Dr. Terrence Johnson reflects on the loss of his father, Zebedee Johnson, while cherishing the memories and lessons he left behind. Photo courtesy Terrence Z. Johnson 

Remembering My Dad, Zebedee Johnson: Awe-inspiring, Authentic and Imperfect

Dr. Terrence Johnson (left) and his father, Zebedee Johnson, pose for a picture at his college graduation. Photo courtesy Terrence Z. Johnson

For so much of my life, Dad seemed like a giant tree—tall, awe-inspiring, yet also somewhat imposing. As a kid, the sound of his voice unsettled me, and it deserved to be adhered to. He took up space wherever he went.

I loved my dad because he was authentic and imperfect; He was never too hard on himself; he was comfortable in his own skin; he stood out, and embraced that. Boldness, directness and confidence were his main characteristics. He was truly one of a kind.

My father Zebedee Johnson died on Nov. 5, 2021, at age 65, and each day I grapple with the reality of those words. Over the years, my dad went back and forth from the hospital with significant medical concerns: aneurysm, stroke, blood clots and circulation issues. Only this time, he did not return home.

When people ask how I feel, it varies from moment to moment. Grief is a process. 


My emotions come in waves. One moment they are easy to wade through, peaceful and serene. But other times they crash into me, intensified by the reality of no future, and past memories make it difficult to withstand their force. My tears then fall without warning, and I permit myself to feel.

All I Have Left Are Memories

I have a unique perspective of death. I believe when someone dies, there is a transference of lessons. The person’s characteristics can motivate or influence change within. Yes, there are sad and painful moments. However, it can be a time of clarity. As I reflect, I received several lessons from my Dad. 

Dr. Terrence Johnson (right) says that his father Zebedee (left) always took pride in how he dressed. Photo courtesy Terrence Z. Johnson

My love for music came from my Dad. I remember riding with my Dad as a little boy. He had a gray Nissan truck with spoilers, and we would drive through the Westbank in New Orleans, listening to the R&B group Guy.

Over the years, he exposed me to several artists: the Isley Brothers, Rev. James Moore and D’Angelo. But I was introduced to jazz through Ronnie Laws and Najee. Dad is the reason I love jazz so much to this day. In many ways, jazz reflects him. He was unconventional, loud, smooth and in your face. We would sit for hours suggesting songs to each other. When he liked something, he bobbed his head a certain way to the beat. 

When Dad was still recovering, I would bring him to my barber at House of Barbers at 7 a.m. every Saturday. Everybody got to know him and nicknamed him “Old School.” Well, one Saturday, our barber was late. At 8:15 a..m,  the front door opened, and our barber hurriedly came through the door and to his chair.

“My bad,” our barber said.

“Where you been?” my dad said. “We’ve been waiting on you.”

“I was running late,” our barber replied. “I knew you were going to have something to say to me.”

“You right, we got other stuff to do. We can’t wait on you all day. We were about to leave,” my Dad replied.

“I’m sorry about that,” our barber apologized.

“Don’t be sorry, just be on time,” Dad said.

“I got you,” our barber said, laughing.

When someone dies, memories are all you have left. 

In His Sunday’s Best

After recovering from his aneurysm in the hospital, Dad was discharged to go home. Usually, you want the most comfortable clothes to wear after being in the hospital. Not dad. Guess what his request for discharge attire was? He requested a feathered, black derby hat; a black, pinstripe three-piece suit with shirt and tie; and black dress shoes. Just to come home.

While being pushed in a wheelchair to the car, Dad was in his Sunday’s Best.

Terrence Johnson has reconnected with his sister Sabrina (right) since their father died. “Even though we did not grow up together, Dad’s passing allowed us to build our relationship.” Photo courtesy Terrence Z. Johnson

One vivid memory of my dad is from a few years ago in the hospital when it was just us. Lying in the hospital bed, he spoke to me.

“Hey, T.”

“Yeah, Dad?”

“It’s something about you,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You’re special,” he replied.

“I think that’s the medicine talking,” I said jokingly.

He adjusted and propped himself up in the hospital bed.

“No, for real, it’s something special about you. I see a million dollars around you,” he replied.

“I appreciate that. You said it, I receive it,” I responded.

Time is Fleeting, But Greater Is Coming

The greatest gift I have received is reconnecting with my sister Sabrina. Even though we did not grow up together, Dad’s passing allowed us to build our relationship. Over the past few months, we have spent countless hours on the phone sharing stories. In each conversation, we discover more qualities of Dad within us. We definitely share his sense of humor.

My message to everyone is that time is fleeting. Do not allow words to be unsaid or unexpressed. Let people know how you feel about them while they are living. I can have peace with my Dad’s passing because we both expressed how we felt about each other.

I know that may not be everyone’s experience. Yet, you still have the greatest gift: the present. You have time to do better with your children and your parents, change your perspective or better prepare for your future.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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