I have a weird relationship with Richmond, especially South Richmond.
When I was a kid back in the early 1990s (probably when Exit 265C still was Exit 67) there was a mileage sign nearby that said Richmond was 75 miles away. I was cognizant that Richmond was the capitol, and I wanted to see it. The prospect always got shot down because my mom was certain we’d be shot if we went to Richmond, because this was back when Richmond was averaging more than 120 homicides a year.
A few years later, in October 1997, I finally got to go. In a year that Richmond had about 140 homicides, a car I was in took the exit to virtually all of South Richmond then proceeded to the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. In that building, my father was drawing his last breaths. A few months before, I was in a hospital in Maryland, holding my first nephew as he drew his first breaths.
My father never got to see his grandson.
Although the path from Interstate 95 to the VA hospital is clearly marked, the path back is not. We wound up on Hull Street, across Mayo’s Bridge and onto 14th Street. That was when I first saw it: Shockoe Valley. The Fall Line. The place I would call home 12 years later.
I returned six years later. I saw The Roots in concert in Kanawha Plaza with a few friends. I tried to refrain from saying it was my second time in the city, and the last time was because my father was transferred to the hospital there in hopes that he’d receive a new heart and return to Hampton.
I think I failed. I forget. The years between when Renée and I were first apart and the beginning of the spectacle that was being the charter member of a fraternity chapter are a blur.
In high school, I went to the Moorefield Mines in Ameila, the State Fair and Liberty University by way of what was then Longwood College. I don’t count these trips through Richmond because I didn’t get out of a vehicle within city limits.
I also don’t count the drives I would take, often at night, from Christopher Newport University to Richmond. I never knew why I did until I found what I was looking for. One night, I vaguely mapped out a course. I was going to take U.S. 60 to U.S. 360 and then take Route 10 to either the Jamestown Ferry or the James River Bridge. (Gas was like a dollar a gallon back then, y’all.)
I turned from Hull Street to Broad Rock Boulevard. Nothing registered until the light turned red at the northern intersection of Broad Rock and Belt.
I cut my drive short. I was fine until the CD I was playing got to What a Wonderful World. I don’t know why that song hit me. I was miles away then, at Route 10 and I-295. I took the ramp and took the interstate back to CNU. I wanted to be out of the car as soon as possible.
I avoided South Richmond for a while after that.
When I worked in Petersburg, there was an event at the hospital that was related to my beat. I politely declined it, but no one at the moment was able to do cover it for me. I continued to demur as I repeatedly was asked why I couldn’t do it. Then I yelled, “MY FATHER DIED IN THAT HOSPITAL, AND I’M NEVER SETTING FOOT IN THAT BUILDING AGAIN.”
The conversation was over.
When I considered living in Richmond in late 2008, I drove past the hospital a few times to see if I could do it without any problem. It’s fine, although it’s strange to me that I think about it every time I’m at that intersection. I never give Grandma’s death at Hampton’s hospital a second thought. Theresa expired in my mother’s house roughly where the dining room table is now. It doesn’t sting.
I guess it’s because I was 14, and 14-year-olds already have enough issues going on because 14 is so hard, and then my father dies. I guess it’s because I dreamed of going to Richmond for years and it took a grave illness for it to come true. I guess it’s because if you told me in January 1997 that my father wouldn’t live to see 1998, I probably would have called you a damn liar. Sure, he had problems, but he wasn’t going to die yet.
It’s fine, although I think about it every time I pass that hospital and I drove past it tonight after I heard that two children who woke up with a father are going to bed without one because a state trooper holding a conversation was slain in the city today and I sometimes wonder if the reason I’m so compelled to live in this city is because my father died in this city.