A few months ago, I watched the final episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for likely the hundredth time. I can occasionally (read: frequently) get emotional, and a good series finale tends to make me shed a thug tear now and again (see: A Different World, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Cheers). (Yes, Cheers is one of my favorite shows ever. If you don’t like that show, something is wrong with you, not me. But I digress.)
Even more, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve always found a few other Fresh Prince episodes a little bit more emotional than “I, Done,” the two-part episode that served as the show’s goodbye. Off the top of my head, on the sadness meter, “I, Done” has never placed higher than fourth in the series; the time Will gets shot, the time Carlton almost kills himself from those pills he took from Will’s locker, and the time Will’s dad ditched him again have always been way more depressing than Will being forced to figure out his life.
I’m assuming everyone’s watched Fresh Prince as often as I tend to, and honestly if you’re reading this and that show isn’t in your top-10 at minimum, I’m slightly confused as to how you wound up here. But I understand that context is important, so here goes: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air tells the coming-of-age story of Will Smith, a smart but slightly troubled teenager who is sent to live with his maternal aunt and her upper-middle class family (or just upper class, depending on your perspective). The typical sitcom hijinks ensue, but as the seasons progress, Will become a true and valued member of their family, eventually becoming the second son his Uncle Phil begrudgingly but lovingly accepts. Although the overt premise is that the move to Bel-Air likely saves Will from either the cemetery or the penitentiary, Will teaches his newfound family far more than he’s given credit: he keeps his newly wealthy aunt and uncle grounded; he provides his cousin-brother Carlton with street smarts and an understanding of his blackness; he ultimately has the strongest influence on the young lady his baby cousin Ashley becomes; and he even gets past older cousin Hilary’s aloofness more often than not.
The final season of Fresh Prince is a long set-up for the show's finale. Having decided he no longer wants to marry Nia Long’s Lisa (…I know, right?!), Will is now facing the prospect of lovelessness, joblessness, and homelessness. That’s a trio for you. Making things worse, the family that provided the impetus for his move to California is now all leaving the state en masse. The entire family finds success and closure … except for the main character. I suppose.
Anyways, with in-depth knowledge about how this episode goes, I fully expected this viewing to be like all the others: definitely melancholy, but nothing jarring enough for tears.
Not this time. I cried, hard. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know why.
These past sixteen months have been a doozy. Actually, that’s likely an understatement.
Again, for those of you new to the project, this entire thing was brainstormed as an unofficial thank you of sorts to my father for his guidance and direction. He was super sick, and truthfully, I didn’t really know how much time we had left. I fell asleep around 3AM New Year’s Day after having dinner with him a few hours prior, and I woke 7 hours later to my panicked stepmother telling me he wasn’t breathing. 6 days later, he was gone. My stepmom and I spent the next 4 months living in a house that didn’t belong to either of us, and we knew it. I ran as fast and as far as I could, taking the first job I could secure, even though I wasn’t sure that I’d love it. I’ve found it difficult to outwardly grieve considering I’ve recently become responsible for both my mother and stepmother, and would prefer to play this whole “man of the house” thing by-the-book, meaning I’ve got to be the strong one for them. Gender roles, amirite? Anyways, I figured in order to properly grieve, I had to get far away from that house. And so, with my stepmother’s permission, I packed my life on a U-Haul and inside my tiny Suzuki SUV and drove off to Washington, DC. (Hyattsville, if we’re being technical. Shoutout to the Ville, man.)
One job, one internship, and months of unemployment later, I’ve found my way back to Michigan. I thought I’d hate being back here, aware that I was in the midst of a year-long sprint of avoiding … emotions? I don’t even know. I just kind-of tried to not think about it, but the silly part is that by trying to not think about it, you’re by definition now thinking about it. But now, the largest thing looming over my thoughts, and probably my stepmom’s too, is gone.
We no longer own my dad’s most prized possession. We sold the house. We sold his house.
In 1972, my father returned from the Vietnam War a decorated Air Force veteran, and after joining the Detroit Fire Department in 1973, he bought his only home, a three-story yellow brick house in the city’s North Rosedale Park. According to him, he was the first black person on our street, and over the course of 42 years, he became sort-of the unofficial conscience of our block. Everyone knew my dad, and everyone respected him. I guess being the elder on the block has its perks.
I always fancied one day owning that house, despite my dad’s disbelief I’d ever want to live there. I also thought I’d have him for at least another 20 years, so consider how my feelings for that place soon changed once he was no longer in it. Had I bought the house from my dad or had he gifted it to me, that would’ve been ideal. But it felt weird knowing that house could exist without him, if that makes sense. I hated walking in that door, I dreaded going into his basement, I’d go into the kitchen and start daydreaming about the fake wrestling matches we’d have, I’d look inside his bedroom and notice one side of the bed hasn’t been touched because, oh yeah, only one person sleeps in that bed now.
But even still, leaving our home felt like leaving him. I shed real tears imagining his disappointment in us for selling the house, but I remembered my father was never that selfish. If the memories of that place were too much for me, I can only imagine how they’d torment my stepmother, who had to exist in that space every single day. She needed out just for peace of mind. I can’t fault her for that. And in a way, selling his house and moving into our own has been positive for our relationship. My dad will always be the connective tissue, the one who brought us together, but without him physically here, she and I have been forced to build something of our own. We need each other, and our moods have been much better since we moved. We counsel each other; we share dreams; we try to keep each other encouraged. We’re grieving together, and it sure beats doing it alone.
A couple days after I watched the final Fresh Prince episode, my stepmom and I finally cleared out my dad’s house, moving all the junk the three of us accumulated over the years to our new home. At the very last minute, I got the brilliant idea to take some pictures at the house, considering it might’ve been the last time I ever see the interior. In one of the pictures, I’m standing in the empty living room, very much holding the exact same pose Will has as he gazes at his old home for the final time. That unintentional symmetry was poetic to me, in a way. I bet we’re thinking the same thing in that moment: Damn, I’ll never see this place again. That’s very final. To spend your entire life calling the same place home only to likely never have access to it again? You can only hope the new folks love that house as much as you do.
My dad’s house gave me peace. It was always my safe haven. Even when I was in trouble or on punishment, I never minded being there, because he’d let me just be. Beyond the lectures, I learned so much just being in his presence. I stole his strut and his posture, and whatever sauce I do have is definitely due to his life lessons. Growing up, I dreamed about our weekends together doing nothing, him in the basement watching golf tournaments and me in my bedroom playing Pokémon Stadium. I determined at a very young age that was the type of home I’d like to have one day, and it’d be even better if I could keep the legacy going in the exact same house my dad raised me.
It might’ve taken me 100 viewings, but I finally could empathize with Will’s character in that moment. It feels almost silly holding an attachment to a house. For all I know, the new owner has gutted the entire place and even if I ever get back inside, it won’t resemble the home I remember. In hindsight, I don’t even remember leaving the house for the final time, and that’s likely because I don’t want to remember. My dad’s home became an active member of our family, and selling it weirdly felt like giving up on his dreams. But all he ever wanted was for me to be successful and for his wife to be happy, and glory be to God we’re halfway there.
The best part of all of this though? My family, biological and otherwise. I wake up to an encouraging text message from my mother every morning, and not a day goes by that I don't get an encouraging word from somebody in my circle.
Funny enough, as I texted friends to see if they were available to come by the house for pictures, two of my closest childhood friends were incredulous that we’d actually sold it. “Don’t even trip,” one of them said. Even in iMessage, his sincerity was evident. “We’ll make this money and buy it back.”
Yeah, maybe we will. Maybe we will.