Editor’s note: Michael Brown Sr. reached out to theGrio.com to share an exclusive touching essay marking this year’s Father’s Day holiday. It is the first Father’s Day he will celebrate without his son, Michael Brown Jr. The 18-year-old was killed by a white police officer Darren Wilson last August in Ferguson, Missouri. His death sparked nationwide protests and intensified the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Below, Brown Sr. recalls the tragic loss of his son and sends out a call to action to black fathers everywhere.
I’d just hung up on my son, Mike Brown Jr.
The day was August 4, 2014. I was at the hospital with my wife, Cal. We’d been married only three weeks. She had been diagnosed with chronic heart failure. Shortly after hearing the news, Mike called my cell phone. He told me Cal was going to die.
“Man, you need to watch your mouth!” I said before hanging up.
Those were trying times, and I was in a no-nonsense mood. A month before our marriage, our house had burned down. We’d lost everything. Literally.
I couldn’t imagine things getting any worse.
Mike’s predicting my wife’s death came way out of left field for me. But that was Mike. He was a jokester, a dreamer, and an aspiring rapper. You know how it is with 18-year-olds; they think they’re grown and can say whatever they want, whenever they want. Sometimes, depending on what you’re going through, you just don’t have patience.
To be honest, sometimes it took me a minute or two to get Mike’s jokes or jive with his dreams. Like on April Fool’s Day last year, when he called to tell me he had a baby on the way. He hung up, leaving me fuming for the rest of the day.
He got his dad good with that one.
Mike would say things that would confuse me or piss me off. Then, after some time, I’d realize that when he said something, it usually had meaning. For example, on the day we celebrated his graduation from high school, he announced that he wanted to be a rapper. “That’s all fine and good,” I responded, “but you’re gonna stay in school and you’re gonna stay focused.”
He got angry and told the family, “One day, the world is gonna know my name. I’ll probably have to go away for a while, but I’m coming back to save my city.”
Like most parents, I wanted to support my child’s dreams, but I wanted him to be realistic, too.
How in the hell was I supposed to know Mike’s prediction would come true?
The same question applies to his call when I was at the hospital. A couple days after I hung up on him, Mike called another family member to explain what he had been trying to tell me: “Pop’s mad at me. Tell him I said what I said because I’ve been having these visions and images of death. Tell him I keep seeing bloody sheets.”
That conversation was on a Thursday. Two days later, on Saturday, August 9, around 12:15 p.m., my cell phone rang. It was Mike’s grandma on his mother’s side. Mike was staying with her for a while before going off to college. She rarely calls me, so I answered quickly.
“Mike has been shot by a cop! He’s lying dead in the street,” she screamed hysterically.
I went into a state of denial instantly. No way! I defended. No! I could not possibly have heard what I thought I heard. My head exploded with one all-consuming thought: I’ve got to get to my son!
I don’t remember much: a vague recollection of the dreadful silence in the car as we weaved and zigzagged through traffic; a muddled memory of a large crowd as we pulled close to Canfield Drive, the narrow street where Mike spent many childhood days. Like a linebacker on a mission, I pushed my way through the massive crowd, ignoring the comments pinging off my head:
“He had his hands up!”
“It was cold-blooded murder!”
“Why they leaving him in the street like that?”
To this day, I don’t know how or why I didn’t explode into a murderous rage when cops held up their hands to stop me from getting to Mike.
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“That’s my son!” I screamed over and over, as if those words would mean something.
They didn’t. I had to stand there like everyone else. Mike’s body was covered by that time. There I was, a semi truck’s length away from my son, seething with impotence and telling myself he wasn’t really dead. My mind insisted he was still alive under that ugly black tarp. I searched the eyes of policemen, praying that one of them — perhaps a cop with a child — would let me go hold my son’s hand while his body was still warm.
I’ve heard about soldiers who block out the intensity of warfare until after the battle? I think I slipped into that state of mind. A couple weeks later, as my son’s casket was lowered into the ground, I came out of my fog. Standing at that grave site, it got very, very real. My firstborn son — the kid I’d had when I was just a 17-year-old kid myself — was gone forever. Never again would I hear his voice, his often incomprehensible jokes, or his strange predictions.
