The sudden death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter along with others in the helicopter crash has brought up memories of my own father’s sudden death in a car crash. I was almost in the crash with him and have often wondered if I had been would I have been dead at seven years old along with my 32-year-old father.
He was an All-American basketball player at Mississippi College and then a basketball coach. But he and a dear friend were also trying to start a black angus cattle farm. He was on his way the day of the car accident to look at some cattle. I jumped into his beloved baby blue Volkswagen with him to tag along. But he would not have it. He would not have his little sissy son tagging along. I insisted on going, however, and threw a bit of a tantrum in the car. He got out of the driver’s seat, came over to the passenger side, grabbed me in a way that could be described as violent (it is the way I certainly remember it), and threw me down on the gravel drive before speeding off in an angry huff. I was angry myself and wished that he were dead. Twenty minutes later – still angry at me I have always believed, I have always lived with – he sped through a STOP sign at a country intersection into the crash with another car that ended his life.
My father Howard Jean Sessums is pictured above during his college days when he was an All-American basketball player and before he was drafted by the New York Knicks. My brother and sister and I grew up with tales of his college days from relatives as well as strangers who seemed to think it was a way of comforting us – these three little orphans (our mother had died the next year of cancer at the age of 33) – when they were confronted by the sadness our very presence could elicit in them as well as a sense of their own mortality for the tragic tale of our little lives told them of their own. Their memories of “Ses,” as he was known, were also seemed to comfort them somehow in those moments. I would stand uncomfortably in my own silence – an echo of the silence left by both my parents’ deaths – while they attempted to comfort me in order to comfort themselves. I would silently observe the look that came over crusty old codgers who’d relate the deadly precision of “Ses’s set shot” or that which women could get when gazing at something I couldn’t quite decipher yet when talking about how he could put on a dribbling display. One woman once even told me his nickname in college was “Hard Legs” and lightly laughed in a way I’d never heard anyone laugh yet in my life.
I loved my father even though he really didn’t know what to make of the little sissy he had sired. My three fondest memories of him include his taking me to the high school gym with him once to watch him paint over the demon in the circled middle of the court – a scary-looking devil replete with horns and a harrowing kind of smile – and replace it with a Native American chieftain (he had renamed the team himself the Chiefs instead of the Demons because the small town Pelahatchie was an “Indian name”). I watched his big hands that could dribble and shoot and, yes, take off his big black belt for spankings, so daintily apply the paint to the Chief’s feathers on his headdress. I had never seen his fingers express such gentleness, such care.
Later sitting with me on a sofa, he looked at shelter magazines, his fingers once more showing some daintiness and gentleness as they carefully flipped the pages and he dreamed aloud of the house we would someday live in and how he would decorate it. I remember his pointing to the pages that appealed to him the most. I think my love of decorating is a way of loving the father that knew to sit with me – daintily, gently – on such a sofa and look at such magazines and dream aloud with such a sissy son.
And finally there is the memory of those times before I went to bed when he’d put Ray Charles or Jim Reeves or Marty Robbins on the hi-fi and hold me in his arms and dance me about the living room and tell me he loved me, his whiskers against my cheeks as I touched that face that lovingly roughed me up with the gentleness and daintiness he never cared to show many others. There was such sweetness in those moments when he confronted his fear of me and allowed me to confront mine of him as he showed me he could be an artist, that he could long for beauty, that he could dance to the voices of men. I have missed him all my life. And longed for him. I still gaze at memories of him I can’t quite decipher. Sometimes I think my life has all been about the deciphering of this man, this dead father, and these feelings he was trying to decipher in himself about us that he passed on to me to decipher still now that I am a man who is twice the age my father was that day he died. The rest of my life in some way died that day too. I am sixty-four. But I will always be seven years old.
