Today, February 8, 2017, marks the fourth anniversary of my father’s death.
The day after he died, an otherwise sunny Saturday morning, I vividly remember eating breakfast, then going to sit on the couch in the living room, where I proceeded to write him a note. Almost instantly, the tears began to swell, but throughout the process, I could not cry. My daughter, with whom I was six months pregnant at the time, refused to allow the tears to fall, insisting on kicking me instead, which turned my fresh, devastating pain into temporary laughter.
Little did I know that five days later, Valentine’s Day, I would end up reading aloud the personal note I wrote to my father at his funeral, barely making it past the first word, “Daddy,” before breaking down into tears in front of the entire room. However, I am so happy I shared my feelings then, and I am happy to go back to one of the darkest times in my life to share those feelings once more.
My father was a black man, born in Tuskegee, Alabama, raised in Marion, Ohio, and remained in Detroit, Michigan from January 1966 at age 16 until the day he died. As a black man coming of age in the civil rights era, he dealt with racism throughout his life. As early as age 10, I remember him sharing his stories with me. I remember well how angry he was in his youth to see and hear white men refer to his father, my grandfather, a grown man (and WWII Navy Vet, no less), as “boy.” I remember my father telling me about the infamous 1967 Detroit Riot early in my youth, and I remember him retelling the story when I interviewed him on the subject as a college sophomore. During the Riot, which occurred three blocks from our home, my father, then 18 years old, was beaten by the police. Although he grew up to become a sheriff for our county, he was a black man first, and still held skeptical views of law enforcement.
I asked him, “why then become a police officer?” He responded that at the time, he was married (to his first wife) with two young children, and it was a good job with which to raise a family. And he did well for himself, raising his first two children before divorcing, remarrying, and raising his next two children, me and my younger brother. He also bought the family home from my grandparents, which is still in our family after 51 years, and sent three of his four children to college, with one now a practicing attorney- me. The irony of it all? My father originally wanted to be a lawyer himself, but gave up that dream to raise his family. I only found out after graduating from college and studying for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), when my father showed me his old LSAT study books from the 70’s.
Aligned with Black History Month, when writing my note to him, the theme that resonated with me was how much he achieved during his lifetime, in spite of racism along the way. Was he a nationally recognized icon? A Pulitzer Prize winning author? Or a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States? No. Does any of that matter? No. In my eyes, he was a black man who achieved so much in a time where so much was denied. He is my Black history. Moreover, he left a lasting legacy to his descendants, which enabled us to carry on with life, painful as it has been, without him.
Previously, I wrote that he died without a will. While this was unwise, he took many positive, crucial actions during his lifetime that protected us financially after his death. He named us as beneficiaries of his life insurance policies, which avoid probate being payable at death, and saved me from insolvency since I was unemployed. Further, life insurance proceeds are not treated as income, so there were no tax consequences. He left two homes behind, as well as two vehicles, and bank accounts, which are transferred on death, thereby avoiding probate. He understood not only the need to provide for his family while living, but to ease the burden of death with economic protection. Taking these simple steps, along with creating an estate plan, are easy ways to protect your family now in the face of uncertainty, and without my father’s final protections, I’m sure my circumstances would be vastly different.
Like any parent, my father wanted better for his children, and it is hard to argue that he failed in this endeavor. I am proud of everything I have achieved so far in my young life, and so happy to live his dream, which I shared, of becoming an attorney. Moreover, I am proud of him and the sacrifices he made and the difficulties he endured so that I can be where I am and have what I have. In his final act of giving during his lifetime, when I asked him for a loan to purchase bar study materials and pay for bar exam application fees, he instead wrote a check and gave me the money. He died three months later, four years ago today.
Today, as an attorney, as a black woman, and most of all, as his daughter, I am proud to be his living legacy, and I am honored to carry his memory, love, dedication, and protection to the next generation.