Rich Boss Poor Dad
An Autopsy of Workism
Workism: “The belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.” — Derek Thompson
Buddy Baston was a good man I never met. If he were on this side of glory he’d be 81-years-old. By all accounts, Buddy was an honest, hard-working father and family man. The supernaturally strong, work-with-your-hand type that fixed flat tires, barbecue, bad days, and leaky faucets with his bare black fingers.
My soul knows Buddy. He was my father and my grandfather. His broad body was identical to the generations of brown boys who became men by casting down their empty buckets in the segregated South to make a living anyhow. They only married once so they proposed twice — once to God for favor and again to their misses to tell her what God told him.
They duct-taped life together one day at a time, somehow finding joy in the never-ending in-between of a country they couldn’t claim.
Buddy was gone. His death was not a surprise but it hurt all the same. The funeral was quickly becoming a family reunion. I sat in the church sanctuary, walls embellished with gold-lettered bible verses, resting on a shiny wooden pew facing an embroidered cross.
Glued to my knee was Chloe, my 4-year-old daughter. Wrapped in the blue thickness of her knit dress, Chloe leaned her shiny curls against my shoulder. She was my +1.
That morning Chloe decided — after much brokering and a brief overview of exactly what a funeral is — that she likes funerals.
“I want to celebrate someone’s life, too,” she pledged.
“Uhh… are you sure?” I stammered, unable to confidently recall what page in the derelict parent playbook I was now on.
“Yes, I want to go with you,” Chloe said. “Because you’ve been gone out of town for work all week.”
Checkmate. Well played, Chloe.
She was right. I never wanted work to become my life but without a plan to prevent it, every promotion, project, or assignment was a homing beacon to being overbooked and underbalanced. Soon enough, the arguments about nothing (that are really about something) became more frequent. The crappy FaceTime calls home to cranky kids became a mutual hassle. The same guilt that glued me to work unfastened me from my family. Now, the passport full of stamps, calendar full of commitments, and paycheck full of commas was a scoreboard to maximize.
Chloe sat quietly anchored to my lap, unblinking, seemingly immune to the odd dread of emotions and tear-soaked melodies.
“Can’t wait to see Him, look upon His face,
bow down before Him, thank Him for His grace.
Shake hands with the elders, the twenty and the four,
say hello to my loved ones who fought on before.”
Soulful sopranos brought the blues from the choir stand high up into heaven for Buddy to hear. As they repeated the chorus I felt darkness discolor the air around me. Grief arrived. I stared down at my feet.
“Jesus is preparing a place just for me,
if you want to see me, in heaven I will be.”
Buddy’s daughter, Sheraine, my friend and high school classmate, paused her own pain long enough to rise out of her seat. Donning a deep purple dress and crowned in tight-twisted hair, she approached the podium next to Buddy’s body. The room followed quietly as Sheraine stopped in front of the gleaming mahogany casket draped in a garden of ivory flowers.
Provoked by Chloe’s presence, a cruel thought scurried into my head. The man Chloe calls “daddy” is still here. The man Sheraine called “daddy” would never hear those words again.
Daddy, I love you.
Daddy, I miss you.
Daddy, stop playing!
Daddy, you’re crazy…
Sheraine began to share stories that only a father’s daughter could tell. The kind I pray Chloe will tell about me someday, but not too soon.
Sheraine spoke of a pioneering man who worked just as hard as he loved. A humble man altogether insecure about his lack of education but certain he wanted more for his family. A strict man who enforced curfews and never had to repeat himself (… or help me Gawd!). A God-fearing man who loved Jesus with his whole being. A generous man who served his people double portions of fish and faith as if they all shared his last name. By every measure, Buddy was a good man.
“Daddy worked hard every day,” she proclaimed. The “amens” of affirmation testified to the same.
“But daddy always came home.”
I battled back tears, quickly constructing sandbag walls in my mind to prevent this tsunami of guilt and grief from flooding my face. After all, I negotiated with myself, I was there to support Sheraine at her father’s funeral, not mine.
It was like glimpsing 40 years ahead into a version of my future I’d be proud to have. Tiny tears rimmed my eyes as I witnessed how a temporary life becomes a permanent legacy. The problem? I was heading full speed in the other direction.
Sheraine was assured of her father’s love, not simply because he provided, but because he was present. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
She knew exactly who Buddy was by what he did, who he helped, and where he spent his time. “He will reward each person according to what they have done.”
Buddy came home. I didn’t
Buddy kept his promises. I didn’t.
Buddy didn’t go to college. I did.
Buddy didn’t have a million dollars. I did.
Buddy was a good dad. I was a rich boss.
This essay is part 2 in a series of personal reflections on faith, family, and the Black experience. Read Part 1 here.
Hear how this story ends on the UNFOLLOW podcast episode 5: “Cows, Cars & Dads” on Apple iTunes, Spotify, or online. (47:00)