Since I began writing publicly over a decade ago, I have a small, but personally significant tradition where I try to say something about a man who may have shaped me arguably more in death than he did when he was alive. Those previous words were hard ones to admit, but that’s because his impact on everyone in his life was undeniable. When it comes to the way I speak about my father, I’ve always hoped to be as honest with what I say about him as he demanded I could be with the world.
This isn’t a terrible confession by any means. In fact, it’s a testament to what he had and still means to me in the fourteen years since he closed his eyes. One of the many aspects of Robert Clinkscales that has stayed with me is that he was steadfast in his beliefs, if not incredibly stubborn in defense of them. Those very beliefs were impossibly simple in an impossibly complicated world.
As any father worth a damn, he believed in his family; not just providing and being present, but challenging and preparing all of us for a society continually out of sorts. (And believe me when I say you can’t begin to understand how challenging he could be.) Because of that fundamental belief in us, he worried little about our individual abilities and collective strength. To say “we didn’t have much, but we had each other” may be a cliché, but it is absolutely true for my family.
What kept him going until his final days was a desire for the betterment of the people and institutions around us. As a man whose hands and mind were nurtured in Philadelphia and Boston to eventually build schools and hospitals throughout New York City, he understood that a man or woman couldn’t make a living or a child couldn’t grow without access to the most basic of needs. In a country of excess wealth for a few, the idea that so many had to go without adequate food or shelter just didn’t register, let alone jobs and at least a high school education.
I say all of this because in his life, he experienced an unfathomable set of circumstances in trying to achieve those goals. I cannot comprehend the painful difficulties of his younger days that could have utterly crippled him when it came to being a husband and father later in life. I cannot fathom the racism he endured while being one of the very few black men in the construction field in New York or even as a young professional trying to find a way in Boston or Philadelphia in the 1960s. I cannot put myself in the shoes of an older, somewhat burdened man whose physical form could not sustain the rigors of his trade, but whose mind compelled him to find a way to still contribute to a world growing too quickly. I cannot imagine the pressure of trying to be a decent parent knowing full well that one’s children had to grow in spite of being labeled “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged.”
But I would give anything to ask him about those times.
While I will turn 33 in a few weeks, it’s typically this time of year where I feel stuck at 18 going on 19. Perhaps it’s all in my head, but there are days where I feel even younger than that. The reason isn’t exactly immaturity or inexperience. Though there is still plenty to learn about the world and its people, I’ve done enough where I have a better sense of where I may fit in the grand scheme of things.
I feel stuck at times because I find that you need your parents and guardians far more as an adult than you ever did as a kid.
When we were young, our caretakers told us what not to do and why. You didn’t touch the stove. You didn’t hit your siblings. You didn’t talk back to your mother (and still don’t.) You didn’t stay out past curfew. You didn’t do all of these things so that you understood more than right and wrong, but to understand repercussions for stepping beyond acceptable bounds.
Yet, when you become increasingly responsible for your own well-being as an adult, you have far more questions than answers. Where kids are told what they can or can’t do, adults are told what they need to do. You need to find a job. You need to keep your cool. You need to settle down and start a family of your own. You need to find a better job. You need to make sure your children attend the best schools. You need to go back to school. You need to have the best home. You need to find a new job again. You need to get in shape, eat healthy and workout five times a week. You need to be careful. You need to find any job.
We may not readily admit it, but as adults, we crave counsel from those who have been through it all before us. Our guardians provided much to us in our youth, but with all of these needs demanding to be met as adults, we tend to have far more worries and questions than we have solutions and answers.
And goodness, do we have a lot of those as we age.
In the past year of personal and professional challenges, I am eternally grateful for those who have provided such invaluable advice and companionship. My mom, in particular, has been exceptional in ways she always has been and will continue to be.
And it’s in this train of thought where I realize that while I no longer have him in the physical form, I’ve become some sort of facsimile of my dad in order to have his guidance in a spiritual sense. It’s strange, but in some situations I come across in my life, I try to imagine things from his point of view based on the man I knew as a child and learned even more about as an adult. It could be overcompensation or an elongated mourning to some, but I like to think of this as having a backup conscience.
It’s not enough and it will never be enough, but I truly believe that my backup conscience is helping me figure out life as an adult. Life is pretty damn tough on too many days, but it’s one I will proudly live because of the many people I have in it. And one particular man I still have in it.