I watched my father stand up on unsure legs. It took him a lot of effort to stand at this point. He’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia/Alzheimer’s nearly two years prior. While his mental faculties had begun to fade early on and now his physical limitations had become more obvious. After announcing that he needed to use the restroom, he got to his feet and caught his breath. I asked him if he needed help. He looked at me and said, “Boy, I’m the one that taught you how to piss. I can do it.” And he did.
It’s now been three years since James Norman Brown, Sr. departed this life, since I was able to physically be with my father. Some days it seems like forever ago, other days it seems like it just happened. I learned a long time ago that there’s no timetable for grief. There’s no end. While there’s a process, it’s not linear. You can be just as angry or in just as much denial 20 years after losing a loved one as you are on day one. And that’s perfectly ok. No one grieves the same, even when missing the same person.
My dad was born in Louisville, KY in 1937 to John Quincy Adams and Mary Brown. He had four brothers and three sisters. He got his first job in the third grade (at a grocery store) because he didn’t want his little sister to go hungry at school. He went to Louisville’s Central High School because he grew up in a segregated world. When my dad graduated high school, he joined the Navy, then he worked on the railroad and then, for the better part of 30 years, he was a police officer for the Louisville Police Department.
When he joined the LPD, it was illegal for a black officer to arrest a white citizen, no matter what. Still, he persisted. A lot of times, we let the Civil Rights Movement get boiled down to Martin Luther King’s speeches and the landmark legislation that was enacted in the 1960s. The reality is there are so many battles that have to be fought on the local level to hold cities and towns to federal law. With that in mind, in 1973 my father and two other black officers sued the the City of Louisville and Louisville Police Department for violating the civil rights of all black officers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took the case over, forcing city government to adhere to federally mandated guidelines. Despite personal sacrifices, he stood on principle. When I asked him why, he said it was because the right thing to do. Eventually, my father made it to the rank of major and was in charge of training for the entire police department as well as community outreach programs.
My father’s faith was key to everything he did. He was a deacon and a trustee at his church. He was tough, but fair. He would often say what good is justice without mercy? I never thought of my dad as a progressive, but in retrospect, he was. At home there weren’t male jobs or female jobs: everyone was expected to pull their weight. He cooked, he cleaned and did other things that some would label as womanly chores or activities. At work, he always championed that those that might not have an advocate, minorities and women, with a simple mantra: can they do the job? He never stopped breaking down walls.
The first time I saw my father cry was when we got word that my grandmother, his mother, died. She had been battling lung cancer for awhile, so the news wasn’t unexpected. I remember, at 11, asking him why he was crying. I thought boys weren’t supposed to cry I said. He responded that sometimes the hurt is so big that all you can do is cry and that’s ok because God understands us even through our tears. When my brother Kenneth passed away in March 1999, I remember hugging my dad when the tears fell. When my oldest brother died in September 2000, I could only hold him while the tears never came.
The two words that best defined my dad is: Be Better. When I was at school at the University of Kentucky, he would often write (does anyone’s dad actually talk on the phone?) and he would always include, as a closing, “Be Better.” No matter how good or how bad you think you are, you can always be better. If you’re no better today than you were yesterday, you’ve wasted 24 hours. Whenever I would get in trouble in my youth, and there were A LOT of times, he would always ask me “how are you going to be better as a result?”
My dad wasn’t a saint, he wasn’t perfect. He was, however, a great, great man. He was an odd mixture of Yoda, Dr. Cliff Huxtable and Samuel L. Jackson. He showed me what it means to be a man. He was compassionate. He was loving. He was a great husband, a great father and grandfather. He loved his city and his state. Despite seeing the worst in humanity, he loved people – “what good is justice without mercy?” My dad taught me what it meant to be a proud black man in America when it’s not always accepted. He taught me so much that I find it hard to follow in his footsteps, often falling short.
The day after the bathroom incident, his health took a turn and hospice was called in. He was sleeping a lot and we just wanted him to be comfortable. He woke up during a nap, looked me in the eye and said “Son, it’s going to be alright. You’re a great man and I’m proud of you. Take care of your mother.” The next day, he passed away.
I love him. I miss him and I’m still trying to, everyday, Be Better.