The father's lament: 'I could have done better'

The Baltimore Sun

It's a year this week since he lost his son.

You try to get away from it, he says, try to heal. But that's hard to do when everywhere you go, people know you, know what you're going through. They even approach when you're onstage, stop you in the middle of a song. "No matter where I'm at," says Eddie Levert, "there's someone who wants to give me their condolences because, 'We loved your son and we love you.' I understand all of that, but somewhere along the way, we've got to let him rest in peace."

Mr. Levert has been, for almost 50 years, one of the main cannons of the O'Jays singing group, renowned for such '70s standards as "Love Train" and "For the Love of Money." His son Gerald was a star in his own right, famous for songs such as "Made to Love Ya" and "I Swear." He died at 40 of an accidental mix of prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Now Eddie and Gerald have a new book out. I Got Your Back is a quick read and, what with the discographies and the soul-food recipe, it has more padding than an armchair.

But there is substance, too, in the candid father-and-son conversations that are the heart of the book. Eddie and Gerald, business partners, best friends, the one a chip off the other's block, were often held up as an icon of what black fatherhood can be. To read their book, though, is to realize they were also an icon of what black fatherhood too often is: a litany of shortcomings. In the Levert household, it turns out, love was filtered through father's failings, father's infidelities, father's absence.

Which is why Eddie speaks - in the book and on the phone - with palpable regret. "I think I could have been a better father," he says. And is there a man with children grown to adulthood for whom that lament does not resonate?

Eddie, who has nine kids, says, "If I'd known what I know now, I would've spent more time with them on just the small things, going to the park, playing softball. Little things like that ... being involved in their lives on a day-to-day basis. Those are the things I missed out on; those are the things that would've made me a better father."

You might argue that as a man whose career required him to spend much of his time on stages and in studios, Eddie's failings are forgivable. He's not buying it. "I just fell short," he says. "I was too busy trying to be successful.."

He's hardly the only one. As a culture, we allow father - unlike mother - his absences. So being father often means playing now, paying later.

You watch them go into the world, these sudden men, these sudden women, who last week were toddlers curled around your leg, who three days ago left teeth under their pillows, who yesterday rode without training wheels for the first time, and you panic. You ask yourself: Did I spend all the time I could've, did I teach every lesson I should've, did I do all the things I would've, had I known how helpless I would feel in this moment of separation?

Is the answer to that question ever yes? Isn't it always just different degrees of no? But by then, they are grown, the time is gone, they are making their way in the world. Yet sometimes, because of us in spite of us, they become excellent. Eddie Levert saw that happen with Gerald. He finds it a comfort. Of sorts.

"He was well thought of," says Eddie. "He was well loved. So I didn't do too bad.

"But I could have done better."

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is

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