‘MY DAD, MUHAM­MAD ALI’

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - THIS LIFE -

His daugh­ter Hana on the highs and lows of liv­ing with a leg­end.

Muham­mad Ali’s daugh­ter Hana was raised in a bub­ble of love, af­fec­tion and megas­tars stream­ing through the front door. But, in an exclusive ex­tract from her mov­ing mem­oir, she re­calls the crush­ing heartache that would haunt her fa­ther his whole life…

Iwas born in 1976, the el­der of two daugh­ters from my fa­ther’s third mar­riage, to Veron­ica Porche. Like any fam­ily we had our ups and downs, happy and un­pleas­ant mem­o­ries. The dif­fer­ence is we had to share our dad with the world.

Dad never had chil­dren with his first wife, he had four chil­dren with his sec­ond wife and two other chil­dren with women he was never mar­ried to. Al­though our sto­ries dif­fer, we share the fact that through­out our lives our fa­ther show­ered us with un­con­di­tional love and af­fec­tion.

I grew up in a fairy tale, liv­ing in a four-storey man­sion in Fre­mont, Cal­i­for­nia, com­plete with a trel­lis and flo­ral vine bal­cony. My fa­ther was the most fa­mous man in the world and my mother one of the most beau­ti­ful. Celebri­ties vis­ited of­ten – Michael Jack­son, John Tra­volta, Sylvester Stal­lone, Clint East­wood, Tom Jones, Cary Grant, Kris Kristof­fer­son, Lionel Richie. There were pool par­ties and magic shows. Life was good and the feel­ing I re­mem­ber most as a child was love.

Un­like most celebri­ties, who feel peo­ple are in­trud­ing on their lives, my fa­ther wel­comed it. He reg­u­larly turned down se­cu­rity and in­ter­acted freely with the crowds. His love for peo­ple was ex­tra­or­di­nary. I would get home from school to find home­less fam­i­lies sleep­ing in our guest room. He’d see them on the street, pile them into his Rolls-Royce and bring them home. He’d buy them clothes, take them to ho­tels and pay the bills for months in ad­vance. He used to sit me on his lap, look into my eyes and say, ‘Hana, if you can stop

one heart from break­ing, you shall not live in vain.’ My sis­ter Laila was al­ways threat­en­ing to run away from home as she felt as though she was liv­ing in a glasshouse – a beau­ti­ful doll on dis­play – with no es­cape. She felt more com­fort­able with our mother but I was a Daddy’s girl. He’d tell jokes, en­ter­tain, per­form magic tricks or sit be­hind his grand desk talk­ing on the tele­phone, en­joy­ing be­ing the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. I used to sit at his feet beam­ing up at him, soak­ing it all in.

My fa­ther trav­elled of­ten, but most of my mem­o­ries are of him at home. I re­mem­ber play­ing on the floor when he was work­ing at his desk. No mat­ter what was go­ing on, his door was al­ways open. I re­mem­ber him eat­ing with us ev­ery night when he was home, telling me sto­ries un­til I fell asleep and wak­ing me up with kisses ev­ery morn­ing. I re­mem­ber him try­ing to braid my hair be­fore school and walk­ing me there with two un­even pony­tails. I was proud of my crooked pony­tails. Ev­ery morn­ing after the nanny neatly combed my hair I snuck out to mess it up again, then ran down to my fa­ther’s of­fice and asked him to braid it. He made me feel as though I was the most spe­cial lit­tle girl in the world.

Ev­ery sum­mer, my fa­ther brought his chil­dren to­gether at our house. He’d drive us around Los An­ge­les in the Rolls with the top down. He loved putting him­self and his fam­ily on dis­play. I waved to the crowds and smiled as they chanted my fa­ther’s name. He wanted peo­ple to be able to reach out and touch him. He would wave and smile and sign au­to­graphs at red lights.

One day in 1984, Laila and I ar­rived home and no­ticed a black Mercedes with tinted win­dows in front of the house. As we walked in through the door Laila ran off to find my mother but I had only one thing on my mind: my fa­ther. I ran up­stairs to the guest bed­room where he took day­time naps. ‘Daddy…’ I stopped in my tracks. He was ly­ing in bed un­der a sheet with one hand be­hind his head and sit­ting in a chair be­side him was the un­mis­tak­able fig­ure of Michael Jack­son. Politi­cians and ac­tors might have been un­fa­mil­iar to my young eyes, but the King of Pop was one of my favourites. Michael was lift­ing his black fe­dora hat, show­ing my fa­ther his ban­dages. He’d been in­jured film­ing a Pepsi com­mer­cial when py­rotech­nics set his hair on fire. It was a mas­sive news story.

I stepped out of the room and closed the door. ‘Michael Jack­son!’ I screamed. Laila came run­ning out of my mother’s room. My mother had al­ready told her. She had changed into her pink dress with the white ruf­fles. I was still in my swim­suit and shorts.

