It’s early November 2010 and finally after months of me complaining about seeing her ride through my hood with her new boyfriend, but never coming by to say hello, my cousin pulls into my driveway with her two young daughters in the backseat and her boyfriend in the front. She gets out of the car and we begin to catch up.
She asks me whether or not my daughter is in the house and I tell her no. Her daughters, ages 3 and 5, say they want to go see the pit bull behind my neighbor’s gate down the street, but every time we make it halfway they both scream “Noooo!” and scramble back to the car.
My cousin asks me about amateur boxing; how can she sign up, when my next fight is and why she wasn’t invited to any of my other ones. Her boyfriend asks me if I mind him smoking in front of my house and I tell him yes. He’s slightly irritated, but he understands. So my cousin and I continue to converse until we notice a car creeping up the block.
The driver is a light-skinned man with a slight build and small afro who sticks his head out of the window to survey the scene. My cousin stops talking and halfway rolls her eyes;
“That’s Sa’rye’s daddy.”
The man gets out of the car and as he approaches I think about the drama that may unfold. I mean here was his ex-girlfriend talking to two guys who he doesn’t know while his 3-year-old daughter is playing in front of some house in East Oakland that he’s never been to. I notice my cousin’s new boyfriend tense up a bit as he sits in the passenger seat with the door open and his right leg hanging out of the car. He watches the scene from the rearview mirror. The man crosses the curb and steps onto my lawn and I can’t help but to wonder how I would handle the situation if I were him.
He picks up his daughter without even acknowledging anything else.
“Hey Daddy!” Sa’rye screams in excitement.
I introduce myself to him and he tells me his name is Darryl and shakes my hand. He then tells his daughter that he is on his way to work, but will see her later before kissing her on the cheek. He says peace to us, heads back to his car and drives off. While he’s leaving I say to myself, “Wow, that’s exactly how I would have handled that situation.” Meanwhile the girls keep playing, my cousin and I resume our conversation and her new boyfriend relaxes once again in the passenger seat of her car.
A few months later my cousin called me to see how I was doing. I told her our grandmother was in the hospital and then she told me about drama at her job. We talked about our daughters and how they need to grow up around one another like we did.
Then she paused and said, almost as an afterthought: “You know Sa’rye daddy got killed right?”
“Naw, I didn’t,” I replied. “That was the one I met right?”
“Yeah, he got killed at the liquor store right down the street from your house.”
And then she spoke to me of no arrests being made in the murder, that it happened on Dec. 18 and that she suspects it was probably some youngsters trying to earn stripes, all in an extremely detached tone. A tone that conveyed 30 years of ghetto conditioning.
I listened to her as she told me that he had been robbed in the month leading up to his murder and that some men who stood on a local corner resented the fact that he had 20-inch rims on his black Infinity and that he was relatively new to the neighborhood. It didn’t matter to them that he earned the money by working at a hotel or that he wasn’t involved in the street life at all. They looked at Darryl as being an easy mark so they went after him. In the final weeks of his life he began to develop very real premonitions of his murder. So much so, my cousin went on, that on at least one occasion he asked to spend the night at her house just so he could be under the same roof as his daughter.
My cousin thought this was a bizarre request considering they were no longer in a relationship and that she was now heavily involved in a new one. I could tell that of all the things that occurred in the time leading up to Darryl’s death this puzzled her more than anything else. For myself, on the other hand, I couldn’t have related to him more.
My two-year relationship with my girlfriend was already rocky by the time my daughter was born during my senior year in college. But when my little girl entered the world, I became determined to make things work so I asked my girlfriend to move in with me. And even if the relationship was clearly failing I was still determined to put up the best front for my child so that she could enjoy the luxury of growing up in a two-parent household – something that I never experienced.
On the contrary, my girlfriend wasn’t nearly as delusional. After about five months of extreme tension, very little conversation and no affection – except for the shared but ultimately separate love that we had for our daughter – she came to me suggesting that we break up. I didn’t disagree. As a matter of fact, I felt really relieved until she told me that she would be moving out, which, of course, meant that she would be taking our daughter with her.
I tried to talk her out of leaving to no avail. Next, I tried to get her father to talk her into staying, but not staying in the relationship, just staying in the house so I could come home to my daughter every day. He thought the idea was ridiculous.
“What if one of ya’ll wanna bring somebody else home?” he asked.
I thought about it for a minute, but couldn’t come up with a response.
So no more than 48 hours after we broke up all of my daughter’s and ex-girlfriends things were being loaded into a truck. I made sure that I wasn’t home when she moved out. I didn’t want to deal with it so I stayed at the campus library and studied all day and deep into the night. By the time I got home and stepped in the door, I immediately felt the emptiness and was almost sickened by the silence. I made my way to the room where my baby used to sleep and was incredulous to see the crib still there, fully intact.
As it turned out they didn’t bring the tools to dismantle it so they had to leave it there for a few more days. As I approached it I could still hear my daughter cooing while slapping the thin mattress. I could see her as she pushed up on her stomach like a baby seal at the Pier. But when I looked over the upraised sides and into the crib the only thing I saw was a Winnie the Pooh bedspread and a set of multicolored toy keys. I then remember leaning into the crib and crying uncontrollably. I realized then that I hadn’t merely lost a girlfriend, but I had lost my family. Things would never be the same.
After I got off the phone with my cousin, I couldn’t stop thinking about Darryl’s murder. It was just another reminder that fatherhood, like all other things in the hood, is extremely uncertain.
This weekend, I pick up my daughter who is now 6 years old. I have been fortunate enough to have consistent visitation as a noncustodial parent since her mother and I split. We have dinner together, go to the movies and play basketball. I always look forward to picking her up, however, for the past few months often times when I hold her in my arms I think about my cousin’s daughter.
Sa’rye is an assertive, young 3 year old with an ebullient personality. She has her whole life ahead of her, but it disturbs me to know that she will have to navigate through this often times shady world without knowing her biological father.
There is no doubt that when Sa’rye gets older she will learn the footnotes of her father’s life. She will know things like his name was Darryl Starks, he attended Castlemont High School and he died Dec. 18, 2010, at the age of 26.
But will she ever know how much he loved her? Will she ever be able to feel that love? Will she remember the day when her father stopped his car in the middle of the street just to steal a hug and kiss from her before he went to work? Will she ever be told that one of the last things her father wanted to do before he left this Earth was to sleep under the same roof as her? Or will she grow only to be obsessed with his absence, fueling an unconscious resentment toward every man she encounters? I don’t know.
I do know Sa’rye comes from a resilient culture and a strong family. I also know that she can grow up and accomplish whatever she wants to achieve. On the other hand, I will never understand why her father was taken from her and I’m sure she won’t either. So now when I kiss my daughter on the cheek or help her with her jump shot I know that I’m not just doing it for me. I do it for all those men who wanted to be fathers, but couldn’t. I do it for Darryl Starks and countless other men who are just as righteous as me.