On the loss of my father, and the long road of coping.

An autumn sunset on the road in Maryland (photo credit: author)

My father, Douglas Underwood Smith, Sr. left this world on the night of September 25th, 2018. His passing, and what led up to it, and the atmosphere afterwards is something that I realize is still sitting with me. It’s like one of those house guests that is so taken up with your company that they fail to realize that they have to depart. I had been a bit reluctant to put the pen to the paper, waiting for a proper moment (as writers are sometimes wont to say in an attempt to cover up for one of the possible traits we have, which is procrastination) but in the progression of this process I found that I was in effect, breaking down from dealing with the pure emotion of it all that I hadn’t fully expressed. Until now.

You might tear up reading this. Be assured I can relate as there will definitely be tears shed as I write this.

I referred to my father a lot as “Pops”, although I did so less in addressing him. Mainly because Pops to some degree would like the moniker some days, and other days he’d have a slightly gruff reaction to it. My father was a complex person with many sides. Even stating something as obvious as that in a simple way comes with its own complexity. And part of that complexity became clearer over the past few years as we got closer and he got older. See, Pops to me represented someone who at times could be an island unto himself. Which sets the stage to go into his background a little. My father was born in Jamaica in the West Indies in 1931, back in St. Ann’s Parish to Ivylyn Henriques and Cleveland Smith. I don’t know too much about Papa Cleveland, but Grandma?
Grandma was someone who loved me dearly. Pops was one of five children, and my childhood is thoroughly dotted with memories of trips in the backseat of his blue stretch Cadillac to her home out on Burke Avenue near the Gun Hill Road subway station and a stones’ throw from the Eastchester Houses in the Bronx. We’d be there with my late Aunt Daphne, my Aunt Sydoney, and my Uncle Seymour. From time to time, my Aunt Shirley would come up from her home in Silver Springs, Maryland to hang out with family at the barbecues. I’d always remember Pops and his omnipresent fitted baseball cap and a loud, gregarious laugh that he’d open up like a BMW on the Autobahn. It was those moments as a child that I adored, because it was one of those times where he was relaxed and really happy to be around family.

Pops and I back in the day. (photo credit: author)

See, Pops worked. And he worked hard. Being a doctor with your own practice is demanding, and being attached to more than one hospital is doubly so. From what I and my family have been able to figure out, he had his practice and also worked at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, Queens as well as South Shore hospital (now St.John’s Episcopal) in Far Rockaway. Pops
worked hard, something he had ingrained in him from the moment he arrived here in the United States. He was drafted soon after arriving — he always liked to tell that story of how they sent him a letter and a dime to hit the subway to come to the draft office downtown from where he lived in Harlem — and served in the Army stateside as the Korean War raged on. From there, he went on to study at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and gained his medical degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. in 1966. I often wonder how much he had to endure during those times. There were bits and pieces of what he related to me about it, from working in the Garment District as many from the islands were apt to do in terms of work back then to encountering racial harassment in Canada. Another one of Pops’ sides was how private he was, which I often call his “Secret Squirrel” mode. (More on that in a bit.)

He and I had an early relationship that was rocky. But we navigated it as best as we could, with me dealing with his pointed concerns about my career, my
aspirations to write, even my weight. But Pops mellowed a bit as age tends to make one do, and in that I could see him being more open.

But there were still those moments where he was doggedly fixed on having things his way. One example concerning his beloved New York Knicks. See, he and I really connected over history, music and sports. Pops was a sports fan to the nines. Every NBA season, he’d be taking notes on the draft and asking about the Knicks’ chances. We’d talk after every game, and he would be dead set on commenting and positioning himself in his opinions like he was the coach. Which can get a little bit much in an 82-game season. Up until about five years ago, he used to videotape every Knicks game. I’m not kidding — there’s gotta be about a couple boxes of tapes of games dating back to the early 2000’s in his home still. But there was one catch — he didn’t have cable. Pops used to say, “I’ve got too much stuff to do to sit around and watch stuff.”
My response would be, “what, you’ve got a secret mahjong game you’re running?” So I’d have to tape all those Knicks games. And tennis matches. And anything else of interest. Finally, he relented and got cable only after I told him that not only weren’t they selling VHS tapes like that anymore, they now kept what few they had in stores near the cigarettes. But that was Pops.