After that day my father died in that car crash, I was fathered by my fatherlessness. The suddenness of fate fathered me. Other seven-year-old boys were learning to tie their shoes with the newfound knowledge of knots. My knowledge was unknotting what had found me: loss and grief and growing up before I wanted to do such a thing. My father’s absence – the severing of his presence from my life in one split second – was what I cleaved to. My mother – before she died the next year from cancer (more loss, more grief, more growing up, an ever-expanding absence to which to cleave) – had sat me down soon after my father, her husband, had vanished so unexpectedly from our lives and advised me to make sure I remembered everything I could about him. “He’ll always be your father. Don’t let him fade away,” she told me as I put my head in her lap and cried along with her as I thought of his own head and how that was where life had fled him as he flew from his car onto the blacktop and where it, his life, had bled away where once there were his brains. If that’s where life was, I decided, then I would keep him alive in my own little brain. I sat in his silence and, day by day by day that first year he was gone, I consciously conjured him. In so many ways – no matter how loud my world gets, how hectic, how filled with the sounds of my own life – I will always be that seven-year-old boy sitting in my father’s silence.
That is why this excerpt from my next book means so much to me. It is one of the memories I replayed over and over and over again when I was only seven-years-old and put down in my second memoir, I Left It on the Mountain. It is from the chapter titled “The Dogged” and also explains why, as this now 64-year-old man who sits in silence and writes, I love my own dog Teddy so much.
That winter Chico and Coco joined our family I fretted about their shivering out in their three-sided dog house. As the winter settled in further, I had also nightmares about their freezing to death in the garage where my mother suggested they take up refuge as the temperature dropped.
As February rolled around, the forecast for the first time in my childhood predicted we’d have a snowstorm in Mississippi. My brother and sister became little lookouts at the living room window watching the sky for any sign of a snow flake. My mother stocked the pantry with cans of soup and extra loafs of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly. My father brought home some long pairs of newly laundered athletic socks from the gym for us to use as scarves about our little necks, our mother shaking her head at his ingenuity but thankful too she’d not have to go into her grocery budget to buy us any extra clothing for the frigid weather that had already descended so oddly upon us.
I was the only one didn’t seem to be excited by the prospect of such unusual weather in our midst or the expectation of making our first family snow man or falling down on the newly whitened lawn to make something my mother called snow angels, pointing to a picture in her Redbook magazine that month of a mother and a child making them in the snow in some faraway enchanted place called Cape Cod when she was trying to take my mind off Chico and Coco outside. But I would not let up about them. I kept begging her to allow me bring them inside in case they froze to death outside. Finally, I began to cry uncontrollably when none of my arguments were working with her.
My father came to my rescue and picked me up. “What have you done to him?” he wanted to know. “Leave him alone,” he told her.
“Oh, don’t start with me,” she said. “You two. You’re ganging up on me. I know what you’re doing.”
“It’s starting!” came my little brother’s voice in the other room. “The snow! We see snow! Look! Mommy! Daddy! Look!”
My father put me down and I, drying my eyes, followed my mother and father to the window where my brother and sister were standing. We all stood there amazed as we watched the stormy swirl of flakes fall onto the frozen ground. I left them standing there in their amazement and, wrapping a long athletic sock around my neck, walked out in the storm to check on Chico and Coco in the garage. My father followed me. “They’re going to be fine, Kevinator,” he said, bending down to tighten the sock around my neck. “You can’t stay out here without a coat on though.”
“They don’t have coats,” I told him.
“They have built-in coats. Their fur will keep them warm.”
“But they’re shaking, Daddy,” I said, shaking now myself.
My mother joined us in the garage. Outside Kim and Karole were running around with their faces turned toward the falling snow and trying to catch it in their mouths. “Mama, please,” I pleaded. “Can’t we put them in the kitchen for just tonight until the snow storm is over?”
“Nan …” said my father.
“Oh, okay. You two win. But just this one night. And then we’ll talk about it again tomorrow. Only in the kitchen though. There’s a box under the sink. Get that and put those nasty sweatpants in it and put them in that.”
