The father is here, by his son’s side, every day.
Always tending to his youngest child inside a nursing home that’s decorated with birthday balloons, sitting next to the bed where his son lies, mostly still, mostly unaware.
They’ve celebrated seven birthdays since the day in 2011 when about half a dozen Philadelphia police officers wrestled with Kahlif Snowden in his old Kensington neighborhood after he ran from them. They suspected he was selling drugs. He had been arrested on drug charges before.
They piled on. One officer shot him with a stun gun in the neck, four times in 43 seconds. By the time the incident at East Indiana Avenue and Gransback Street was over, Leafy, as his family called him, had retreated into himself.
Cops said he had resisted arrest. There was an internal investigation, but no charges were lodged against the officers who said the then-25-year-old stopped breathing because he had swallowed drugs. The father says an emergency-room doctor told him they found nothing in his throat; a toxicology report found nothing. In a deposition, a doctor testified that he removed a small plastic bag from his airway. The officers are still on the job.
A life sentence is served by the father and son.
There was a revised police policy on using Tasers, a $2 million settlement from the city, the money put aside for the son’s care, and doctors who made no promises.
The father decided that God decides.
In the beginning, John Snowden’s son lay motionless, his eyes closed, his hands clenched, his feet curved inward. His brain, damaged. In the last few years or so, the father has seen signs of change. He’s convinced.
“Hey, baby,” he said, caressing the son’s face. “You know your Dad’s here, don’t you?”
The son, now 32, seems to smile, seems to turn his eyes slightly toward his father’s voice.
“He feels me. He could be asleep, but he knows when I’m here. He can, like, sense it. Once he hears my voice, he’ll force his eyes open.
“Hey, baby. Hey, buddy. How you doing?”
The father always announces himself, always tells the son when he’s about to touch him, because if not, Kahlif flinches. The father is certain that’s because of his last memories before his brain went dark. Notes of suppressed anger reside in the father’s voice.
The anger felt by the father, who used to serve on the Police Advisory Commission in the Northeast’s 15th District, used to roar from his body like a raging fire. He doesn’t downplay that his son got into some things he shouldn’t have — “Let me be your role model,” he’d counsel his youngest. But cops played “judge, jury, and executioner” on the streets that day, he said. The near-constant instances of police brutality across the country prove police still do.
“I’m pretty sure they could go home and see their kids normally, and I had to come up here and deal with this, knowing what he was like before this happened to him.”
But now the anger over standing vigil by a son trapped in his own body — of trying to coax him back to the world with each word, each touch — mostly renders the father quiet and still. He doesn’t want Kahlif to feel it.
Friends used to visit Kahlif. But they stopped. It happens. No hard feelings, said the father. They have lives to live. Seeing Kahlif like this is hard.
His mother comes. His siblings, when they can. But always, the father.
He works maintenance at the Philadelphia Parking Authority until 3 p.m., then rushes home to clean up and grab something to eat. He often brings the food with him. He stays late, and still he calls to check up on him before he goes to bed. Calls again before he reports to work. Thinks of him all day long.
“It’s almost like he doesn’t trust us,” a nurse teased. It’s no accident that the nurses’ station is right outside Kahlif’s room. The father makes sure everyone at the Montgomery County nursing home knows his son is not alone, that until he returns, he is his voice.
His doctor has warned the father, who is 61, to take better care of himself, to eat better, to watch his high blood pressure. He’s trying. The thought of not being around for Kahlif is unbearable. “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t see him,” he said.
He is a fixture, his name a constant in the log-in book. He knows as much as the nurses do when it comes to the son’s care — he’s made certain of that down to every detail. When Kahlif starts to cough, he grabs a suction to remove the mucus. It’s important to keep his lungs clear, the pneumonia away.
On weekends or holidays, he puts the son into his wheelchair and the modified van he bought so father and son can hit the road the way they used to, so the son can see the world that awaits. The mall. The mountains.
The father talks to the son, reminds him of their adventures, of the conversations they’d have about nothing that he’d give anything to have again.
“The things he would say and do,” the father said, laughing. “He’d call me every day at work. ‘Dad … what you doing? Dad … how you doing? You all right?’ ”
The father is not all right.
He watches TV as his son sleeps, sometimes falling asleep beside him until he slips out sometime during the night.
And then he is back, a father by his son’s side, waiting for him to return.