Letting Go of Braxton

The pale yellow brightness of the Los Angeles sun poured in through the floor to ceiling glass windows as I sat across from the bank manager, whose face was faintly illuminated by her computer monitor. I looked left to check the large analog clock on the wall behind the row of smartly dressed bank tellers. I hoped the update to my account would be quick, giving me time for the 10-minute walk back to the office from my lunch break.

“To verify your account, Mr. Braxton, what is your mother’s maiden name?”

“Braxton,” I replied. Her left eyelid fluttered ever so slightly, a familiar reaction I’d seen after answering the question.

“Thank you. I’ll have this update completed shortly.”

Braxton was my last name for the first thirty-seven years and 10 months of my life, changed four months after the July 2007 bank encounter. I used to joke that I disengaged from the name years before, when R&B singer Toni Braxton beat me to making it famous in the early 1990s. That’s not completely true. The truth is, I never felt connected to the name, due to it being threaded with secrecy, self-doubt, and shame.

I was an open secret, born to a 22-year-old unmarried woman at the dawn of the 1970s, something at the time that carried a mark of disgrace in society. An unwed mother was not openly talked about within a family. This included my own, a working-class brood surviving in Phoenix, Arizona.

My former last name hid something else, my father’s name absent from my birth certificate. This omission I discovered during my mid-teens, several years after asking my mother why I was the only kid in class oblivious of his paternal history. This, buoyed by my mother’s vague story of a brief affair with an older married man, I kept to myself.

My mother’s tale, which discouraged inquiries and offered no answers, ushered in self-doubt that linked arms with the secrecy. Joining forces with my mother in the late 1970s, my stepfather raised me in the ways of being a typical male: ambitious, hardworking, and strong. However, a war raged within me, convinced that my missing father caused my quiet voice, pleasant demeanor, and nice persona. I believed too that this also caused my same-sex attractions, which first threatened to break the surface of my awareness at five years old.

Shame became a permanent guest in my psyche, sharing with me its tool of evasiveness, which helped me to find ways to lie through omission. If one assumed my mother’s marriage to my stepfather was her second one, I let them believe it. But there was the ever-present fear the person would ask more questions.

Twenty-six days before my thirty-fourth birthday, my mother died, on January 2, 2004. With this loss came the belief that my shadowy beginnings evaporated with her. Thankfully, two of my mother’s closest friends stepped forward to share a detailed account of what they knew, which was at odds with my mother’s version.

I found my father during the summer of 2004, a man who never knew of me. A New York native the same age as my mother when they met, he was an unmarried airman stationed at Arizona’s Luke Airforce Base. They dated for a short time before she abruptly disappeared from his life. I let go of deciphering why my mother lied to me. However, after my dad’s acceptance and encouragement of a relationship between us, I tried to find out the details of his relationship with my mother.

“Erick, it’s not possible to go back into the past. Let’s focus on what we have now,” my dad said the last time I asked him about it. It was during my third visit to Bowie, Maryland, where he moved with my stepmother in the 1980s to raise their children together. I looked into my dad’s eyes, catching a flash of pain and confusion. And at that moment, I realized it wasn’t just about me. He had questions too.

I was prepared to be rejected when I found my dad. I didn’t expect the formation of a positive connection. I also didn’t expect that he’d ask me to change my last name to his, something I agreed to do three years later, after that afternoon at the bank.

In late August 2007, less than 30 days into the three-month name change process, I found out my dad had aplastic anemia, “a condition that occurs when your body stops producing enough new blood cells (Mayo Clinic).” With no available donors and no matches amongst his siblings, his health quickly declined. However, through it all, he remained positive.

The name change became legal on November 1, 2007. My dad was the first person I called as I hurried down the steps of the County of Los Angeles Santa Monica Courthouse. From his hospital bed at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, he picked up on the first ring.

“Well hello, Mr. Woodby.” His cheerful tone wafted through my ear. “How are you this morning?”

We laughed, and then I thanked him for allowing me to change my name. “What do you mean by thanking me, Erick? The name is yours. It’s always been yours. You just needed to accept it.” I sheepishly agreed and let him return to resting. He passed away eleven days later.

After my dad’s funeral, I returned to Los Angeles. I believe my grieving process was helped with changing my credit cards, legal documents, etc. It helped me to accept a love that was optimistic and supportive.

Changing my last name was not an attempt on my part to erase my past. It was a first step towards working through the shame surrounding my existence. It was also a way to honor my dad’s gift, his acceptance of me as his son.

“You gotta kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you wanna be.” This line shot out at me recently while re-watching Rocketman, the 2019 Elton John biopic. It brought me back to my life twelve years ago and grounded me back into the present.

This past year as an expatriate in Sweden and England has been like the three years I had with my dad, helping me to break down the barriers that stand in the way of me fully embracing my talents and my strengths. I continue to work through my secrecy, self-doubt, and shame, one day at a time. My need to be a people pleaser has diminished, along with my desire to reduce my value through self-deprecating humor and workaholism to gain one’s tolerance of me.

For the first time, I’m pursuing artistic and professional endeavors I’d previously allowed to exist only at the periphery of my beliefs. I challenge myself to admit to those close to me my doubts and fears. Then I strap back in and believe in my pursuits regardless, another first for me. I’m letting go of the desire to be loved by many and focusing on the positivity I feel is there for me. I’m unraveling the secrecy, self-doubt, and shame from my past, and allowing myself to become who I’ve always been.

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Erick Taylor Woodby

Erick Taylor Woodby

Writer and host of “Our Black Gay Diaspora Podcast,” for black LGBTQ+ citizens to inspire and educate on who they are in their countries and professions.