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In memory of Maxie T. Collier, March 30, 1945-April 22, 1994
When my parents divorced in 1977, my father Dr. Maxie T. received sole custody of all 6 of his children. He took on this challenge, despite the fact that he had just graduated from medical school, at 32 years old, and still had years of psychiatric residence and internship work to complete to become a licensed physician.
I was 9 years old when I attended his graduation. Unlike my younger siblings, I recall all of my father’s medical career, from the very beginning until the very end. I have witnessed and chronicled the lives of many successful dreamers, but my father’s was the first.
I watched him work for years, to develop himself professionally and personally. I had daytime and overnight stays with him at the University of Maryland Medical School. During those times, he taught me about human anatomy by showing me real skeletons, brains, hearts, and lungs. Literally reaching in jars and putting them in my hands, to share his new insight into the human body.
Although he scared the hell out of me with examples of healthy lungs versus a smoker’s lung, the that fear wasn’t enough to stop me from becoming a smoker, but that chapter is called Confessions of A Chronic Swag Consumer.
After Pops finally completed his training, I remember him anxiously and studying to pass his board exams. I saw him be tired and push himself thru this last part. And I recall his empathy for a classmate who failed the exam. But I never ever once saw him complain or discuss an alternative in case he should fail.
From his academic work, to his desires to travel the world, to his dreams for our family and the world, Daddy shared them all with us. Within 10 years of graduating from medical school he became the first African-American and the youngest health commissioner of Baltimore.
Of course it was far from an easy journey. Before the divorce he had support from my mother, Dr. Betty Burston, a brilliant, beautiful force unto herself. Yet, the demands of two, ambitious grad school parents, in their early 30s, with six children proved to be too much for Pops and Momma. The eldest of us witnessed the deterioration of their marriage.
When asked who we wanted to live with, we all choose our father. Neither of our parents discouraged us, though pain of the break-up caused my mother distance herself from us for several years. This would later be the basis for the rocky relationship between she and I, that was only resolved (thank the Lord) a few years ago.
After the divorce, we moved to Columbia, a suburb of Baltimore and DC. Dad depended on my grandmother and grandfather to provide childcare and help run the house. And during those last years of training, there were many days and night he was away from home. However, on countless weekends and vactions, we’d load up in the van and go to drive-in movie theaters, camping, fishing or home to Waverly, Tennessee. He made those times a priority.
By the 80s our house had 2 parents, 7 children, 2 grandparents, and regular visits from young aunts, uncles, cousins and extended family members. There was always great food, music, contemplation, arts, and activity at the Collier house.
Everyone on any block always knew the Collier clan. We rolled deep and we were straight up country, urban, sububanites. More working class than the average Columbia resident, in transition to middle class.
With a packed house, I started a habit of finding libraries and parks to be by myself. There, I’d read about topics that fascinated me, like inventors, martial arts, the occult, electronics, publishing, robotics and personal computers. In school, I was a mediocre student, already more interested in my own studies and ideas.
By my pre-teen years, Pops was hitting his professional stride. Yet, like many parents and teens, he and I started to grow apart. In fact, our house was about to become full of moody, daring, rebellious teenagers.
But then when I was 13, my 39 year old father had open heart surgery, for the second time in his life. Suddenly, the fear of his mortality made me promise myself that I would never say goodbye to him, without hugging him and telling him I loved him. It was a habit I maintained from that point forward.
When I went thru a suburban, juvenile delinquent stage in my mid-teens, it broke my heart when he cried and blamed himself for my brother and I getting arrested. I tearfully told him that it was our impulsive and foolish actions.
After that time, I never wanted to feel my father hurt by anything I did. Of course, there were other instances where I disappointed him and circumstances where he disappointed me. But we developed a very good habit of talking openly with each other about these things and not letting anger or frustrations feaster.
Mind you, Pops was compassionate but not sensitive. And by no means a push over. He was physically strong and he stood his ground as a humble, non-confrontational warrior. Very much like my brother Zai. Unlike myself and my brother Yoi, who have the vocal, dramatic, expressiveness of our mother and our Uncles Gerald, Danny, and Arnold.
Dr. Maxie T. could look you in the face and listening attentively, without interruption or judgment, as you revealed your most intimate feelings. When he spoke, he knew how to talk passionately, without being overbearing. I don’t know if it was a natural attribute that helped him be a great therapist or mastery of the training he had received.
He had an incredibly strong will and drive, yet he stayed cool under pressure. In hindsight, as an adult male, I see that he internalized so much to protect us from all of the stresses he bore for his family.
