My father was a quiet man whose booming voice was a surprise when he opened his mouth, of him we said upon his death: “He did it his way.” On his 86th birthday on January 22, 2021, I found myself a bit melancholy. This was his first birthday since his death. In the months since he left this world, I spent a lot of time reflecting on his life. As much time as I spent with him, it would have taken centuries more to get to know the depths of the man and the life he lived. He was truly representative of the Silent Generation: a minimalist with words, a man who kept to himself, one who would give you his opinion if you asked for it, and a man who took his life’s secrets to the grave.
Isaiah Augustus Thompson was a quick study. He did not graduate high school and may at best have had 10 years of formal education. According to his birth certificate, he was born in Trinity Valley, St. Thomas, Jamaica, in 1935. His was a life that was touched by the traumas of poverty, lack of education, loss of childhood, and early responsibilities that came in helping to take care of his Mother and siblings as the oldest of four children. His parents separated when he was six years old. His mother eventually sent him to live with his maternal Grandfather. He lived with his Grandfather for a number of years. At ten years old he went to live in Kingston with a family friend. He never went back to live with his parents or any family.
My father migrated to the United States when I was four years old. He left Jamaica in August of 1969, with the desire to make a better life for himself. An immigrant’s story of quest for opportunity. He went to a trade school, and he tried a variety of employment options before finding his way to work for Drake’s Bakery from which he retired. He was a hard worker. Third shift was where he worked for many years. Leaving for work in the late afternoon, and arriving home in the early hours of the morning before day break. He had a very strong work ethic, valued punctuality, and stressed taking good care of the things we had.
When my siblings and I arrived in New York in August 1979, we did not know our father. He had visited Jamaica once in 1973 for a few weeks. He was a stranger to us. For ten years, he was pictures and letters, stories told to us by our Mother who kept his memory alive among us. His absence was telling, and travelled with her struggle to make ends meet, as well as her years of single parenting.
He was not a talkative man, nor was he affectionate. He was a plain talker, a matter of fact kinda guy and definitely less was best at all times with his words. He was rigid in the beliefs he held, and was hard to sway once he made up his mind about something. And, when it came to money, he was even less likely to be convinced. When we went to him for money, his response started with: “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” From there, it was a verbal trip to Jamaica and back to New York. He was for me lessons in fundraising.
My siblings were convinced that I was his favorite, noting: “He gives you every thing you want.” Not really. I noted that the speech was always the same when I asked for something. I listened to the speech every time I went in and when he was done, I asked again for what I wanted. The speech was done and he was not going to start over. I was prepared to hear his “No” to my request for help. And, when he said no to my request, I responded with: “So how much can you give me?” I rarely left empty handed. I learned to ask high and have him tell me no. I learned that persistence was to be valued. Lessons that have stayed with me.
My very first poem I put on paper was inspired by my father. I wrote Father’s Day Blues and mailed it to him on that Sunday in June 1992. For years prior, poems visited me in my sleep. For years words called to me and I could not write. On that day, I put pen to paper and welcomed a gift that had been sitting on the periphery of my life – waiting for me to receive it. Years later, I am a better writer and poet. I will keep writing because my writing is a part of who I am.
Today, I remember the many lessons I learned from him. I was not always in agreement with his choices. I worked my way toward understanding some of the choices he made and as an adult, I forged a relationship with him on my terms. I called regularly, I spoke my mind and named my truths, and I was prepared for his tepid response when we did not agree. He was supportive in his own way and for that I am grateful. From him I learned that life is complicated and our decisions are complex. We live the best lives we can live, we make the best decision we can with the information we have at any given moment. And, we live with the consequences of the choices we make.
My Father’s death was sudden. He was one of the many COVID-19 victims who died in New York City in March 2019. In the wake of his death, he did not have a funeral. The observances of ritual and mourning were absent, and yet, so much of that was reflective of who he was. Low key, no drama, alone in death and burial, as he was in life. We played Frank Sinatra’s “I Did it My Way” as we memorialized him. He was a loner and he left when he was ready.
Grief is also complicated and complex. Grieving him has been challenging given the complexity of his living. I found myself wanting to make peace with him today. I wanted to let go of the burdens that have presented themselves since his passing. I want to be grateful for him and remember the beauty of a man who was loved by many. He volunteered his time and he gave generously from what he had. He was an entrepreneur who thrived in spite of adversity. Today I wrote words of healing and forgiveness for our new journey together, as he takes his place and walks among the Ancestors.
A Litany of Love, Healing and Forgiveness
We thank you for giving us life. We are grateful to you for being who you were. You were authentic in your living. You taught us to live life without regrets, to take the opportunities that presented themselves and to make peace with living.
We lay aside your faults and indiscretions as a part of the human experience. Who among us is perfect? You leaned not towards perfection. Instead, you were willing to keep trying until you achieved the desired outcomes you wanted. You taught us: If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
We give thanks for the wisdoms we gleaned from you, a thriftiness that took care of family – an entrepreneur who could turn 50 cents into thousands of dollars. Whether as a leader in the community or as truth for your life, you believed your money should work for you and not sit idle. Yup, money doesn’t grow on trees, but you knew how to make money grow.
We forgive you for the things you never taught us, and for any harm you may have caused as you walked this earth. We release any grudges we hold. We thank you for living your life your way.
Today we honor your journey in this life. We hold sacred the goodness of that journey and request that the goodness and excellence of your earthly presence continue with us. Help us as we go, guide us as you can.
We miss you. We love you! Rest good good.
Happy birthday Isaiah Augustus Thompson!