Los Angeles was still sleeping when I pulled the rented Buick away from a filthy one-bedroom apartment in a part of the city called the Jungle. The air was cool and so was my heart toward the dark, hefty man I was driving to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills.
It was my third trip to L.A. in less than a year. I was cash-strapped, and something selfish in me screamed, "Where have you been all these years, man? You never made a sacrifice for me!"
Henry Harris was quiet. His lips were locked. His eyes were fixed on empty streets. It felt like I was ferrying a 65-year-old man with clogged heart arteries to his grave. As a certified surgical technologist, I knew his surgical permit--angiogram/angioplasty/possible open-heart surgery--could be a death certificate.
I had to be in L.A. This man was possibly checking out of this world, and I was next of kin. I had to be in L.A. My two daughters had a right to know the family history on their father's side of the family. I had to be there. I needed to know if my daddy really loved me.
This was a man who had punched the minimum number of tickets in my life. I had seen him a total of five times: on my 16th birthday, at high school and college graduations, at my wedding and four years after the birth of my first child. As a kid, I used to say my daddy was dead. Death was easier to explain than the truth that I'd never met him, as far as I could remember. I wondered, Lord, I wondered what he--and California--were like, but never once did he send for me.
It's not like he begged me to come even now. Whether it was indifference or just pride, Henry, as he was referred to in my mother's house, initially discouraged me from coming for his surgery. I came anyway.
Henry was born in Houston in 1932. I knew that much. His father ran off. After his mother died in her twenties, distant relatives raised him and made sure he graduated from high school. Then, like many blacks seeking a better life, he joined the Air Force.
In the 1950s Henry toted an honorable discharge, the GI Bill and a letter of admission to the University of Southern California. That was his ticket to a film degree, an editing job at NBC and an acting career in Hollywood. Somehow he found time to captivate my mother.
But their union was doomed. They were married, conceived me and were divorced in less than three years. My father had joined the Nation of Islam, but my mother chose to remain at Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles, where she was an organist. What I heard about him was fragmentary and always filtered through her anger--the baby shower for his only son he didn't attend, the scar she put on his face in self-defense, her plane ticket out of the relationship.
For decades, the only images of my father came from a dusty white wedding album. There he was, a clean-cut, slender man with a boyish smile next to my mother, a serious churchwoman in a white lace dress. I focused on their embrace. What was behind it? Why didn't it last?
The image of my father never escaped from the photo album. He never sent fresh pictures, there were few calls, and my mother moved to Pensacola, Fla., and married a big man who sang in the church choir, took me fishing and loved football games. In my world, Eddie Rodgers was Dad.
Then one day the telephone rang, and it was my father. He was going to be on television, he told me. The declaration blew me away. In the 1970s there were only a handful of black actors on television, and I couldn't believe my father had been invited to join that club. My mother thought it was a lie.
From family dinners to Christmas, all big events in my family were celebrated at my grandmother's house. Mrs. Johnnie Mae Mathews. Henry said he never came all those years because he knew he wasn't welcome in Pensacola. But that night the TV was on, and it seemed that everybody was at my grandmother's house waiting to receive Henry.
The show was called "That's My Mama." I kept looking for the skinny man in the photo album. The show came on, but I saw nobody like that. Suddenly my mother starting shouting, "There's Henry! There's Henry!" My grandmother laughed.
I focused in on a big, jolly man. My father. He laughed. He stood. He left. All in less than a minute. But I was on top of the world. We tried to call him, but nobody answered the phone.
In the years that followed, Dad got larger roles on black comedy shows like "Sanford and Son" and "Good Times," but they were still bit parts. His movie roles were more substantial. In "Coming to America," he was one of Prince Eddie Murphy's royal servants. In "The Waterdance," he shared a hospital room with Wesley Snipes. And in "Lady in White," he played a janitor who was framed for murder.
I didn't even rate a bit part in my father's life. Our relationship was measured in seconds of screen time and bits between commercials. But my father's roles were enough to give him star power in Pensacola. There were plenty of women at my church who asked when my dad was coming to town. I wished I could have told them, but I just didn't know.
At my high school graduation he breezed in like he'd never been away, posing for pictures with me and my mother, even charming my stepfather.
