Dear Henry and Annabelle
I learn more from you than you may realize. You have sparked more joy and love in my heart than I have ever known. A lot of hard work comes with being a parent, but there is so much more reward it makes it all worth it.
I write this letter to you on Father’s Day 2016.
It is my hope I lead by my actions more so than by words alone. Nevertheless, I am a writer, and as we say in basketball “shooters gotta shoot”, as a writer, writers gotta write.
So I write this especially to/for you. I think it will be just as relevant at your current ages of three and five as it will when you are eight and 10, 13 and 15 or 23 and 25 — maybe even when you’re as ‘old’ as me, particularly the flossing bit.
Savor Your Creativity, Hold Tight To Your Imagination
When you’re young, your imagination is a jungle with colorful birds flying about and scaly-skinned reptiles and slithering snakes at your feet. Lions roar and giraffes graze among the high trees plucking the vegetation from its branch. The world is vast, the world is new. The world is shiny. At some point in life, I’m not exactly sure when though I think it’s 12 years old, that shine starts to dull and wear off.
In the woods of my hometown where your Ghee lives, my friends and I used to play a game we called war. Sword fights with knobby sticks were a common every day occurrence. Pegging each other upside the head with walnuts (“grenades”) were too. Sometimes there was blood. Purple bruises were as standard as the skin covering our bones. Enemies were captured but they were always released by dinner time.
Then one day, one by one, we traded in our sticks for girlfriends, and the rest is history.
I’m too old to go out into the woods and physically play war with my friends anymore. I imagine if we tried that someone would find their way on a stretcher being rolled into the ER with a broken limb, cracked rib, or concussion — maybe all three. You get fragile as you age. Not to mention neighborhood eyes would spy us through their mini-blinds and call the Charlotte County police to report suspicious 34-37 year olds creeping around Cub Creek beating each other in the shins with sticks, and Thomas Jones and deputies would soon arrive.
But sometimes my imagination takes me back to those fern covered hillsides down the street from my childhood home on Church Street in Phenix, Virginia. A simple glance down from the basketball court reminds me of those days of adventure. There was a 5-point system in sword fighting I sometimes wonder if others remember. The secret call Kevin and I had (“doooaahwip”) to alert one another who was trampling through the woods (not an enemy) to our makeshift hideout. I’m still that kid who stepped on the rusty nail next to the Gilliam shed and was carried home by Robbie and Jeremiah. I always will be.
Childhood is an excellent sustainer for adulthood. It’s a repository for happy memories you are able to tap into occasionally to ward off a bad day.
You wrote a story this morning before our family hike to Humpback Rock. It was about a cub you found in the woods. You cared for it because you said the cub was sad because mama bear had gone in search of food for the cub to eat and the cub was alone as a result. Whether you know it or not, it showed your naturally nurturing side, which is another character trait I love about you. I really enjoyed your story. I also love the pictures you draw and the artwork you create. You are able to reach deep into a bottomless well of creativity I am envious of.
I love your stories that involve hot lava. That you said Papa Wayne died from hot lava was a rather apt metaphor for leukemia. I love how everything you want, but don’t necessarily have, is kept at your imaginary birthday party. I think of this as your imaginative storage locker where your Batman shoes and the purple cheetah exists. One day we’ll catch that purple cheetah that scratched you on your back while you were asleep. We’ll get him. Perhaps we can catch a ride on the giant bird and touch the clouds with our fingertips while we are in hot pursuit.
As your father, I only ask you one thing: keep the shine of your imagination as long as you can. Spit shine it if you must and polish it with the cloth of your shirt tail.
Hold tight to your imagination—in childhood, in adulthood. Savor your creativity. There will always be a little kid in you even when you’re my age. Talk to him or her sometimes. S/he wants to play, wants to create an image of the world where colorful birds still soar and purple cheetahs roam the suburbs of Charlottesville.
Dream big. Goals are meant to be small or medium in size and achievable. Dreams are meant to be almost unfathomable in dimension and attainability. What you’ll come to understand is this: even if you don’t attain your dream, you likely learned valuable lessons along the way.
Here are some dreams I had when I was your age and a little older.
Play in the NBA
When I was a kid, I used to set up drink cans and work on my dribbling day in and day out. I was no older than five when I started this. Even if it was pitch black dark outside, you could hear my basketball echoing against the black pavement in the clear night at the court. The dark was the best time because you couldn’t cheat and look down. If it was raining or windy, even better.
