2018 — The Year That Was

This year, 2018, has been the most surreal year of my life. Within the span of less than 3 months, I had one of my proudest accomplishments and one of my deepest losses.

In April, I fulfilled a lifelong dream – I published a book. And not just any book. A book about one of the great loves of my life. My fraternity. Alpha Phi Alpha.

I had a book signing party. I was able to share that moment with two of my frat brothers who had also published books over the last year. People came out. We sold books. We even had a meme made for us based on a pic of us holding our books.

At the Alpha Book Signing Party, May 16, 2018. L to R — Bro. Rod Sims (Theta 1991), Me, Bro. Willis Lonzer (Midwest Regional Vice President), Bro. Jeff Newton (Theta 1984)

I was on cloud 9. I, Charles Smoot, was finally a published author.

The day the book arrived in the mail, I sat at my desk for about 15 minutes, just staring at the cover, crying in disbelief. I remember wishing one of my mentors from high school was alive to see the day I had a book published. I like to think she would have been proud.

Me with the first copy of my book. Taken about 30 minutes after I received it.

I spent two years researching and writing. I made mistakes. I got push back. I got complaints and criticisms. I got praise. It was worth it. Mostly.

Me signing one of my books at the Alpha Phi Alpha Midwest Regional Convention, Indianapolis, IN — April 2018

The book didn’t sell as much as I wanted it to, not that it mattered personally since I did the book gratis. But the sales were not where I thought (and still think) they should be. I didn’t spur the interest in a historical fraternity renaissance like I hoped. But really, none of that matters. I wrote and published a book.

This was also the year that I hit a milestone. I turned 50. I had thoughts of throwing a party and having a celebration, but I wound up not doing so. And in retrospect, I think it was a good thing.

On June 8, 2 days after my 50th birthday, I got the phone call I was dreading for the last few years. Confirmation that my father was dying. His wife called me and without saying said that he had at most 2 weeks to live. I was devastated. Crushed. And I was numb. But I soldiered on.

I made mental plans to drive to Mississippi where he lived the following Monday. In part to go say goodbye. I never made that trip.

At about 1:30am on June 10, 6 days after his 83rd birthday, my father passed away.

My Father, Elmo Smoot — June 4, 1935 – June 10, 2018

For some reason that I cannot explain, I woke up around 6:30-7am that morning. I checked my phone. There was a text message from his wife informing me that my father was dead. I wasn’t offered a courtesy of a phone call. Just a text message that I would learn later went to at least 10-15 other people, including my ex-wife.

I remember sitting on the edge of my bed. I was numb. I made phone calls. Sent out texts. I informed those in my immediate circle, who I sometimes call my Tribe, that my father was dead.

Two strange things happened that day.

There was a meeting scheduled for the college chapter that I advise. I had to get out the house. I couldn’t sit in my apartment and be sad. I had to be around people. So I went to the meeting.

Word began to spread. Texts and phone calls were coming in. None of it was making me feel better.

I called my son. He lost his other grandfather about 8 months prior. He was still grieving that loss. And I called to add another one.

Then I went into the meeting. They were handling their business as usual, and then the condolences started. They knew. They treated me with the most respectful kid gloves they could. Then one of them said to me:

“Smoot, why are you here? You should be with your family.”

I paused for a moment and responded.

“You all are my family.”

He just nodded and the meeting went on.

While at the meeting, I made the announcement on Facebook. Now, everyone would know.

My younger frat brothers joined me in a toast to my father. That was oddly the first comforting experience I had that day.

Calls and texts and e-mails kept pouring in. Condolences came quicker than I could handle them.

The day wore on. I was dumb. Half shock, half disbelief. And if I am to be honest, half relieved. Yes, I know that was 3 halves, but just go with it.

I was relieved for very selfish reasons. I no longer had to worry about him. I no longer had to be scared. I no longer feared facing him again – facing that shell that contained the essence of what was once my father, but now that essence was gone. And I was relieved that I could stop feeling guilty for not moving down there years ago when I considered it. Although in reality, that guilt will never quite leave me.

The night my father died, two of the most amazing women in my life came to comfort me. They laughed with me. Allowed me to cry and cried with me. Allowed me to be angry. Beat me at a game of Clue. They got me drunk. But more than anything else, they comforted me. A comfort I did not expect, nor ask for.

A couple of days later, once the arrangements were made, I began writing a burial service and an eulogy. Previously, the hardest funerals I ever preached were my grandmothers and the funeral for the son of a dear friend. Neither compared to writing the eulogy for my dad.

I went to Mississippi and did the funeral. And it was more highs and lows. I was not prepared for seeing my dad in that casket. I don’t think you ever can be.  I was not fully prepared for the way I was treated by certain individuals. But I had support. From my mom, one of my cousins who helped raise me, and my fathers 3rd wife – who 35 years after she and my father divorced still calls me her son.

At my fathers wake — Me, Carole Smoot (my mother), Pearl Smoot (dad’s widow) and Mary Smith (dad’s 3rd wife)

I’m still grieving. I don’t think I will ever stop. And that’s fine, I think. Because I love my father. Notice, I didn’t use the past tense. I use the present tense. Despite our problematic relationship, despite the personality clashes, despite the times we weren’t even speaking – he is still my dad. The man who inspired me to be a good cook, who laid a pathway for me to be a flirt, who gave me an example of the beauty of having a woman as a best friend, and the example of having a strong tribe.

So that was the major part of my year. But those weren’t the only major events.

My son brought his girlfriend here to visit and meet the family. She was and is wonderful. And that is probably an understatement. I could rave about her and rave about how much I appreciate her and the relationship she and my son are building. But I won’t. Suffice to say, I don’t really think of her as his girlfriend, I really have started thinking of her as a daughter in law. I know that’s premature, but it’s also real.

The Rebel Family — L to R — Mark Brown, Me, Alyssa Remsen, Christian Smoot, Charles Jackson, Keith Wright. March 2018
Me and Chris, March 2018

I listened to new music (more on that coming later), went to a really cool concert, hung out with my friends, won an award, and took on a second job where I have the chance and opportunity to try to affect change. I’ve watched my younger fraternity brothers flourish and thrive and do things I would have thought impossible a year ago.

I was named one of the 2017 Greek Alumni Advisors of the Year by the University of Illinois at Chicago for my work with Theta Chapter. April 2018
Me and Teri at her graduation after she received her Masters degree — July 2018
October 2018 — At the Incognito concert, City Winery Chicago — L to R — Eric Grover, Chris Avent, Me, Byron Simpson, Bro. Danon Bright
At the All Alpha Cookout — August 2018
Me and Rev at the Incognito Concert
Me and my niece Kamaria, July 2018 — truly one of my most favorite pics of the year.

So next year. More money. Keep strengthening my relationships. Provide more support for my son. Take better care of my health. Be a better son to my mother, even and especially when she gets on my nerves. Publish my novel and begin work on the second version of my book that was published earlier this year, and hopefully, have a little more fun. Travel some. Enjoy life a little more.

Despite the loss of my father, and sometimes because of it, my friends have once again shown why I have an amazing support system and I would be lost without them.

All in all not a great year, but it did have its share of uplifting moments.

Let’s see what 2019 brings.