Aching, it is hard for me to write this. I fumble around, scribbling thoughts on pages, often losing track of both my thoughts and the pages. There is an over-arching struggle that lives within me.
He left me too soon. He had a dad, my friends had dads, my son has a dad. But when I needed my dad the most, I did not have him; Dad died when I was 18, about the same age as my son is today.
Would the confusion I would struggle with come had he lived? Perhaps so. Yes, I believe so, and he, in that solid Jim Cobb way of his would have helped me sort it out. I could have asked him about college, I could have asked him about business, I could have asked him about life. He had been the one I asked about everything, and he was the kind of man who always had answers.
And so, yearning to soothe the ache, I begin, pen poised to explore the paradox of my father, as I think about my own son.
In the house I grew up in, there was a daybed. It sat against the wall. As a small boy, I would nestle myself between the wall, which was cold, and dad’s warm back. He wasn't a big man, but he seemed so to me. Holding on to his back, I tried to wrap my arms around him. I couldn't. They were too small. There was no other place I would rather be. I was with Dad.
"Here comes Dad!" one of my brothers, sister, or I would scream when we'd hear his car turn on to our gravelly driveway. Dad was home from his furniture store. He walked through the door. We swarmed him. A hug, a kiss and a pat on the head for each of us. The wait for him to come home seemed so long. The hug and kiss seemed so short. And real or imagined, I always was last.
Dad -- James Trotter Sr. -- was my hero. But I -- James Trotter Jr. -- never had the chance to become his. Dad was a strong and virile man who would be hatcheted to death by the relentlessness of cancer. Though we shared the same name, James Trotter Cobb, I was called Trotter. He was called Jim. I, of course, rarely called him anything but "Sir." You know, "Sir, may I watch television?" or "Sir, your paper is on the table." Stuff like that. "Yessir, I did my homework." Even when I was lying.
My dad owned a downtown furniture store. As a young man, he dreamed of going to law school. But that got shelved, permanently, by World War II. He, like so many of his generation who fought in the war, never had the chance to pursue their dreams, because once the war was over it was time to get on with life. It would be that furniture business that gave James Trotter Cobb Sr., President of City Furniture, acceptance by the town's elite.
Dad loved socializing. Social events were everything to him. Dinners with friends, parties at the country club, knowing what's going on -- he was in the thick of Tuscaloosa society, a society made up of white, privileged people who were certain that their way of life would go on forever. Jim Cobb was a product of his times; until he no longer was.
The 1960s came marching down main street, heralding what would become a turbulent time for whites and blacks, in our city and our state. Out of character, or maybe exactly in character, dad stepped forward to nominate the new president of the local black college for membership in the town's premier civic club.
"We don't do that, Jim," club members told him. "What in the heck has gotten into you?" they huffed. Had something gotten into dad? I don’t know. He always had a sense of what was right and what was wrong. He had met the new president, thought he was an outstanding man, and believed he'd make a great club member. That was that. There were no gradations with dad; he was firm, forthright and, except with me, consistent.
That inconsistency toward me is the burden I carry. I remember one time a friend got in trouble. Yet, Dad grounded me. I asked him why. “You would have done that,” he said. It made no sense to me then, it makes no sense to me now.
“Trotter’s going to be a doctor,” he told everyone. Terrible student that I was, I never wanted to be a doctor. Why didn’t he ask me what I wanted to be? Why didn’t I tell him the truth?
I didn't know how sick Dad was until his waning days, but he did. Perhaps he always had a sense that he would die young, which might have made him so impatient with me. Though I was the oldest son, I was somehow miscast for the role of the oldest son.
Now there are moments, decades later, as I am in bed on the verge of falling asleep, when I think about dad. Sometimes I'm glad he’s in my mind, sometimes I'm not. The restless nights, the unresolved conflicts, the unanswered questions chase me into the night.
Dad, you are forever young. And that’s not the way it should be. I am forever young with you; the most deceptive of illusions, frozen into reality by the deadly invader that took you from us. I am a boy. Why did you leave so early? Did you love me? Do you love me? There is so much I now want to ask.
The daybed is gone, my real bed is here. I am Trotter searching for unconditional love; thirsting for Dad's validation; for the chance to tell him, “Yes sir, I graduated college, built a business, made lots of money, have a wonderful wife -- and an extraordinary son, to whom I am a hero.”