I’m still a kid when I see a basketball laying around somewhere. I just want to grab it and start dribbling, and I often do. When you’re older, if you see a ball laying around, always remember this: it wants to be dribbled or kicked or thrown. That’s what balls are for.
As you know, I never made it to the NBA — though a gig with the Philadelphia 76ers is not entirely out of my reach. Call me Colangelo. But dreaming it was a possibility made me work harder, and I’ve learned so much from the game of basketball that I apply to day-to-day life. How to be a team player. How to assist. How to grind it out when the going gets tough. How to do the little things. How to take the bull by the horns when it’s crunch time.
There was once a coach by the name of John Wooden. He led 10 UCLA Bruins teams to the National Championship over the course of a 12-year span from 1964-1975. He pulled together his ideas and created what was known as the Pyramid of Success. Refer to this pyramid often—in your personal life, even in your professional work life. It’s a great foundation for almost all of your endeavors.
Hard work pays off. Even at your dad’s ripe age at the present, I bet you still can’t steal the ball from me. Go ahead, give it a try 🙂
Careful, I might dunk on you too.
Become a paleontologist
Do you know how you like dinosaurs? I like dinosaurs too. I liked them when I was your age and I am fascinated by them still. If you could grow up to have any job in this world, what would your dream job be? Perhaps you should pursue it.
Write a book by the age of 26
This is an odd one, but it was one I always had even from an early age. It’s odd because I did not like to read when I was younger. I was outside all the time. My nose was never in a book. The world was where my adventures lived, not inside the pages of a book.
I achieved this dream. It’s not published anywhere, but I did indeed write a book by the age of 26 — and yes, that is the exact age I chose when I was younger. I do not know why. The book is about childhood. You’ll have to read it some time. You’ll probably learn a lot about me and my friends in doing so. It may even remind you of your own adventures one day.
Your dad likes to write. I’ve written two books actually, one nonfiction and the other fiction, with another novel outlined and 200 pages of a draft written, and two more incubating in my brain.
One of you may very well get this trait from me. You both enjoy a good yarn as it is. Sometimes I see the seedlings sprouting already. Do you like to tell stories?
What are some of your dreams? Whatever they are, just remember: dreams don’t always stay dreams. Sometimes they become a reality. Even if they don’t, the lessons you learn will guide you positively in life.
As Elbert Hubbard once said, “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never make it out alive.”
Life will take you for one heck of a ride with more ups and downs than a rollercoaster. Perspective is important and a gentle reminder that it’s all about the ebb and flow, the balance between dark and light, comedy and pathos.
If I can give you perhaps one of the most important pieces of advice you’ll ever hear, it’s something my dad (your Papa Wayne) said once upon a time: always find a reason to laugh, and do it often.
Heed this advice.
He said this to my friend Jeremiah after Jeremiah learned he had brain cancer. Your Papa Wayne had cancer twice too. When he said this it was after he successfully beat stage IV appendiceal cancer, one of the most rare cancers that exist.
The ability to find humor in the minute details of everyday life will get you through some really dark days, and there will be dark days.
When I die one day, I hope you remember how happy I was when I lived, how much I laughed. That’s what I remember most about my dad. How red his cheeks would get. The hyena cackle. The tears of joy.
Also, watch old re-runs of Chappelle’s Show and early Eddie Murphy stand-up specials and films like 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop. Your mom may say it’s too vulgar, but I watched it when I was your age and grew up just fine. Little rough around the edges, but just fine.
Would you believe your Papa Wayne let your aunt Jennifer and me watch young Eddie Murphy at such a young age? He did. Even Delirious and Raw.
I credit my ability to laugh at pretty much everything from my dad. Ain’t nobody got time to be serious and proper all the time.
Whatever it is that makes you laugh, visit this watering hole often in life. The water is always there to quench your thirst.
Never Worry About What Anyone Else Thinks Of You, Ever
I have a confession to make. When I was a teenager, I had a mohawk. Not some wimpy mohawk either. It grew to about 15″ tall and was every color under the rainbow during its lifetime.
Your Ghee and Papa Wayne weren’t the biggest fans. They tried to pay me $100 to cut it off on multiple occasions, but I was too free a bird (my nickname was “Rooster”) to cut it off. Your aunt Jennifer liked it. So, cool points there for your aunt Jennifer.
Your dad was a punk rocker. Your dad is still a punk rocker despite the lack of holes in his khakis. It’s an ethos kids. It’s not just a musical genre for us die hards. It’s a way of life.