I picked up Chico and my father, winking at me, took Coco. He put his other arm around my mother and gave her a kiss. She shrugged it off and scurried out into the yard to play in the snow with Kim and Karole. Once my father and I placed the dogs down into the box in the kitchen I ran back out into the garage to get the sweatpants and brought them back inside to cushion the bottom of the box. My father put a bowl of food and a bowl of water down inside it.
“Kevin!” my mother called. “Come play!”
I ignored her call and stayed inside the kitchen. I looked up past the silent radio on the window sill and saw the snow swirling about outside.
“Howard!” called my mother. “It’s fun. Come outside!”
My father gave my head a pat and did as he was told.
I sat silently with Chico and Coco. Free of them, I listened to my family frolic in the snow outside, merry, muffled, and free of me.
That night I realized how silent snow can make the world in which it falls. No cars passed by on the street outside my bedroom window. No one walked along the sidewalk. Sound itself seemed to have come to a standstill. It was so quiet I could not sleep worrying that either Chico or Coco, if they barked to complain about their strange new surroundings in the kitchen, would break the night’s eery silence and be exiled by my mother once more out to the frigid garage. I got out of bed and tip-toed into the kitchen to check on them. Coco was asleep but Chico, the more fragile of the two was shivering in the box. The long athletic socks my brother, sister and I had used that day as scarves were on the kitchen counter. I retrieved them and stuffed them down around Chico in the box, which awakened Coco who began to bark. I could not quiet her and my groggy father came into the kitchen. He looked like he was prepared to bark himself at all three of us there on the floor but then he softened. “Come on, Kevinator, let’s get back to bed.”
“Can I bring Coco and Chico with me?” I asked.
“Please, Daddy. They’re so cold. I can keep them warm.”
Too sleepy to argue, he picked the dogs up and told me to come along. “Sshshshsh,” he warned us and led us back to my bed and began to tuck us in. He looked down at Chico and Coco so comfortably curled up next to me. He sighed. “Oh, hell, move over,” he said, surprising me by climbing into my bed himself for the very first time. He lay behind me and pulled me up close to him beneath the covers, his head next to mine on the pillow, the rough stubble of his face no longer splinter-like but something more splendid that I had yet to have a name for. He wrapped an arm over me and then over Coco and Chico. I watched his big hand – could it really be the same hand that I had watched so often palm a basketball back in the gym where he coached his team or grab the black belt before it spanked me or even once slap my mother in my presence – now gently hold one of Coco’s paws and one of Chico’s in its palm and then carefully, oh so carefully, enclose them there.
I looked up and saw in the doorway my mother taking in the tableau of her husband and her child in the bed with two curled up Chihuahuas. She wore a woolen white robe. Her blonde hair was mussed but magnificently lit by the snowy light that snaked across my bedroom floor and up one of her legs, snaring her whole lovely body before further whitening her face and finally forming a kind of halo that hugged those mussy curls. She moved a hand toward her hair and I knew in that moment she was real and not the apparition she seemed to be and, indeed, would become in two years once her cancer had killed her and carved this very image into my memory for the rest of my life, my mother’s ghost-like presence suddenly spun from the first light I’d ever seen reflected from a snowfall.
My father let go of Chico’s and Coco’s paws and motioned for her to join us but she did not take his cue. She turned instead to go back to their bedroom. Then, lifting her hand this time to her cheek, she kept it there. She hesitated. She pivoted back our way and I saw something flutter across her face – resignation? reality? love? – along with the light that seemed again to float silently about the room until it chose that cheek of hers on which to perch. She walked into the light toward us, wafting it about once more with the sway of her hips, and found a way to come between my father and me, slipping her body like a sliver of the snowy light itself into the bed. My father then lay his arm over both of us, my mother and me, his hand lying flat against the bed. I took a paw from Chico and one from Coco and placed them again into his open palm. He enclosed them, this time including my own hand in his gentle clench. My back was against my mother whose back was against my father’s. I moved closer to her, then she to him. I heard my father growl and kiss her on her neck. She sighed. She touched my arm. I finally fell asleep in a world that was no longer silent.