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Love Is the Lesson

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Love Is the Lesson

Honoring a father’s legacy.
Cornel  West
Cornel West More by this author
Sep 23, 2010 at 10:00 AM

I hear the cry of John Coltrane. I hear the heartbreaking moan of Billie Holiday and the anguished scream of James Brown. I feel the pain in Marvin Gaye’s soul when he cries, “Father, Father.” I am fortified by the faith of Dorothy Love Coates when she sings, “That’s Enough.” I see the tear in the voice of James Cleveland when he pleads, “Lord, Help Me to Hold Out.”

I needed help to hold out. I needed help to get through. I had been asked to give the eulogy at my father’s funeral, and I didn’t see how I could manage it. I was too torn up inside, too overwhelmed with grief and loss, too devastated, too down.

Only a few months before his passing, Dad and my sister Cynthia had come to hear me deliver a public lecture in Oakland. I cherished the moment when I proudly introduced them to the audience, pointing out how essential family had been to every aspect of my formation.

Then in late April, Mom had called to say that Dad wasn’t feeling well and had agreed to see a doctor. That’s when we knew it was serious. Dad’s attitude about illness was simply to tough it out. I had daily reports about the tests they were giving him. His pain continued but the doctors were unable to say what was wrong. He went in for a battery of new studies at one hospital where, again, no specific disease was identified. That’s when he went to Kaiser. Cliff was there. Cliff was witness to what happened.

“On Tuesday, May 25, we took Dad to Kaiser,” Cliff remembered, “where they put him to sleep for a long probing procedure. When they brought him back to the room, he was still asleep. I was by his side when the doctor came in to say that Dad had pancreatic cancer, a fatal form of the disease. I stayed with him till midnight. Before I left, I prayed, ‘Dear God, don’t let this good man suffer.’ The next morning at five o’clock, the hospital called to say that Dad had passed. I couldn’t believe it. Mom couldn’t believe it. We rushed over there and ran into his room. Mom, usually the most composed of women, pounded on Dad’s chest, crying, ‘You’re still alive. I know you’re alive.’ He wasn’t. The doctor said he had died of a pulmonary embolism.

My father’s death changed everything. It had me looking at the world through a whole different center. It made me acutely aware of an obvious fact that had never been an active part of my emotional reality: the things we prize most highly and the people we love most deeply can be lost in an instant. My presumption—which is to say, the presumption of a child—was that Dad would always be there. I’d call him like I’d always called him. It could be a Monday morning or Saturday night.

“Dad,” I’d say, “just checking in. Just calling to say how much I miss you and Mom.”

Then that voice would come on the line, the voice I’d heard my entire life, the voice of comfort and reassurance, the voice of calmness and unquestioned integrity. My dad’s voice would say, “Son, we miss you too. Mom and I were just talking about how proud you make us. We were just saying how much we love you.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

And that would be it. A conversation no longer than a minute, but a conversation strong enough to get me through another few days, until the next conversation, and the one after that. In my little-boy way, I never doubted that these conversations would go on forever. Dad would outlive me. Dad would outlive everyone. Dad would defy death because . . . well, Dad was Dad.

Mr. Cool.

Mr. I’m-There-for-My-Kids.

Mr. Lean-on-Me.

But now Dad was gone, and I didn’t see how I could express the terrible grief and pain assaulting me. I didn’t know what to say.

Somehow, though, I got up before the assembled group of friends and family at church and managed to speak my heart.

“This is when we find out what we are about on the deepest level. We have no choice but to live with this loss, to absorb this terrible blow and see if the wound it inflicts upon our soul can move us to love with even greater purpose and energy.” I spoke about the despair I felt at never being able to see, hear, or embrace my father again. And then I said, “Because he was strong, I know he wants us to carry on with strength. He believed in strength, not manly, macho strength, but strength of the spirit that resists shutting down in the face of disaster. In the aftermath of Dad’s passing, I could easily shut down. I could give in to the melancholia that wants to envelop me. I could be paralyzed. I could break.

But Dad’s spirit was—and is and forever will be—an active spirit, one that says, love wherever you walk. Spread love whenever you talk.”

About Author
Cornel  West
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Known as one of America’s most gifted, provocative, and important public intellectuals, Dr. We Continue reading