Tuesday, January 12, 2016


This has been a long post coming, composed in my heart sometime in 2012 and never to be shared until the time came.

My old man passed away last November. He had been ailing for a couple years before, and his rental in the ancestor parking lot was in no way unexpected. Dude got to live to 85 years and see some grandkiddies along the way. He was happy. He let us know that he was happy. And that he'd just like to take a goddamn nap already if we would just let him. We didn't. He still managed to walk through the veil with slick dignity. His independent spirit, like his suits, were crisp and never chosen for him by anyone.

When I started writing I was a kid, you know. Valentine was one of the few people who never gave me stress about it, because it was no big deal. It was cool to be quiet in his presence- some people just have that aura. It was restful.

My old man always greeted any achievement with a lazy eye and an afterthought of a statement. "Vema" was his greatest praise. He always took competence for granted. He raised the bar, and then he raised it higher and then he threw the goddamn bar somewhere you would actually have to work to find it. Talk about an extreme form of fetch. Because he was a mean motherfucker when he wanted to be, he gave me all the confidence in the world to be myself.

Anyone can be coddled and shrifted by some well-meaning folk. Earning Valentine's respect in an intellectual way, tho? There is no comparison. Just, you know, none. We fought and we had some healthy fights. We disagreed with a thick and informed vigor. We disappointed each other, sometimes terribly. And then we came back the next day to read each other's recommended books. Laugh about life. Agree to disagree (most times). And not be scared of being.

When I started writing and stuff for outside consumption, I always wrote with him in mind. People would ask: aren't you intimidated, and where do you find the balls to say what you do about Tanzania in The Eastafrican? I never bothered to tell them. Why would I? Point of having a superpower is having a secret weapon, neh? Because Valentine was such a tough customer- and I loved that- it has been hard to find other folks intimidating. I certainly am in awe of some writers to the point of fawning, but that's it.

My old man's greatest form of praise arrived in a single word. "Vema." He would say this whether you had won the Concours D'Orthographe's trip to New York or burned the hell out of a well-meaning pot of mashed potatoes. His assumption that his children could just man up and live according to their own imperfections and achievements was... well. More than a little rock and roll. It was liberating.

So when he started reading the stuff that I put out there, I was nervous. He was himself, reticent about giving feedback. But one day he looked me in the eye and gave the world's best compliment: 'Vema." With Valentine, 'vema' meant you were so good you weren't even worth the bother of flattery, coddling, correction, apology, protection or anything else. So long as you just stood on your own two feet, he was cool with that.

It was a point of pride for his family to bury Valentine right. We did it, thankfully. But I never got to say to him some things, like thanks for the seriously wicked sense of humor and the ear for music. The sneakiness and the deeply buried kindness and the excellently curated taste-buds. The shyness and the courage and the language. The language. The language. All the forms of expression.


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