curtis had given her. "No, sir, they're not going to do that to you." Curtis had had to read some of the words to her, but she understood exactly what the school counselor had done.
"What you going to do, Mother?" I asked in surprise. It had never occurred to me that anyone could change anything when school authorities made decisions.
"I'm going right over there in the morning and get this straightened out," she said. From the tone of her voice I knew she'd do it.
Curtis, two years my senior, was in junior high school when the school counselor decided to place him into the vocational-type curriculum. His once-low grades had been climbing nicely for more than a year, but he was enrolled in a predominantly White school, and Mother had no doubt that the counselor was operating from the stereotypical thinking that Blacks were incapable of college work.
Of course, I wasn't at their meeting, but I still vividly remember what Mother told us that evening. "I said to that counselor woman, 'My son Curtis is going to college. I don't want him in any vocational courses.'" Then she put her hand on my brother's head. "Curtis, you are now in the college prep courses."
That story illustrates my mother's character. She was not a person who would allow the system to dictate her life. Mother had a clear understanding of how things would be for us boys.
My mother is an attractive woman, five feet three and slim, although when we were kids I'd say she was on the plump side of medium. Today she suffers from arthritis and heart problems, but I don't think she has slowed down much.
Sonya Carson has the classic Type A personality — hardworking, goal-oriented, driven to demanding the best of herself in any situation, refusing to settle for less. She's highly intelligent, a woman who quickly grasps the overall significance rather than searching for details. She has a natural ability — an intuitive sense — that enables her to perceive what should be done. That's probably her most outstanding characteristic.
Because of that determined, perhaps compulsive, personality that demanded so much from herself, she infused some of that spirit into me. I don't want to portray my mother as perfect because she was human too. At times her refusing to allow me to settle for less than the best came across as nagging, demanding, even heartless to me. When she believed in something she held on and wouldn't quit. I didn't always like hearing her say, "You weren't born to be a failure, Bennie. You can do it!" Or one of her favorites: "You just ask the Lord, and He'll help you."
Being kids, we didn't always welcome her lessons and advice. Resentment and obstinance crept in, but my mother refused to give up.
Over a period of years, with Mother's constant encouragement, both Curtis and I started believing that we really could do anything we chose to do. Maybe she brainwashed us into believing that we were going to be extremely good and highly successful at whatever we attempted. Even today I can clearly hear her voice in the back of my head saying, "Bennie, you can do it. Don't you stop believing that for one second."
Mother had only a third-grade education when she married, yet she provided the driving force in our home. She pushed my laid-back father to do a lot of things. Largely because of her sense of frugality, they saved a fair amount of money and eventually bought our first house. I suspect that, had things gone Mother's way, ultimately they would have been financially well-off. And I'm sure she had no premonition of the poverty and hardship she'd have to face in the years ahead.
By contrast, my father was six feet two, slender, and he often said, "You got to look sharp all the time, Bennie. Dress the way you want to be." He emphasized clothes and possessions, and he enjoyed being around people.
"Be nice to people. People are important, and if you're nice to them, they'll like you." Recalling those words, I believe he put great importance on being liked by everybody. If anyone asked me to describe my dad, I'd have to say, "He's just a nice guy." And, despite all the problems that erupted later, I feel that way today.
My father was the kind of person who would have wanted us to wear the fancy clothes and to do the macho kind of things like girl hunting — the lifestyle that would have been detrimental to establishing ourselves academically. In many ways, I'm now grateful my mother took us out of that environment.
Intellectually, Dad didn't easily grasp complex problems because he tended to get bogged down in details, unable to see the overall picture. That was probably the biggest difference between my parents.
Both parents came from big families: my mother had 23 siblings, and my father grew up with 13 brothers and sisters. They married when my father was 28 and my mother was 13. Many years later she confided that she was looking for a way to get out of a desperate home situation.
Shortly after their marriage, they moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Detroit, which was the trend for laborers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. People from the rural South migrated toward what they considered lucrative factory jobs in the North. My father got a job at the Cadillac plant. So far as I know, it was the first and only employment he ever held. He worked for Cadillac until he retired in the late 1970s.
My father also served as a minister in a small Baptist church. I've never been able to understand whether he was an ordained minister or not. Only one time did Daddy take me to hear him preach — or at least I remember only one occasion. Daddy wasn't one of those fiery types like some television evangelists. He spoke rather calmly, raised his voice a few times, but he preached in a relatively low key, and the audience didn't get stirred up. He didn't have a real flow of words, but he did the best he could. I can still see him on that special Sunday as he stood in front of us, tall and handsome, the sun glinting off a large metal cross that dangled across his chest.
* * *
I'm going away for a few days," Mother said several months after Daddy left us. "Going to see some relatives."
"We going too?" I asked with interest.
"No, I have to go alone." Her voice was unusually quiet. "Besides, you boys can't miss school."
Before I could object, she told me that we could stay with neighbors. "I've already arranged it for you. You can sleep over there and eat with them until I come back."
Maybe I should have wondered why she left, but I didn't. I was so excited to stay in somebody else's house because that meant extra privileges, better food, and a lot of fun playing with the neighbor kids.
That's the way it happened the first time and several times after that. Mother explained that she was going away for a few days, and we would be taken care of by our neighbors. Because she carefully arranged for us to stay with friends, it was exciting rather than frightful. Secure in her love, it never occurred to me that she wouldn't be back.
It may seem strange, but it is a testimony to the security we felt in our home — I was an adult before I discovered where Mother went when she "visited relatives." When the load became too heavy, she checked herself into a mental institution. The separation and divorce plunged her into a terrible period of confusion and depression, and I think her inner strength helped her realize she needed professional help and gave her the courage to get it. Usually she was gone for several weeks at a time.
We boys never had the slightest suspicion about her psychiatric treatment. She wanted it that way.
Excerpted from Gifted Hands by Ben Carson Cecil Murphey Copyright © 2011 by Sonya Carson . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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