Race & Identity
How Playing Chess With My Long Lost Dad Helped Me Discover Who He Is
Through a game, I bonded with the man I never knew.
It is Friday, July 23, 2010. My head is in the clouds. And on this beautiful day in Oklahoma City, the clouds are magnificent. It rained earlier this morning. How cliche, I say to myself. On a day like today.
When I see clouds, I marvel at the wonder that millions of gallons of water are floating gracefully at heights miles above my head. I take in the wondrous expressions of their beauty. I daydream about the man I will be in the future when I next gaze at the sky. I imagine that other people are looking up at the same clouds, reflecting on their own lives, their own problems, their own hopes and dreams.
The clouds remind me of my Creator, and of my Christian faith, my living hope of the promise that Christ will one day return “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” They remind me to stay heavenly minded—to keep life in perspective.
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And perspective is what I need today, because my mind is consumed by thoughts of my dad.
I first met Odell at the age of 23 after conducting an online search for him and my grandmother. It was a surreal experience. There is no guide for how to deal with a reunion of this magnitude, father and son meeting for the first time as grown men. I had met new family members before: my mom, my maternal grandmother, my stepdad, other aunts and uncles. They all found their way to me. But, I had only ever looked for my dad. I knew I would never completely understand myself without him.
Over the four years following our reunion, we met face to face on occasion. He and grandmother twice drove to California to visit me and my family. The first time I ever met him was in his hotel room doorway at a Best Western near my house. He towered over me, standing 6’8” tall. A tall man myself, I thought it fitting that he was one of only a handful of people in my life to do that. Weighing nearly 300 pounds, he was not slender as I was. His face was oblong in shape and he was bald. He also walked on a prosthetic leg because his original one had to be amputated. He tended to grin to one side when he smiled, like me. Overall, he struck me as a gentle giant. I could do gentle giant.
I soon discovered my dad was a chess player. In fact, he was a very good chess player, one of the best in the entire state of Oklahoma. He ranked 15th in the state the year I met him, and won the distinction of beating a chess master.
We played our first and only game of chess once when I flew to Dallas on business and drove up to Oklahoma City to visit him, staying the night in his small apartment. We talked for hours. I could tell he was a pro because, in all of our conversation, he never discussed his moves or commented on his strategy. He never explained what he was doing or how. He just played.
While we played, we discussed my childhood, his life moving all around the United States, and his past struggle with alcohol addiction. I told him about my foster parents and about my relationship with my birth mom. I tried not let our conversation distract me from the game at hand. But it was clear only moments into the match that he would win. It was only a matter of time.
Our relationship over the years played out much like that game of chess, in a way. He insisted that I call him my father. I refused, despite his pleading and attempts to reason me into it. In my mind, I would not confer upon him a title that he did not deserve. Pops, my foster father and the only father I ever knew, earned that title by taking me into his home as a foster kid when I was four years old. When I was abused and abandoned, it was Pops who raised me to manhood. Odell was my dad, sure enough. But he had yet to earn the right to be called my father. Our relationship became defined by this struggle. The struggle between his wish for me to treat him as the father who raised me and my reluctance to do so.
That is why, when I got the call five days before today informing me of Odell’s death, I grinned in disbelief. Typical, I thought to myself. Way to play the game, dad. I had only known him for four years. Four years! How was I to deal with the fact that I had found him after a lifetime of searching only to see him die four years later? What could I do but smile? This must be a joke, I reasoned as the denial stage of grief took hold.
But it was not. He died. And now, here I am, eyes filling with tears, standing under the beautiful Oklahoma clouds that float above my head, waiting near the hole in the ground where my dad was just interred. It had not occurred to me until this moment that I will miss him more than I understood. Because I loved him. I loved my dad.