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Father Lessons
A little fathering has to last a long time
Otis Hampton
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My biological parents left me at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children in Queens, New York, when I was 2 years old. I was later told that they left me there because they could no longer take care of me, though they did keep my older brother and my little sister. I was sure my real parents would come back for me. But as months and then years went by with no visit from them, I grew more confused, and raged at the nurses and the other kids.

When I was about 4, a woman I didn’t know started visiting the room I shared with a lot of other kids. She watched us from the doorway a few times, and then one day she introduced herself. “Hello, Otis. My name is Juanita and I’m going to be your mom.”

I was confused. Because I was either violent or withdrawn, adults tended not to talk to me for very long. I wondered if this lady was going to take me someplace where my real mom would pick me up.

Juanita took me out of the hospital and brought me home with her. That’s when I met her husband, Leroy Hampton. Unfortunately he was very sick, so I had to go back to St. Mary’s for a while. But in 1996, I came back to live with them as their foster child. I met their biological son, Brian, and a younger boy they were already fostering named Denzel.

My only memory of my birth parents is a short glimpse of my biological father. He came to visit me at the Hamptons’ house when I was 6. I didn’t know how to feel because I barely knew him. He took me out to eat and he even had a conversation with my then-foster parents. They all seemed pretty close, so I assumed my father was back in my life.

I never saw him or anyone else from my birth family again.

Leroy, however, took over when I came back in 1996 and decided to be the man that my father apparently couldn’t be. He was fair, and his parenting methods were basic. He’d tell me, “Go to school, do your homework, eat dinner, take a shower, watch a little TV, and go to bed by 9 so that you can get up for school in the morning.”

As long as I did what Leroy told me, things went smoothly—for the first time in my life. It was easier to follow rules set by someone who cared for me and who acknowledged when I did well. I began to like him. I’d never had a true father figure before Leroy. I started to call him “Dad” after I asked my mother what his name was. She said, “His name’s Leroy and he is going to be your father.” After a few months, I realized I hadn’t thought about my biological dad since I’d moved there (until he turned up for that one visit).

Leroy and I began to do fun things together. We would watch things on TV as a family, even cartoons. He showed me how to program a VCR when I wanted to watch a movie. There was even one fun time where I went on a bowling trip with my 1st grade class. I saw my dad and his friends, just by coincidence; they also went bowling on Thursdays. I was excited because he was watching my first game and he was proud of me, even though I sucked.

Leroy also taught me how to write neatly. With his hand guiding me, I learned to write my name straight across the lines instead of diagonally, all over the paper. “Watch what I do,” he would tell me before instructing me to repeat his action. “Is that good?” I’d ask. “Not bad. Keep it up, Otis,” he’d say. Then we moved on to sentences like “I love my Dad.” I still have neat handwriting and I still love to write.

Feeling accepted and safe allowed me to think more clearly. In the hospital, I’d heard nurses refer to me as a troublemaker, but Juanita and Leroy bragged to their friends about how smart I was. I thought (correctly) that my biological parents were never going to return, so after several months, I accepted the Hamptons as a permanent replacement.

My dad and I also had serious talks about things such as education, relationships with girls, and even becoming a father myself one day. He often told me, “You can be anything you want to be as long as you have a good education.”

image by Sara Goldys

With great patience, he taught me right from wrong. If I misbehaved in school, of course he would get mad, but he would take the time to talk to me about what I did wrong and how I could prevent it from happening again. Or, if I had a fight with my little brother, he was right there to instruct and guide us.

My dad also taught me to set an example for Denzel. He’d say, “Otis, you’re the man of the house, and it’s your responsibility to keep Denzel out of trouble and teach him right from wrong.” Whatever my dad taught me I tried to pass on to Denzel, so I also got a few early lessons in fatherhood.


Then, just before my 8th birthday, Leroy had a stroke and died. I not only lost a father, I lost my best friend.

Death was new to me. I’d never seen grown-ups cry before. They kept telling me it was OK to cry and that I should talk about it, but I shut down completely. I stopped talking to my family and to my friends at school. I didn’t understand why he died and I didn’t understand why I pushed everyone away.

My little brother seemed afraid of me when I was silent, but about a week after the funeral, he got up the courage to ask from my bedroom’s doorway, “Are you all right, Otis?” I said, “Yes,” and he was so happy he ran into my room and hugged me.

After my father’s death, other men gave me advice over the years. I have many uncles in my adoptive family, including one who always adored me. We call him “Coffee.” He had strong opinions about my future: “Otis, you should be a doctor or else study law.” Back when Johnnie Cochran was alive, Coffee was always talking about how smart he was.

But even though I want to be a writer and Coffee would rather I became a lawyer or doctor, I still believe Coffee and the rest of my family would be glad to see me doing anything I love. They all know how happy I was as a child and how torn apart I was when Dad died. Coffee, my mother Juanita, Denzel, and other relatives want to see me as happy as I was when I was a child.

There are times when they do see me happy, like if I’m shooting hoops with Denzel or making them laugh, and there are times when I want to be alone, which they usually understand.

I didn’t have Leroy for long enough, but I was lucky he was such a good father. He taught me to be proud of things I worked hard at, but also to be humble. The point was not to show off, but to be proud of myself. His early encouragement helped steer me toward being a writer, but that won’t be for glory or fame. As a writer, I’ll be out there in the future doing what I love, which is glory enough.

Sometimes it was hard to apply my dad’s lessons after he died because I wasn’t a man yet. I was still a child. There were times I was bullied and I wished that my dad was still around to help resolve the situation. I would look up at the sky and talk to him and God as if they were both listening. He always encouraged resolving things peacefully, and that’s what I try to do now.

I’ve had a mother, and she’s provided food, clothes and shelter, love, encouragement, and an understanding of right and wrong. But there are times when I need a father to talk to and the fact that my father is gone still fills me with sadness every day.

If my dad were still around in my adolescence, I guess I wouldn’t feel like my family was lopsided, with half the parents missing. At the very least, I would’ve had someone to talk to and listen to me when I felt that no one else would or cared to. My dad was steadier and less emotional than my mom. I guess I would also have better control of my emotions in general, because much of my sadness and anger comes from his early death.

I’m sure he would be proud of all that I’ve accomplished and all I plan to accomplish in the near future. If he were still alive today, I would tell him of my appreciation for all that he’s done for me and I’d thank him for the guidance that I’ve needed since I was given up for adoption.

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