When I arrived in the Dominican Republic four years ago, it was on the eve of the presidential election that propelled Barack Obama into office. In fact, I wrote about it in the second issue of the INFORMER, saying:
“I watched the announcement of Obama going over the top alone at home, knowing I was going to be emotional. Not going to lie; the tears flowed, mostly with joy at the historic nature of what had just taken place, but a profound sadness that my parents, particularly my dad who was a poll watcher for years, were not around to witness what had transpired. I know that somewhere he was smiling, saying, “That’s my man. Obama, that’s my man!” My brother, who just happens to be a Republican, put it into perspective, saying that even though my parents weren’t around, they raised us to appreciate the moment. True that.”
I was more nervous than emotional this time around as I again sat alone at home watching the returns. Living in the Dominican Republic, I was relatively immune from the avalanche of political ads that bombarded the United States, but as an American citizen and voter, I had a vested interest in the process. I had done my part – voted by absentee ballot – so all I could do was watch and hope that my guy would again prevail. He did of course, and my tears flowed again. A black man re-elected president of the United States! And again I know my dad is smiling.
God bless America!
I recently returned to the U.S. for one of my periodic visits, and concluded some unfinished business that left me both complete and subdued – the interment of my father’s ashes and the placing of markers on his grave and that of my mother.
It is not that my brother and I had forgotten; we had talked about it many times since my father passed away in 2005 (my mother died in 2002), but with me in the Dominican Republic, scheduling the task had not been easy. But I needed a trip to the U.S. to take care of some business and some personal matters, so we were able to coordinate.
It was a modest affair, just as I imagine my father would have wanted; no pomp and circumstances, just a few friends and family gathered in the cemetery at Hosanna A.U.M.P Church adjacent to the gate of my father’s beloved Lincoln University. The church was once a station on the Underground Railroad and as fitting a final resting place as my parents could possibly have. Some of the earliest graves date back to 1853, a year before the founding of Lincoln; its many visitors included Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
Even with the passage of time, the process was still emotional. I miss my dad every single day. Oh, I miss my mother too, but my father and I had a special bond that got stronger over the years and was cemented eternally in the last few months of his life. I had gone from him taking care of me as a child unable to take care of myself, to taking care of him when he needed me to take care of him. But we had also developed a friendship in the last few years of his life that became special; I was finally able to put so much into perspective, so many of the things he used to tell me in my youth that I would one day understand. How wise he was.
As I pass my four year anniversary of living in the Dominican Republic, his wisdom continues to help steer my ship. He was always one to advise me to follow my dreams; that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to, and I remind myself of that when I have doubts. It often gets frustrating living alone in a foreign country, often unsure of who believes in you, unsure if the next step is the right one, unsure of the promise of tomorrow.
And then I think of my dad as a young, gifted and black 16-year-old entering the gate at Lincoln University in 1930, in an America I can only imagine. Of being the oldest child of a domestic who had been abandoned by her husband, who wanted her son to be educated no matter that it was a strictly segregated America where the intelligence of black people was suspect.
I think about how he prevailed, graduating second in his class, an English major who loved the language that he manipulated with such skill. I think about a young black man drafted into a segregated Army during World War II, going “kicking and screaming” all the way, he would later joke, and serving in the secretarial pool to make white officers seem intelligent on paper.
I think about him returning to segregated America to reunite with his wife and go on to become the first African American to receive a PhD in English from Ohio State University. He was a graduate assistant, a post reluctantly provided him by skeptics who felt that white students would not take his direction. Of course they did, and if you knew my father, it is easy to understand why.
But as gifted as he was, in a segregated America he returned to Lincoln University where he spent the remainder of his life teaching, guiding, nurturing and mentoring students. He later had offers to go elsewhere; he stayed, because his dream was to teach people who could benefit most from what he had to offer. Even after retiring after 32 years of teaching, he continued to help students; he created a student emergency fund with his own money, then continued to fund it by running a small canteen where he sold sodas and candy.
As if that was not enough, in his 80’s he got a part-time job editing the local newspaper. He had taken to correcting the paper and sending the corrections to the editors who were wise enough to recognize his expertise and hire him. He also stayed active as an officer in the local senior center.
My father was an extraordinary man; he was and is my hero. He once told me that all he wanted to do is leave this Earth a little better than he entered it.
His grave, and that of my mother, are marked with simple stone tablets, engraved with their names; the dates of their birth and death separated by a simple dash. In the end, that is a simplification we are all reduced to; what makes us individually remarkable is what we accomplish during that dash.
H. Alfred Farrell, Feb. 14, 1914 – Sept. 29, 2005, put an amazing amount into that dash, and left the world a far better place than when he entered. I take a lesson from that every day and hope I can say the same one day.