By my late teens and early 20s, I had many dynamic and influential role models in my life- my mother Betty, my stepmother Dr. Katherine Collier, three sets of grandparents (including Kathy’s parents, who loved and embraced us all), my Uncles, and my karate sensei, Master Ali Hassan. But without a doubt, my Dad was my number one adviser and influence.
Pops encouraged us all to explore our passions and to follow our visions and dreams. He not only encourage this mindset, but he also demonstrated it to us by his own diverse life works. And he supported our healthy experimentation and quests.
When I bucked college and jumped on that bus to Los Angeles, a few weeks before my 18th birthday, he stood by me. In fact, he, Kathy, and my baby sisters Nonya and Tara came to visit me in California.
The next year, I returned to Maryland and started Black Reflections magazine, in 1987, the start of Hip-Hop’s afrocentric era. Pops let me and my brothers Yoi and Zai use his computers and office. He contributed materials and gave feedback on content. He shared our works within his network. This was the same year he was appointed to become the Baltimore City Health Commissioner.
In another chapter, I’ll talk more about our old Baltimore homestead. A beautiful, stately, 4 level house with a huge porch and spacious front and backyard. It had once been owned by Dr. Elmer McCollum, the Johns Hopkins biochemist who discovered vitamin A and D. My family purchased it from Lenny Moore, a former Baltimore Colts pro ball player.
It was the type of place he dreamed about when we all lived in a tiny three bedroom townhouse in Columbia, years earlier. After decade of sacrifice and work, Dr. Maxie T. finally had enough space for his tribe!
For seven years Pops and Kathy hosted Kwanzaa parties, BBQs, receptions and other events in our home. These were attended by many people from Baltimore’s political, medical, business, academic and arts communities. VIPs and everyday folks of all ethnicities, religions, and social classes. It was these people and events that later inspired me to write and produce my film BMORE HACKS.
One weekend in early April of 1994, I caught the train up to Baltimore to assist on a video production. Coincidentally, the shoot was at Walbrook High School, walking distance from our family home on Talbot Rd.
The next morning Pops gave me a ride back to DC. Some how we were able to sneak away without my baby sisters tagging along. A rare occasion, as they were both Daddy’s girls.
Traveling down Baltimore-Washington Parkway, he and I talked about many issues, as grown men and as friends. When we got to my house, we both asked “What are you doin now…Let’s go get some lunch?” By this time we both kept busy schedules, so it was unusual for us to not be rushing to another appointment.
We drove to Virginia to my favorite Peruvian BBQ chicken restaurant. I treated him to lunch and we talked hours more. While heading back into DC, we stopped by the holocaust museum, but it was too crowded for us to stay. Walking back to the car we talked about the African/Slavery holocaust.
When we drove past a Barnes and Nobles, we stopped and browsed books together, another couple of hours. Among the books Dad purchased was the Celestine Prophecy.
By the time the day was done, we had spent a FULL day alone together, unhurried and undistracted, for the first time in years. When he finally dropped me off at home, I told him I loved him and he told me the same. We hugged each other and promised to do it again, as soon as we could.
Two weeks later, the day before my Grandparent’s fifty anniversary, my father died of a heart aneurysm, at 49 years old. Just 8 1/2 years older than I am right now.
When Pop’s co-workers and close friends came to the house to console my family, many of them said to me, “Your father told me about your day together. It meant so much to him!”
These words transformed my pain and grief, because I immediately saw the Blessing and explicit gift that God had given me and him on that day. Instead of people consoling me, I soon found myself consoling them.
When I shared my part of my Father’s eulogy, in front of the hundreds of people who attended the overflowing funeral services, I spoke with conviction and told the other mourners “there is only so much sadness I can keep, because all I could ask God for is MORE of what my father and I already had. There is very little I would have changed and life is not forever for any of us.”
It was from this experience with father’s life and death that my faith was born.
Faith that we must appreciate the present, even while finding comfort in the nostalgic moments from the past. And faith that God’s plans and related actions are in deep effect, even when we might question them.
I still suffer from depression at times, as did my father. But over the years, this faith and belief have kept me strong thru many difficulties, pains, and uncertainties.
I miss my Pops daily and my creative mind sometimes imagines life if he could have had more time with my youngest sisters; lived to know all of his Grandchildren; or, witnessed the ascension of our Black president.
But I know that is fantasy. My appreciation for what God gave me in my real life relationship with my Dad, far surpasses these thoughts or my sense of loss.
As I’ve grown older and encountered countless men and women who never knew their fathers or had estranged relationships, I have also grown ever more humble and grateful, for having such a strong, loving and dedicated human being as my father and friend.
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