2015 was year of loss, travel and growth.
TERRENCE FITZGERALD HOPKINSON April 28, 1948-April 8, 2015
I lost my dad just a few weeks before his 67th birthday. My mom and I wrote his obituary through laughter and tears and plenty of rum and coke. It gave the basic trajectory of his life from poverty in Guyana, traveling the Caribbean as a pioneering computer guy with IBM in the 1960s to so many more lives in Canada and the U.S.
I will just add two stories:
The first story came from my younger sister Denise. When he was working for the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. in the early 1990s, my dad took her out of school so that she could watch him sing at the office Christmas Party. He sang “Ave Maria.” Something about the improbable image of my dad, the tall bearded black man who worked in IT, singing Latin in front of hundreds of his Indianapolis colleagues, really struck me. When it came to his passions, he treated my three siblings and me like his appendages. His grandest ambitions involved tennis. (I once published an essay about how Venus and Serena Williams were the children my dad tried to raise.) At the time of the office Christmas party, I and my older brother and sister were in full-blown jerky-teenager mode, and we mercilessly mocked his singing. He was always a good sport about it, but I could see why he wouldn’t bother even telling us about his singing gig. My youngest sister Denise was (and is, bless her) less jaded and cynical.
But he didn’t dream of or expect to be the next Sinatra. It was just a form of expression he enjoyed and that he wanted to share. When he did it in front of hundreds of people at the office party, he wanted his daughter to be there, both for support, and I imagine as a witness. My dad was a big, powerful, force in our family and the patriarch of our extended family. To picture him in that moment, belting out “Ave Maria,” a la Pavarotti, naked with yearning and vulnerability, makes me weep.
The other story I will share came in the last weeks of his life. Part of what catapulted him over Guyana’s seawall and over the Atlantic Ocean, to college and grad school in Canada, and new lives in Indiana and then Florida, was that he was restless. He was always looking ahead and stubbornly refused to see only what was in front of him. He never, ever, believed he was dying. Not when his kidneys failed at age 59. Not at the kidney cancer diagnosis a year later. Not at the prostate cancer radiation treatments. Not when the cancer metastasized all over his body. Not when the chemo made his bones brittle and his leg and toes break.
And if you asked him how he was doing it, was always “I feel great! I think the treatment is working!” And for years, it was. One day, I will write about the ingenious efforts my father went to navigate America’s ridiculous health care system in the last months of his life. Suffice to say, even with zero savings or any real assets to speak of, my dad rammed, bullheaded through the gaps in the system, and compelled doctors to make some truly extraordinary measures to extend his life. In the spring of 2015, he was in an intensive care unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, and the left side of his body was paralyzed. He had just survived brain surgery to take out some of the tumors, but there were still many others that you could see on the contours of his scalp. My sister Denise and I watched the umpteenth doctor that week explain, for the umpteenth time, that all treatment options were exhausted.
The surgeon asked if my dad had any questions. My dad looked at the surgeon through his one good eye, and said yes: “How do I become healed?”
That was my dad. He had a sunny relationship with the facts in front of him. Thinking about these stories and so many others inspires me to push through. To keep singing. Stay restless. Stay hopeful. To always look on to the next thing—until there aren’t any. Even then, look for the next thing.
So I am spending the last days of 2015, missing this huge, flawed, brilliant, passionate, 100 % devoted family man. I miss his texts, sending me and my family prayers and good vibes. I miss his calls of concern every time D.C. weather makes it to CNN. I even miss going out on the tennis court with him, from the time I could barely stand, to the time he barely could.
I miss hearing his beautiful baritone voice.
Daddy, thank you for everything you were, and everything you have given to me. I hope I can pass on to my own kids half as much as you and mom have given me. I love you.
TALK, TRAVEL, WRITE, TRAVEL.
The rest of 2015 wasn’t nearly as emotional, but life went on–and I know my dad would not have it any other way. In February, I traveled to Mashramani, Guyana’s annual carnival celebration to research for a book for The New Press. In addition to profiling a transgender activist for Take Part, I got to spend some time with some wonderful artists and writers, including Bernadette Persaud, Oonya Kempadoo, Vidyaratha Kissoon, Maureen Marks Mendoza, and Ruel Johnson while I was there.
I finished my second project for the Interactivity Foundation, The Future of Sex Policy. I worked with a phenomenal group of 20 people who work in the field of gender and the arts, and my partner on the project was the incomparable Jess Solomon of Art in Praxis. As an offshoot of the gender project, I collaborated with Ronald “Mo” Moten of the Art of Peace on a #BlackMomsMatter discussion series. I later published a related essay on Slate, about black women, public policy and Obama, “Dreams of my Mother.”
I traveled to Brazil twice. The first time was to Salvador, a soccer adventure with my teenage son. We traveled alone in a country where neither of us knew the language. That my friend Lionel Lombard was there gave me the courage. And thanks to my former boss at The Root, Skip Gates, we made some fabulous scholarly connections. You can read the travel article in the Washington Post HERE
I went back to Brazil, this time Sao Paulo, for the Trofeu Raca Negra, the “Black Oscars of Brazil” with my BFF Allison R. Brown, who was starting a new adventure as executive director of the Communities for Just Schools Fund. We were part of an American delegation supporting efforts to create institutions that affirm the black experience in Brazil, the most African country outside of Africa.
Finally, at the end of the year, I spent some time in London, where I did some more research for my book. I met one of my scholarly heroes, Paul Gilroy, whose mother is also from Guyana. He said some really kind things about my go-go book and pointed me to some crucial connections in London. We did a couple of Interactivity Foundation-sponsored arts & society discussions in London with black creatives there. Shout out to Peggy Jean-Louis London connector extraordinaire, who made it happen. And I had the most delightful experience staying with my cousin Roxanne Hunte. The Rev. Mother Roxanne Hunte is among an early wave of women ordained in the Anglican church. I could never have imagined that staying on the church grounds, guzzling pints at local pubs, dishing over bad British TV with Mother Roxanne and her congregants would be so much fun. I so admired the way she was fully at ease with and fully inhabited her power in conveying the word of God with femininity, certainty, grace–and constant laughter. She is a riot!
I was fortunate enough to have my mom, Serena join me on the London trip. My mom and I are collaborating on a chapter in a book of essays by Guyanese women edited by the writer and curator Grace Aneiza Ali. My mom is not overly sentimental, and when it comes to race/colonialism, she is pretty clear about her value and worth as a black woman. She has the opposite of an inferiority complex.
So imagine my surprise when we stumbled by chance upon Buckingham Palace, and she was overcome with emotion when her niece Roxanne said that the flag meant the Queen was in residence. “She’s really here? Right now? That is amazing!” “This is amazing!” she said over and over again as she snapped cell phone photos. Was she was going soft on me? I said mom, why so amazing? “I grew up with this shit. This….untouchable shit.” It was at that moment, I think, that I started to understand the “British Guiana” thing—and the psychological dimensions of Empire. I hope to unpack some of that in my book.
Here’s to a 2016 filled with more love, inspiration and constant forward movement.