Standing there, as they shoveled dirt on Mike’s casket, our last conversations blasted loud in my head. My boy hadn’t been talking about my wife’s condition on that day he’d called me at the hospital. He had been having visions of his own death.
And I couldn’t hear it.
As Father’s Day approaches, my emotions are like hot bubbles in a pot of boiling water—the disbelief, the rage, the grief crashing to the surface again and again. I miss my son. I’m still grieving.
I feel like those soldiers I’ve read about with PTSD who can’t stop the traumatic memories from invading their dreams or hijacking their every waking moment. Like some returning from war, I have no peace. I feel betrayed and angry. The character assassination didn’t just apply to Mike. There were many nasty, evil stories about Mike’s mom and me. According to the media, it was our fault that Mike was killed by a cop. On top of my grief, I had to deal with accusations that I was an “absentee father.”
How do you defend something that’s so far from the truth? I was always in Mike’s life. He lived with his mother or me throughout his years. Mike was the best man at my wedding. We stayed in constant contact and talked about everything and anything.
But, like any good parent, I find myself questioning myself. Did I miss anything that might have spared his life? Did I do as good a job with Mike as my dad did with me?
My dad was a hardworking, long-distance truck driver. My mom, in her 70s, still works in the hotel industry, the way she did all my life. I was a normal but hardheaded kid. Black men get painted as stereotypes even when we know they’re not true. I tried to walk in my daddy’s shoes. He wasn’t the sentimental type, but I knew he loved me—mostly because he stayed on my butt, just as I did with Mike when necessary.
As a youngster, I got involved with gangs and drugs. I got into trouble with the law, but I learned my lesson and have paid my dues. I tried to help Mike avoid the mistakes I’d made. He was a big kid, taller and heavier than me. He had been stopped before by cops who mistook him for a grown man. I’d had “the talk” with Mike: “If you’re stopped by police, don’t talk back, keep your hands visible, and, if you can, write down the officer’s badge number.”
My biggest regret is that we hadn’t talked the day he was killed. I wish so bad that I had called him before he was stopped by the Ferguson cop who took his life. In my dream rewrite, I was there; I stopped things from getting out of control. My son walked away from that encounter, still joking, still rapping, still dreaming … still breathing.
I’m often asked; “How are you doing?” People mean well, but that question just raises more questions for me: Am I really supposed to be better? Should I have moved on since Mike’s death? How do I do that?
Before he was killed, my son told us the world would know his name. That has come true. The name “Mike Brown” has become the national symbol of police shootings of unarmed Black men. For me, I feel obligated to keep stressing the deeper meaning of his words.
Because of my son’s death and the justice we’re still seeking, hurting people, grieving people who’ve lost their children to gun violence or police brutality reach out to me. They invite me to speak at gatherings. There is a small level of comfort in being in the company of the wounded, the lost, the other parents who understand that we can’t possibly “move on.”
Connecting with them — especially black fathers — helps me cope. Many ask, “What can we do to protect our sons?” Some have issues with their children’s moms or are cut off from their kids because of late or unpaid child support. I meet ex-offenders who’ve been out of their children’s lives for so long they have no clue how to get back in.
All I can do is share what’s weighing on my heart. Black men are so busy trying to be “hard” in a hostile society that we sometimes forget just to connect with our kids; to listen to them; to hug them; to simply “be” with them in their space, wherever that is…. How can you connect with your kids this Father’s Day? Don’t wait for them to honor you or call you. You call them. Don’t assume you’re connected just because you live in the same house — you’ve got to deep by any means necessary. If you’re not living together, do not wait for their call. You call them! If they refuse to answer, leave a message or send a text. All kids, especially teens, read text messages. And they’ll read yours.
My single plea to my brothers and all fathers on this Father’s Day is to connect. Don’t let your kid’s attitudes, your relationship with their moms, the mistakes you may have made, or your kid’s sometimes strange behavior, attitudes or smart-mouth comments serve as an excuse to stay disconnected. Put aside your pride and your false sense of manhood and reach out to your kids. They need you. They need what only you can give them.
God forbid you end up like me. Thank the heavens you still have a chance to hear your children’s voices on the other end of the phone. Cherish those moments when they confuse, anger, or mystify you. They are hidden opportunities to stay connected.
Don’t be plagued by things left undone or words left unsaid. Reach out.
Do it! Just do it.