I was fortunate in that he still lived in the neighborhood, a brief walk from my own house. He’d call me up and we’d go to his medical appointments, or out somewhere in Nassau County to go shopping for clothes — Pops was all about looking sharp. Or we’d make a run to Home Depot for supplies for a project around the house, or something related to gardening, which he loved to do.
I realize now that in a lot of ways, I was his bridge to a world that was rapidly changing. One example of this being his guide to how the Internet worked. He’d have a question about one term and would want a full definition of it. That was how his mind was, ever curious and in search of information. At times it made me feel like one of his junior doctors training under him. Pops and I had reached a level of openness where he got to express his vulnerability more and more. He got to express his love for me in different ways, and he always ended phone calls off with “all right, my man.” And I began to be more open about expressing my feelings, through being there for him if he needed someone with him as he drove somewhere. I was concerned as those drives
began to have their complications as he’d complain of chest pains (he was a quadruple bypass survivor), and he’d be moving slower.

It all came to a head this summer.

Pops and I had talked about him possibly moving to Maryland, as suggested by my sister and brother who lived in the D.C. area. This is where I have to go back to what I said about his private side. See, I knew that I had other siblings
from years ago, but we had never met. At all. But I knew they were concerned about him living by himself at his age, as I was. But he was insistent on being independent. But as the summer began, I noticed a change. He wasn’t moving as swiftly, which wasn’t much given that he had trouble with his legs for a long time. This was different. He looked like something was up with him. He didn’t even want to discuss heading down south. I knew that he had been diagnosed as being diabetic from late last year. He confessed that something was wrong in that he didn’t seem to have the same energy as he used to. But he wanted “to work it out on his own.”

Fast forward to August. He hadn’t been eating much, and I had brought food over — fried fish, potatoes, and juice. This visit was more urgent since he called me and told me that he had fallen. I rush over and see that he’s okay but still admittedly weak. He told me that my sister and her husband were coming up to visit that weekend, so I took comfort in that. Until I didn’t hear from him via phone. He called me back after repeated tries, but told me he literally didn’t have enough energy to pick up the phone. I rushed over there with Gatorade and found him in a sweltering house with the fans off. I made him drink some Gatorade, turned on the TV and got him into his chair. I went back the next day, a Friday with more fish and other groceries including Guinness. I let myself into the house and found it dark and hot. A sliver of light marking where his bedroom was. I yelled out for him in fear. I rushed to the bedroom and found him lying there, unconscious. I yelled out, and it stirred him. It was a struggle to get into the bedroom and get him upright. I think about it now and it still gives me chills. I tell him I’m calling 911. He protests and I say, “don’t fight me on this.” My eldest sister is outside, and I fill her in as the paramedics come. Two EMT crews arrive, and they work on him. Turns out that his blood sugar level dropped dangerously low because he hadn’t been eating in about four days while telling folks the opposite.

In the emergency room, they make the call that they need to put him in ICU
because of his vitals. Pops admits to me that he had been depressed over his declining health. Depressed enough to the point where he wanted it all to end. He asked me to call my sister in D.C., and gave me her number. I went out to the waiting room, and I lost it. Then I got myself together, and called her. I went to visit Pops the next day with my other siblings, and he seemed a lot better in spirits. How could I tell? He was giving the nurses hell about how they should draw blood and test his blood sugar. And the following day, I wound up meeting my sister and brother and their families for the first time in ICU.

It wasn’t long after that, once Pops got into a rehab center next door to the hospital that we found out that he had been diagnosed with a high-stage form of lymphoma and that they recommended chemotherapy. From that point, he fought but seemed resigned to the end. He was at all times, acutely aware. I would visit him nearly every day, and to see him still have that awareness and seeing him in so much pain…it’s not something I wish for anyone to see. And I look back and realize that it was two months. Two months that he struggled as the cancer grew, and he got weaker. When that final turn came, it came as a shock how he deteriorated and refused to eat. My sister and her husband and my brother and I came up to the rehab center and went with him as he was transferred to a hospice out in Melville. We saw he was in excruciating pain to where he couldn’t speak save for a few curse words as he was being moved. I remember that day well — a serious rainstorm hit Queens and Long Island, and it seemed like heaven opened up her eyes and wept. Sitting by his bedside, I watched as the winds whipped the willow tree branches as jazz emanated from the TV in Pops’ room. We all left him to go home and rest up after being there about 5 hours. I got the call at 10:00 P.M., just as I was heading into the shower. He was gone. Peacefully, in as little pain as could be. They had bathed him and shaved him and left the jazz playing. He left when he was ready. When he knew we would ALL be okay.

