WARREN: We don’t have a father to spare

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I met Damu Smith just once, and it was in the most unlikely of situations. In late 2003, he and I were at an Essence magazine photo shoot for an article called “The New Activists.”

One of the things I remember vividly about our acquaintance was that, as the lone guys selected, we were a bit like fish out of water. While the women in the group took considerable care to make sure they were wearing just the right outfit — they all had brought more than one — he and I were trying to figure out why the photographer needed to take just shy of a billion pictures of us when he was only going to use one. We were especially exasperated by the fact that the mid-December shoot required us to spend about five hours outdoors trying to look “warm” since the story was to run in a spring issue.

I must admit that Damu and I did not really have much in common beyond the fact that we were black men and both considered activists — his issue was environmental justice and mine, responsible fatherhood. Although we bonded a bit during the shoot, it was clear we ran in different circles and, like most folks I meet in these situations, I would never see him again.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a newspaper and saw his picture with the caption, “Damu Smith, who fought for environmental causes, died of colorectal cancer at age 54.”

As I read the article, it was apparent that, like so many men, he died before his time. The article reported that in 2001 Damu was driving to an event with a friend and he told her he had been having severe, stabbing pains in his stomach. She begged him to see a doctor, but, according to her, Damu politely “brushed her off.” By the time he was tested in early 2005, it was too late and the cancer was in its most advanced and lethal stage. His doctor gave him just three months to live.

There are two sad ironies to Damu’s story. First, in 1981, his father died of colorectal cancer and Damu was at his father’s bedside during the last moments of his life. His father was full of regrets and wished that he had done more to prevent the cancer, especially since colorectal cancer has the second highest cure rate — after lung cancer — if detected early.

Knowing that his family history was a key risk factor for colorectal cancer, Damu vowed to learn from his father’s mistake. Sadly, he didn’t, and, like his father, Damu’s young daughter was at his bedside when he died. Indeed, Damu lamented shortly before his death that one of his regrets was that he would not be there to see “the man she marries.”

Second, one of Damu’s key successes in his fight for environmental justice was stopping two major corporations from building chemical plants in historic black communities between National Black Environmental Justice Network” to help others in disenfranchised and low-income communities mobilize to protect themselves.

My sense is that toward the end of his life, Damu was well aware of the irony that while he was so focused on eradicating the threat of cancer for others, he had missed some necessary steps to eradicate the cancer growing in his body. In fact, Damu told a reporter that he recalled his 2001 conversation with his friend, almost word for word. He stated, “Had I gone to the doctor when she said … .”

Damu’s tale is cautionary and, unfortunately, often-repeated. My wife, Yvette, is a family practice doctor and she has told me on too many occasions to count about how many of her male patients, even when they are fathers, refuse or delay needed care as if they could “shake off” the serious warning signs of cancer, diabetes, etc., like an old football injury.

My plea to men — especially to fathers — as we enter 2009, is that if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your loved ones. With 25 million children — one in three — growing up in father-absent homes, we don’t have a father to spare.

Roland C. Warren is the married father of two sons and president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org). He can be reached at rwarren@fatherhood.org.

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