It was bizarre to sit in the living room with both men. When I said "Dad," meaning my stepfather, both answered. But Henry didn't miss a cue: "You are right, son. I'm your father, but he is your dad." In the next decade, I would see my father on two days: my college graduation and the day I got married.
It wasn't until Thanksgiving 1997 that we spent more than a day together. He decided to come to Maryland to see my daughter, his grandchild. I found him at a concession stand at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, eating a hot dog and clutching a dusty blue pouch that contained hypodermic needles and a vial of insulin.
We toured museums, went to a Redskins game and had many big meals prepared by my wife, Taunya, who even fixed him a late-night snack. I found myself getting a little jealous of all the attention he was getting, attention I felt I'd been denied.
My wife kept saying we acted just alike. I was a little taken aback: I didn't walk with a soulful limp or strut in front of the ladies. My heart seesawed between love and hate for five days, and finally I settled on love.
As much as I tried to focus on a few dissonant details, I couldn't deny a deep, enveloping connection. And just because my father had missed his chance with me didn't mean I had to repeat the mistake.
Before Dad--my wife had started calling him that, and I picked it up in no time--boarded the Southwest Airlines jet back to California, I found myself wanting more time. In April of 1998, I got my chance.
My brother-in-law was moving from California to Maryland. He was willing to pay someone to drive his sports car 3,000 miles across the country. I didn't tell him until I arrived in L.A., on the airline ticket he bought me, that I didn't know how to drive a car with a stick shift.
Two of my three days in L.A. were spent packing up a home and apologizing for being deceitful. But on my last night in California, my brother-in-law drove me to that part of South Central L.A. called the Jungle.
"Are you sure you want me to leave you here?" he asked as my father opened the door to a low-rent apartment in desperate need of paint, furniture (his TV didn't even get a picture) and new plumbing.
Despite his semi-successful career, my father had very little money. He'd decided to take a buyout from NBC in the mid-'80s so he could devote all his time to acting. But because of bad investments, he now has no pension, no car and no way out of the neighborhood--only Social Security, an occasional royalty check and futile bus rides to casting agents.
Dad and I quickly left the apartment and caught a bus to Hollywood to see a movie. It felt so good to be in L.A. I was walking with my dad in the place where I was born--my turn to be the child I had never been. We went to the movies, we ate plenty, and Dad even picked up the tab.
At one point, I spotted an ice cream truck.
"You don't need ice cream, son," he said.
I couldn't believe it. There I was, a 36-year-old professional being told by an unemployed actor in the sweltering heat that I didn't need ice cream.
I didn't miss a step.
"My only regret is that I never got a chance to spank you," Dad barked as I ambled up to the truck to order a vanilla custard. I couldn't tell if he was kidding or just being nasty.
"You would have killed me," I said sarcastically, more hotly than I intended. It seemed to bring him up short. He was silent a moment, then smiled. "I probably wouldn't have spanked you," he said softly.
I saw him again a few months later, detouring from a business trip on Father's Day. We were really making progress in our relationship. Then the telephone call came.
I had never even known my father had a bad heart until I filled three prescriptions for him on his Thanksgiving visit. Now an orderly was picking him up for surgery I knew he might not survive.
"I love you, Dad," I told him as the orderly pushed him through the double doors of the hospital's surgical suite, realizing how true that was.
"All right," he said, staring at the floor.
Three hours later, the operating room doors opened and a tiny man in pale green scrubs walked out. "Are you the son of Henry Harris?" he asked. I tried to read his facial expression, but I could detect nothing. My stomach tightened.
Then he smiled. Thank God he smiled. "Your dad did great," he said.
When Dad arrived home from the hospital, I went out and bought him some food. And a TV. You never know when they might air a "Good Times" rerun. That night, he finally laughed again. He apologized for being gruff before surgery. "Son, I was scared," he said.
Today my father calls about three times a week, sends me movie scripts to feed my ambitions and volunteers advice, good and bad, on every subject. I know I'll never get back what I didn't have as a kid. And I know what I have now is far from perfect. But I can't help thinking of it as a happy ending fit for Hollywood.
CAPTION: One day the phone rang. My father was going to be on TV.