Dad, at a function down in Washington D.C. (photo credit: author)

And so, these past few weeks have been wrought with a lot of reflection. A lot of sadness and gratitude, hand in hand with anxiety. The anxiety still remains here and there — it hit me again last night, a lightning bolt of worry. I’ve been better at confronting it, but riding it out can be tiresome at night. It seems that night is when it kicks in more, wild considering that I worked nights as part of my career in film and television post-production. It is a day by day process, as I’ve heard from many close to me and what I’ve read.

As rational as I can be…as strong as I have appeared to be and as I have been told I am throughout the days and weeks since Pops left this world for the next, the tears gnaw at the corners of my eyes. So much of him lives in the streets of my neighborhood. “The Doctor”, living on in memories expressed by neighbors and a couple of the older heads on my own block who remembered him driving by in his Caddy or seeing him in his old home and office up on the main drag of Linden Boulevard. Being in D.C. made me think of how he must’ve made his way around U Street. Wondering if he ever sat in the Florida Avenue Grill. It was fitting that he was laid to rest with military honors in Alexandria after two services, one there and the first back in Queens. I realize he is ever present with me — I feel him in every cell of my being, hear his voice from time to time. But the absence of seeing him, hurts. Hurts even though I know, I KNOW we shall see each other again. I’ve been doing all the things I need to do because I don’t want that hurt to overstay its arrival. Some days are better. Some days are absolutely fucking tough. I’ve broken down — the serious, powerful breakdowns where your sobs are a mournful symphony all their own, twice. Will there be more? Probably.

I embrace it because it’s doing something that he may not have ever felt he could have, being someone who came from a different era where expressing your feelings wasn’t something wholly encouraged. Endurance and excellence was where it was and still is in some ways for many of us in the Black community and frankly any other community that is not the Western default. As rigorous as it can be, I am doing what I can to make each day easier. I have my family, all of my family behind me. Wonderful friends who have become a tribe of acceptance and love. I’ve taken the initiative to undergo grief counseling, and I’ve gotten back into getting my fitness right to do a 5K like I had wanted to at the end of this year before Pops got sick. I have even taken baby steps into approaching yoga as a relaxing aid. And these words are part of the healing. I feel the tension leaving my shoulders as I type. There are those experts who feel that the adverse stress and tension built up in my shoulder muscles means that I’m not letting go, not letting anything out. And perhaps they’re right. Because I felt early on that to let go, was to possibly forget about Pops. But that can never be the case. And I believe he wouldn’t
want me to carry on. It gets hard not to, because I think about his pain more than the joy he had in living. And I don’t want to make a fetish of grief as can happen by some unintentionally or not. As my sisterfriend Nzinga said to me yesterday, “he didn’t live for a day, or a month or a year. You can’t just mourn and celebrate their life for a fixed period.” Slowly, I’m letting go of the trauma and the stress from these past few months. Slowly, like dropping a fishing line into the water and waiting for the familiar tug when you’ve snagged something. I know it’s coming, the calm after the storm. As another friend of mine, Isabella said to me, “gratitude and anxiety can’t live in the same space in your heart.” And overall I am grateful for the life of Douglas U. Smith, Sr.

I was designated to give the closing prayer at both of his services. With both of them, I didn’t write anything down. I spoke from the heart. At the last one, I said this:

“we are saddened now at his passing, but he’s gone to that forever summer in the embrace of the Most High. A place where there is only joy, a place he’ll keep for us until we meet again.”

Pops always loved the summer. And as I said that, it truly felt as if it wasn’t a
chilly November morning but the opening throes of summer right around Memorial Day — right around his birthday as a matter of fact. He’d have liked
the metaphor.

I love you Dad. Thank you for everything.

Freelance writer. Author of 3 books of poetry. Raconteur. Queens is the county, Jamaica is the place.