Hilly, Kobe, Healing: An Open Letter to Black People on Father’s Day 2020

“Embrace the “beautiful struggle” of our existence, persistence, and resistance.

Fourteen years ago this week, I became a father overnight. On Sunday, June 18, 2006, I said “I do” to my beautiful bride, Bobbie, and I also officially said “I will” to Jalen, our handsome 12-year-old son, who walked his mom down the aisle, with Bobbie’s father on her other side. It was a Father’s Day and I not only became a husband, but that day I publicly accepted the calling to be a dad to a young man who had tragically lost his father to cancer a few years prior.

It was an exciting day for Bobbie, Jalen and me as our new family formed, yet there was complexity, as is common with blended family transitions. Most of our complexity came from navigating the vitriol of those struggling to accept that Bobbie had found love again—and of all people, love again, with me.

Shift

Bobbie’s first husband and Jalen’s father, Mandell (affectionately known to many as ‘Hilly’) was an amazing man. His death had shaken many in our small community. Ironically, Hilly’s battle with cancer intersected with the tragedy and ‘shift’ of September 11th, 2001. After Hilly passed in 2003, the subsequent disillusionment and displacement that many in our small community felt was not entirely dissimilar to the shift that others may feel now as a result of Covid-19 and the uprisings for justice—a new normal was upon us and life would never be the same.

Our marriage—our new normal—ruffled feathers. It was a unique time in life, an odd season. I was young. I quickly learned the difference between relatives and family, friends and frien(d)emies. People literally asked me prior to our wedding if I felt I had to compete with Hilly. There were no comparisons to be made on our end. Just a new season.

I knew, loved, and missed Hilly too. Bobbie had cared for and loved Hilly in sickness and in health; over time, she had healed and accepted that she could only go as far as the grave with him. She was ready to love again, and she was grateful to again have a life partner to raise Jalen. She never wanted to raise a young black boy by herself.

Black Dad Anniversary

I never wanted a blended family; I knew blended families could work based on my own unique family

Hilly and Jalen.

journey; but my dream was to have a “normal family,” consistent with my picket-fenced vision of all my children having the same last name. And I certainly didn’t want to set myself up for a young man to be able to say to me–as I once rudely said to my dad who adopted me– “you’re not my daddy!” But I loved Bobbie. I believed that she was the one that I had prayed for. And I loved Jalen and I knew I was called to do for Jalen what my dad did for me: to love, raise, and accept someone else’s son as my own. Many black men do this. Brothers, I see you. I appreciate you.

So my anniversary of marriage is also the anniversary of becoming a dad; my personal Father’s Day.

In addition to being the best husband I could be, I was determined to honor Hilly’s legacy by committing to do the best I could to raise his/ our son. Before the wedding, I took Jalen to visit his dad’s gravesite. We each picked three flowers at different points along the motorcycle ride to the grassy hill where his dad rests—one flower for his dad, one for Jalen, and one for me. It was there that we sat, we reflected, we prayed and we committed to each other one more time before he shared his mom with me and walked her down the aisle.

I was no longer “Ty” to him; he had chosen to give me the name “Daddy-O,” a name I loved from the start.

A lot has changed in 14 years. A lot has changed in 4 months! Jalen is finishing university and he is now a big brother to his doting little brother, Essien—our handsome 12 year old, and budding soccer player. Essien’s admiration for Jalen is such that when I recently asked him where he gets his athletic ability from—assuming he would proudly say ‘you, dad’ —he said “Jalen!”

So what does this have to do with Kobe Bryant?

Kobe, COVID, and Me

Well, January 26, 2020 was another one of those ‘shifting’ days for the world, for us, for sport, for fathers. Jalen’s 26th birthday was on January 26th. Bobbie, Essien, and I had already facetimed with him to celebrate his birthday! We are big sports fans in our house, especially soccer. Jalen and I are Lakers fans. We loved Kobe.

Young Hilly, and Baby Jalen.

When Kobe’s helicopter tragically crashed on Sunday, January 26th, 2020, Jalen was the first person to call me to share the sad news. His deep manly voice could not conceal the concern. I instantly knew something was wrong.

“Daddy-O, did you hear about Kobe?”

“What happened to Kobe?” I retorted with alarm.

“He died.”

The news sucked the joy out of Jalen’s birthday and the restaurant I was in as news quickly spread. News of the passing of Gigi—Kobe’s daughter, and the others on the helicopter compounded our grief. Named after Jalen Rose like so many others of his generation, I could sense in my Jalen’s voice that Kobe’s death ‘hit different.’

This wasn’t just about the passing of a basketball legend; it was the loss of a #girldad, a husband, a beautifully, imperfect Black man who we got to see transition from youthful exuberance on the court to responsible satisfaction in life beyond basketball.

More than this, there were some airy parallels for Jalen’s loss of Kobe on his 26th birthday on the 26th. Hilly died at 41 and Kobe was 41. Kobe looked like Hilly, like seriously! The eyes, chiseled nose and all. Had Kobe lived beyond 41, Jalen probably could have gotten a glimpse of what his dad would have looked like in old age. But that was snatched away on his birthday.

Father’s Day That Hits Differently

So much has been taken from all of us since then, COVID-19 canceled much of our normal. We’ve lost Armaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and many others to the bullets and knees of racist police and systems that make it difficult for Black folks to breathe.

And yet, we are still here. Still strategizing. Still marching. Still fighting. Still demanding justice and systematic change. Still taking care of our children and “other people’s children” too, in the words of renown educator Lisa Delpit. We’ve had to homeschool and reorganize. We’ve had to share space, and wifi bandwidth, and extended time with our families—our Black families; and while it has been hard for many of us, we are still here. And we needed this time to remember that our ancestors endured so that we could be here.

This Father’s Day will likely ‘hit different’ than any other. It should. We’ve been through a lot. But I also hope it will be a Father’s Day that heals. A Father’s Day when we “Embrace the B.S.”—the “beautiful struggle” of our existence, persistence, and resistance. The “beautiful struggle” of our uniquely conjoined family arrangements, identities, accents and cultural accoutrements. The struggle of father loss, father gain, fatherhood, father strain, father pain, father joy.

Beautiful Struggle

The beauty of “I’m sorry,” of a text message to a distant dad, of forgiveness of self and others, of release from the wounds of long, life journeys. The beauty of a walk, of a talk, of a meal, of a smile, of silence—no violence, of hope, of healing. The beautiful struggle and gift of reflection, reconnection and resurrection of the possibility and promise that irrespective of whether your earthly father has been present, your Heavenly Father has always been with you!

This is the beautiful struggle of our individual and collective lives and existence; lives that matter—whether your father has been amazing and ‘there’ or whether the relationship has been a cause of despair. You matter. Black lives matter. Black fathers matter. Black mothers matter. Black children matter. Black families matter and we goin’ be alright!

RIP Kobe and Gigi…RIP Hilly. RIP to all our fathers and forefathers, whether they stood or were misunderstood. May God cover and comfort all of our children and families on this Father’s Day.