I caught a lot of flack for that mohawk and went through a lot of hell in high school that most were never aware of except my immediate family. The infamous mohawk of Randolph Henry High School even made the Richmond Times Dispatch one issue. Slow news day I reckon.
I was threatened with suspension; I was threatened with being sent to the delinquent school in Crewe (despite never being in trouble except for two demerits in sixth grade and two demerits in ninth grade from your Gammaw, which I did not rightfully deserve in my defense. Josh Napier was talking to Scarlet, not me); I was threatened ultimately with expulsion.
All for having a mohawk. That was my only crime.
My parents were forced into meetings with the principal. The superintendent was called in. Week after week after week for about two months, this went on. It was my senior year of high school.
The s––t hit the fan during one of the meetings and my mom and dad, particularly my dad, got fed up with it all. Even your great grandmother who was the mayor of Drakes Branch entered the picture.
During the next meeting, your Papa Wayne brought in an old high school yearbook with a picture of the principal’s giant afro from the 1960s and said, “So, if my son’s hair is distracting, what do you call yours? It’s just as tall. If anything, at least my son’s classmates can see around the side of his head. You were totally blocking the view of the blackboard.”
After the superintendent made the comment that if 60% of the school signed a petition for me to keep my hair, I could keep it, some of my friends (Shauna was the first) started a petition to “Save Jeff’s Hair,” and do you know what happened? It worked.
RELATED: Read “A Little Piece of Shauna’s Heart“
Roughly 80% of the school signed the petition, including some teachers (Andrew Prophett et al), and that was the end of that.
Take that authority figures.
I have a second confession to make. I once had three mohawks. Not three at different times, but three at one time. Picture this: one on each side of my head and one on the top.
And I dressed a little out of the ordinary for someone who grew up in Charlotte County. Just a wee bit.
Why am I telling you this?
What I’m saying is, do your thing. Forget what anyone else thinks. If you’re not hurting anyone and there’s no written law in the books about it, and if it keeps you from spending idle time doing drugs or impregnating someone or becoming impregnated, then you have my permission — not that you’ll likely want my permission when you’re a teenager, but still, you have it.
As silly as it sounds, having a mohawk taught me important life lessons. We live in a society that pretends it doesn’t judge people by the way they look—and it’s true, some people don’t.
But it’s not overwhelmingly true. If you think we have somehow transcended perception-based judgments, take a hike to Hair Cuttery and request a mohawk. You’ll learn a lot about people in a very short amount of time.
There will always be someone, particularly when you’re in middle school or high school, who is going to try and rain on your parade. Don’t let these people get to you. Talk to someone so you can get it off your chest. Meditate. Surround yourself with positive people, with the type of friend who is just that: a friend.
Girls can be a particularly virulent bunch to one another. I say this as a brother who saw it happen to his sister and also as a husband in hearing about the cattiness your mom experienced from so-called friends. I never really understood the talking behind the back thing girls do. Just throw some blows and be done with it. Okay, maybe don’t do that. But talk to your mom about the particulars as it relates to girl-on-girl bullying and BS. She has the inside track. I’m always here, too. You can talk to me. I’m your dad.
A word of advice. Guys are different than girls. Middle school is probably the worst, particularly seventh and eighth grades, but high school can suck at times too. The guys who give you s––t will grow up to be losers. Trust me. It’s all downhill for them after high school graduation. All downhill. Their words and actions are nothing more than a mirror reflecting their own insecurities. They just want you to think it’s you, not them. It’s not. It’s them. Like I said, all downhill after high school. And those wheels spin fast.
Oh, and just as I am with Annabelle, I’m here for you too. Don’t think you can’t talk to me about these sorts of things. You can. I want you to. You’re my little buddy.
And lastly, brush your teeth and floss daily, always
You guys have the tooth brushing down pat. Soon, you’ll need to start flossing. It’s a good habit to get into, and you might as well start young because there’s no lying to the dentist about flossing. They know.
Alright, kiddos. That’s it. Words of wisdom from your dear old dad. While these may not necessarily be the most important lessons in life, they are still important lessons in life.
Time for me to hit the hay. It’s late. I’m tired. So remember:
- Savor your creativity and imagination
- Dream big
- Laugh often
- Never worry about what anyone else thinks of you
- Brush your teeth and floss, every single day
Thank you for being you. Thank you for bringing joy into my life as a dad. I love you.
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Photo: Jeffrey Pillow. “Children sitting on a log.” All rights reserved