The “strong father” is a constant, a central motif in my family’s story. The patriarchal foundation that undergirds my lineage is so strong, that reverence for “Daddy Brock”, “Grand Daddy Aberdeen” and my “Daddy” at times reduces my adult psyche to that of a worshipful six-year-old. My own father, a stoic oak tree of a man, has been protector, counselor, sage and coach, not only to his nuclear family, but to a network of nieces and nephews that spans three generations.
It is only natural, then, that my younger brother, my only sibling, stepped into that steeled family pantheon of paternity upon the arrival of his first child, a daughter. He embraced fatherhood with unbridled passion, a devotion I’d never before witnessed. This man who prided himself on professional accomplishment suddenly existed to fly spoon-sized airplane loads of strained bananas into his first-born’s gurgling mouth. The brother with whom I’d shared silent pinching contests during too-long sermons, water fights, countless Krispy Kreme runs and playlist favorites quickly transformed into a fount of all things fatherly. I’ve never loved my brother, Otis, more than when watching him openly, unabashedly fall in love with my first niece. By the time my second niece was born, there was no doubt about my brother’s highest calling: he had, in every sense of the word, become a father and fatherhood became him.
Both of my parents always demanded academic diligence, hard work and service to others, no excuses, no exceptions. It was the rent we paid for living in their home. Otis’ adherence to those rules served him well. By age 40, he had become the chief operating officer of the local, 30,000+-student public school system. Even more important, he had become a serious community bridge builder. In a city like Savannah--where in 1859 the nation’s largest sale of humans, enslaved Africans, occurred over two days during the “Weeping Time” at the Ten Broeck Race Track, and an historic wealth gap, with its ever-present racial lines of demarcation, remains rigidly intact some 160 years later—that designation is as much political as it is charitable. But Otis fearlessly navigated those boundaries, always fixed on the greater, common good.
Being good and doing good usually requires a schedule that would drive some to an early grave. For Otis, mornings would often begin at 4:30 to 5 a.m., and the hours that followed typically blurred into a spatial, chronological haze. We often talked in the wee hours of the morning, or late into the night. Always cognizant that I was stealing time away from his too-tight schedule, his trademark laughter always affirmed his mastery of being present. We relished exchanging career insights, or solving global crises or, quite often, reverting to our pre-teen selves in 15-minute increments. To my sheer delight, eight of those minutes were customarily reserved for recounting in detail his daughters’ latest adventures…and, of course, their dealings with Dora the Explorer®. His segues, from school construction funding to ToysRUs® finds, were always seamless. Fatherhood wasn’t something for which Otis had to make time. It was, by then, who he was.
By the time Otis and his wife announced the pending arrival of their third child, a son, my parenting-expert, diaper-changing, onesie-toting, bottle-warming, story-reading, playhouse-building, swing set-pushing, peek-a-boo champion of a brother was beyond ecstatic. So was I. I’d watched him pour into his daughters, now 4- and 2-years-old, all of the joy, laughter, courage, resiliency, compassion, kindness, strength, reason and pride two infants could contain. So, I knew that his son would be equally blessed. I knew that, as had my father, Otis’ son would be taught the proper way to shoot a free throw. I knew that Otis’ son would, from birth, be groomed in the finer points of effective leadership. I knew that Otis’ son would be “GQ-Down!” as his father often self-professed. I knew that Otis’ son also would take up golf as religion. I knew that Otis’ son, like his daughters, would be a whiz at math. And I just knew that Otis’ son would, like his daddy before him, be a lover of jazz, real jazz—from Coltrane, Davis, Brubeck and Washington to Klug, Marsalis and Botti.
What I didn’t know is that Otis’ son would never get to meet his father.
My 41-year-old brother died of coronary thrombosis on April 24, 2012, …one month before the birth of his beloved third child. If anyone had ever tried to convince me that a child born into my family would be fatherless, I’d have laughed them off without apologies for the appearance of elitism. Now, seven years later, the very thought still evokes tears. My sister-in-law has done a marvelous job of being both father and mother to three of the most brilliant, joyful, respectful, inquisitive, fun-loving kids you’ll ever meet. We call them “The Brockies.” This uber-high-energy band of siblings adds to our lives—spiritually, emotionally and intellectually—in ways we never could have fathomed, and we are the better for their individual and collective presence.
I am consoled by my belief that Otis is in Heaven; only Jesus Himself could persuade me otherwise. Still, I resent not being able to watch him witness his beautiful legacy unfold. Absent from every soccer win, home run, piano recital, dance performance, scraped knee or homework assignment, every celebration and every frustration, is the doting gaze of my nieces’ and nephew’s Dad. Yet, even in the darkest moments, there are blessings awaiting discovery.
I see Otis in each of his children’s faces. I hear his laugh in theirs. Their love of music and the arts evokes a million memories of a brother who once self-produced, self-directed and self-styled the costume changes for his own music video, and whose summer beachscape still hangs in my parents’ guest bathroom. Their love of pancakes, mine in particular, harkens directly back to Otis. And their embrace of learning often reminds me that their dad was the smarter of my parents’ two children. Otis is in them. But Otis isn’t here.
My father, now 85 with his own health challenges, is a wonderful grandfather. Still the family consigliere, Grandpa, as the kids call him, remains the champion protector, counselor and sage. I confess, however, that I used to spend countless hours worrying about what man would fill the void of male parenting in their lives. Who would set expectations that only their father could set? Who would help them cross the rivers and valleys that traverse life’s pathways to maturity?
I have hundreds of questions, but in October of 2013, I got an answer to one. The local school board voted to rename a school previously bearing the name of a Confederate war veteran and secessionist politician the Otis J. Brock III Elementary School. The site sits atop grounds where the Weeping Time took place. The school’s motto is, “From School to the World: all students prepared for productive futures.” More than simply reframing an historic wrong, this gesture and the brick and mortar that enliven it constitutes a bridge designed to level children’s playing fields. The success of that mission hinges every day upon what happens inside.
And that, I believe, is Otis’s message to his children: Be the bridge. I believe he would have shown them in his loving way that life is about crossing your own bridges so that you can, in turn, help others cross over. And I believe he would have told them, every day, that their efficacy in that mission, in their lives, depends on who they are deep down inside. I believe that Otis, who couldn’t be here to help them bridge through growth pains and new adventures, left them the most fail-proof map he could. He left, in each of his children, his heart.
Otis isn’t here. But Otis is in them.