I became a single father at age twenty-eight. My daughter, Tahirah, was five years old. There was no drama, no acrimony. One day as I prepared to take Tahirah home to her mother she simply said, “I want to live here with you, Daddy.” Her mother knew I was an attentive and responsible father, and she knew how close Tahirah and I were, so when she was sure that is what our daughter really wanted, she reluctantly agreed. I was thrilled that everyday my little love and I would start our days together, but I was also filled with trepidation, for at that moment I was thrust into a role for which I’d never been prepared. I knew nothing of doing hair and picking dresses, little about cooking and less about ballet classes. I was anxious, yes, but still I was thrilled.
Tahirah and I were inseparable. At first I overcompensated. I took her with me on dinner dates, biking dates, fishing with my buddies — I took her everywhere. It got to be a joke that when you saw one of us you knew the other was not far behind. But I eventually found my balance and we settled into a more normal routine.
I was a single young man with a good job, so I had a very active social life (in retrospect, much too active!), but my daughter never knew. I didn’t have sleepover guests when she was in the house. I was not raised that way and I was determined she wouldn’t be, either. My attempts at propriety must have been successful, for on the occasions when a lady friend did visit, Tahirah would say, “Okay, daddy. Now I’m going in my room to play with my friend.” She thought they had come to see her. And often they did. She was such a bright, fun, engaging child that it was easy to fall in love with her.
Tahirah was very caring for my welfare. Because she always saw me sleep alone, at some point she decided that I was lonely. So whenever she spied a young woman in our travels that she thought I’d like (in reality, a woman she thought she’d like) Tahirah would ask the woman if she could introduce her to her daddy. As you can imagine, I got more than one date from those introductions.
But I don’t want to give the wrong impression. As wonderfully rewarding as it is, being responsible for a child’s welfare every minute of every day can weigh upon you, especially if you are like I was, a young man who suddenly found himself a single parent without any preparation to be one. Many nights I cried from worry that I might not be doing a good enough job as a parent; that I might not be giving her the love and self-confidence she needed. My parents were a great help in that regard, though. They were very supportive and generous with their advice, especially my mother. She talked me through many rough times and kept Tahirah often to give her the maternal touch that I could not.
Still, being a single father was very difficult. I am a loner by nature, but I had to suppress that part of myself and had little time for my own interests. Because we lived in New Jersey and I worked in New York City, during the week I was constantly in a mad rush from school to the office, from the office to her school. Once I had to literally dive onto a moving train because missing it meant Tahirah would be stranded. But when I recall us dancing to Prince in the mornings and our tender story times at night, I can honestly say that as difficult as single parenthood was for me, it was more rewarding than anything I’ve known.
Although my parents were wonderful, they were not particularly demonstrative. That’s the way it was for many black people of their generation. I didn’t get many hugs and kisses growing up. I wanted more for Tahirah. I was determined that she would get the full measure of affection that I’d missed. So we kissed at every turn, said “I love you” several times a day and hugged every chance we got. We still do.
I was diligent about always being there for Tahirah. My parents modeled that for me. I took her to dance class, to ice skating, to swimming and art lessons. I went to school outings, PTA meetings, class conferences, student plays and every other school activity. Even though I had a demanding job, I missed only one school program, and that was because of a miscommunication. At weekend activities I was nearly always the only father among the mommies. Patiently waiting with the women for our daughters to emerge, laughing and swapping stories and sharing advice, at times I felt like a mommy, too. I guess others felt that about me as well, because for years on Mother’s Day I was showered with cards and flowers.
Raising my daughter, Tahirah, has given me great joy. Our relationship has been a gift. Because I cherished and honored the gift of our relationship, that gift has kept on giving. For in adulthood Tahirah has blessed me with two wonderful granddaughters, Mariam and Diata. I am very close to them. They share many private thoughts and feelings with me, like when Mariam, then 12 years old, phoned bursting with excitement. “Papa! Guess what!” she exclaimed. Then she proudly announced to me that her body had crossed the threshold of womanhood (although in much more direct terms!). I celebrated with her without letting on how uncomfortable the conversation made me. Another time she called to triumphantly inform me that she was now a “B”. I cheered as if I knew what she was talking about. Only later did I learn that the “B” was a B cup. Her sister Diata and I talked for hours about the trials and challenges of grade school life. Recently Diata honored me more than I can say by choosing me as the subject of an assignment to write the biography of a person she greatly admired. And I will never forget my granddaughters’ joint salutation on one of their handmade Father’s Day cards: “Dear wise and noble Papa…”
For my part, I make it my business to get to all my granddaughters’ school events, just as I did with their mother. I have guested at first grade Author’s Teas, sat through mid-day band concerts and squirmed through evening talent shows. Once I arose at 5:30am for a ninety minute train ride to a third grade breakfast gathering that lasted twenty minutes. My granddaughters are teenagers now with all the challenges that entails, but to them I am still Papa with a strong shoulder and a listening ear.
In my life I have fallen short in many ways. But I thank God that raising my daughter is not one of them. Tahirah has grown into a fine young woman and one of the best mothers I know. She has been a gift to me, and with love I have nurtured her. In turn, the gift that she is has given back to me more than I could have ever dreamed.