The Captain is Dead (lightly edited)

This is my version of a story. I could be challenged about details but this how I know it. No one knows my story.

My father, James Bee Hardaway, Jr., was born on Thursday, November 7, 1940. He was the second child, and first son, to Dorris Mae (Buirst) and James Senior. My father, James, or Junior, or Eightball, or Captain is succeeded by his older sister Annie Ruth and four children.

James, Sr. was killed in a “dispute” in a roadhouse bar in Texas when my father was a child. His rough and tumble friends were waiting in the car outside. My father always said, “Never go into a bar alone.” There's a reason for this logic.

Doris (one “R” most of her life) remarried to James King and gave birth to J.W. King. My father was as fond of his little brother as he was often frustrated. J.W. adopted the name, Joe Willis, to fill in his birth initials and sometimes, inexplicably, went by Jason. J.W. succumbed to addiction like his own father. Everyone knew J.W. as, Brother. I sometimes called him, Uncle.

Although I grew up with Doris King, the more I learn about her, the more of an amazing iconic enigma she becomes. I was fortunate to share stories about my uncle and grandmother with my father during his illness. Doris was known throughout the larger family as, Mother. This was, it turns out, a matriarchy.

James was born in San Antonio in Texas but he insisted he was, “from the city” and that “I ain’t no country ass nigga.” The King/Hardaway family followed Kenwood kin to Los Angeles in the early fifties. I don’t like Texas. I am of California.

Like his father, but in L.A., James became a somewhat notorious gangster. Along with some infamously rough and ruthless cousins from the Kenwood neighborhood of San Antonio, he became a known brand in L.A. Specifically, in Hollywood, he controlled Sunset Boulevard between Normandie and Western avenues through much of the 1960s and ‘70s; whatever controlled means in this context. That strip of Sunset is now home to both an El Pollo Loco and an Auto Zone. He wants his ashes spread there. Right down the street from the Church of Scientology.

I have seen some of and heard about some of my father’s cruelty and criminal behaviors when I was young. My birth mother left him when I was six months old. She as too afraid to take me with her. I was, after all, his first born son named after a junkie cousin whom he adored who died when I was five. Other than those six months and a few weeks when I was 18, I never lived with the man. I grew up with Mother. This was obviously for the best. I occasionally email with my birth mother and since she was adopted, I know only a little about her or her history, but 23 & Me shed some surprising light. Makes sense.

While I have witnessed my father be a mean, uncouth, and deliberately insensitive person, he was never any of those things to me. In fact, I have always occupied some weirdly sacred and protected space in his life, away from his affairs. While I cannot excuse or forgive his behaviors, I do appreciate that he always left me alone and never invited me into his sphere. I have benefited from a free pass in L.A. without participating in its shadows. I’m the legit kid.

Somehow I grew up in a perfect college town outside of his influence. I was born in Los Angeles but I love my home town. I received a quality and comprehensive education. I have had my very own life largely divorced from family obligations and most of its baggage (my mother was adopted, that is another story). Yet, I always knew him to be a presence. Sometimes it was great to see him, other times it was mostly embarrassing. I moved away from my family for good when I was 18. James loved the Lakers, Dodgers, and Rams of Los Angeles. Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Roberta Flack, Otis Redding, Ray Charles.

I know that my father married in the late 1980s and had three children; two boys and a girl. I have no contact with them and have not seen any of them since they were young children. I identify as an only child. This is somebody else's story.

Doris, my grandmother, died in 1993. I had little contact with James before her death and have had very little contact since. He was a momma’s boy and I know her death was profound for him. It was for me too. She was my parent and/or guardian in he most literal of interpretations. I miss her every day. I am grateful to her for the sacrifices she made to ensure I had opportunities.

Brother, Uncle, taught me so much about the value of knowledge. I also learned that heroin will destroy even the brightest and curious among us. He was smart and legit deep. I learned that Brother died in the early 2000s but I was a world apart from my family by that point.

My father did not attend my wedding in 1998 and he knew that I had a daughter in 2002. He was surprisingly delighted to be a grandfather. He sent my kid a little something for birthdays and Christmas and called himself, "Pa Pa." This was a side of him that made little sense to me.

I figured that the next interaction I would have with him or my family would be at his funeral. On a lark, I contacted him in 2013 and visited him when I was in town for my 30th high school reunion. I buffered the interaction by taking two good friends along. He was beyond thrilled. When my daughter was 15, she wanted to meet my father. I took her and my wife (who had not met him) to visit in 2017. My kid wrote an award winning essay about that visit that I have never read. This visit changed his life. The ribs he wanted the week before he died were from Chili's where he took me and my wife and kid during our visit. The last real thing he ate were some of those ribs with me. That was the point, "those ribs we had when you guys were here a couple of years ago." Those ribs. It was our last meal.

When he called me in late 2018 with health concerns that turned out to be stage 4 lung cancer, it was sad. Not necessarily for me, but I felt bad for him. He had been largely robust for the previous 77 years aside from a traumatic accident in his childhood. He was run over by a truck and hospitalized for weeks. His legs are reconstructed but the accident kept him out of the draft. He met the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers, when he was a hospitalized child. Maybe that accident shaped his life in ways I can’t comprehend. Sometimes it's hard to know even though we know.

Once I understood that his healthcare was very far from optimal, I decided to intervene. I believed that it was the right thing to do. During my three one-week visits I helped him and his wife, Becky, navigate a complex and decentralized healthcare system. The U.S. healthcare system is woefully broken. We created a directive, I became his medical proxy, and I interfaced with doctors and care staff in a manner beyond his capabilities. I DJ'd music from the '60s through the '80s. I recorded hours of conversations. I assured I held no grudges, burdens, or baggage because of him. He thought I was some sort of wizard.

I learned a lot about Junior Hardaway in the past three months. He was a very smart character who never had the opportunity to demonstrate his potential. Junior never got to experience the American mainstream but he was happy that I found my place as a valued member of society. He has expressed how grateful he was that I cared enough to help him. I made it clear that I have no lingering issues or problems with him. I am fine. He apologized for being a shitty father but I assured him that I am fine. I actually am. There's a reason I parent like I do. I believe he learned a little about me too.

I am grateful that I got to know my father a lot better than I ever believed possible. I am grateful to the wonderful staff of his hospice. They provided a level of care he never knew could exist. Maybe this was my parting gift, care.

We said our goodbyes. I hope I helped the man find some peace. As I remember him saying on occasion, “Blood is thicker than mud.” So, goodbye, Eightball. My father, James Bee Hardaway, Jr.,  died on Thursday, April 11, 2019. After while, crocodile.

[some photos]
[public obituary]