‘Hana, do you know who this is?’ Dad asked as Laila and I walked back into the room. ‘This is the most fa­mous singer in the world.’ I stood there for a sec­ond with my mouth open. As Michael sat smil­ing at me, with his hat in his hand, I couldn’t stop star­ing at the white ban­dages wrapped around his head. ‘What hap­pened to your head?’ I asked. ‘I had an ac­ci­dent.’ ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘Not any more,’ he smiled. I smiled back, then quickly shut the door and ran around the house scream­ing to any­one who would listen that Michael Jack­son just smiled at me. Then I went back up­stairs and jumped on my fa­ther’s bed. I don’t re­mem­ber what they were talk­ing about, but for the next hour or so, I lay next to Dad, star­ing at Michael Jack­son, won­der­ing what re­ally hap­pened be­tween him and Bil­lie Jean.

Then, when I was ten years old, my par­ents sep­a­rated and the fairy tale ended. Mom had a lot to deal with in the years they were mar­ried. She was an 18-year-old med­i­cal stu­dent when she met my fa­ther, and was por­trayed as the beau­ti­ful temptress who had se­duced a leg­end and bro­ken up his fam­ily. The press and Belinda [Boyd, his sec­ond wife] loy­al­ists were re­lent­less in their con­dem­na­tion of my mother and she was reg­u­larly in­sulted and ridiculed by my fa­ther’s staff. Ev­ery day mem­bers of Daddy’s crew brought count­less women be­fore him hop­ing to lure him away from my mother. Women were al­ways chas­ing after him and some tried to claim their chil­dren were his. I know he was a lady’s man to the end – his eyes lit up when­ever a pretty girl walked by – but I’ve never seen him look at any­one the way he looked at my mother.

Nearly three decades after their di­vorce his love let­ters to her were found in a stor­age room in Los An­ge­les. He had left them in an en­ve­lope on his of­fice floor but my mother never re­ceived them. They had been thrown by some­one into a ran­dom box and put into stor­age. As a child I never saw my mother weep at love sto­ries or fam­ily pho­tos like my fa­ther did, and I blamed her for their sep­a­ra­tion. But she wept in pri­vate. I heard her cry­ing at night after the di­vorce and I was with her when she first dis­cov­ered the let­ters dur­ing the sum­mer of 2012. The let­ters and po­ems had ti­tles such as ‘Let’s Try Again’, ‘Our Melody of Love’, ‘Veron­ica’. Her re­ac­tion was over­whelm­ing. ‘I al­ways thought he never fought for me,’ she said, her eyes damp.

We hugged, wiped each other’s tears. ‘Your fa­ther never told me about his di­ag­no­sis of Parkin­son’s dis­ease. I found out after the di­vorce. He was a de­cent, loving hu­man be­ing. His big­gest

fault was fool­ing around. I didn’t al­ways know and they were mostly one-night stands. But there were too many bro­ken prom­ises. After be­ing hurt so many times, my feel­ings grad­u­ally numbed over the years. I al­ways cared about him, but I had to dis­tance my­self some­how.’

Try­ing to un­der­stand my par­ents’ love story has weighed heav­ily on my heart. Those last few days at Fre­mont, when my grand­mother and aunts were help­ing my mother pack up the house, care­fully storing away our be­long­ings and my hap­pi­est mem­o­ries. Down­stairs my fa­ther stood alone in his empty of­fice, with noth­ing tan­gi­ble to ex­press his love for my mother but an en­ve­lope of hope­ful let­ters it seemed he never gave her.

Dad would visit us at our new house, a few Op­po­site: Hana with her dad, mum Veron­ica and lit­tle sis­ter Laila. This page: the sis­ters (Hana is on the right) dressed as Won­der Woman in their fa­ther’s of­fice, 1980; on a fam­ily drive, 1979, and Ali ‘spar­ring’ with the Jack­sons blocks from Fre­mont Place, all the time, be­fore mar­ry­ing Lon­nie [his fourth wife, Yolanda Wil­liams] and mov­ing to Michi­gan. Mom would make him lunch and we’d spend the day to­gether do­ing noth­ing spe­cial. Then, when it was time for him to leave, I would hug him with all my might and stand with my head pressed against the glass door, watch­ing him with tears in my eyes as he slowly walked back to his car. I wor­ried he was lonely. I wor­ried that he didn’t have food to eat. I wor­ried that he might lose his keys and have to sleep out­side (as had hap­pened at Fre­mont). The pain was so over­whelm­ing I’ve blocked much of that time from my mem­ory. My world was a safe haven, cen­tred on my par­ents – a bub­ble I never be­lieved would pop; un­til it did and every­thing went blank. I don’t re­mem­ber beg­ging my mother to give Dad an­other chance or promis­ing to be a good girl. I can’t re­call the last night I spent at Fre­mont or mov­ing to our new house or say­ing good­bye to my fa­ther. My only mem­o­ries from then on are of star­ing from the win­dow of our new house, watch­ing my fa­ther walk up the drive to visit us.

For years I wanted noth­ing more than to undo Dad’s mis­takes and heal my par­ents’ wounds, es­pe­cially my fa­ther’s be­cause I be­lieved he had suf­fered the most. Then, one af­ter­noon in 2014 when I was vis­it­ing him, I looked at him sit­ting peace­fully in his large leather chair, smil­ing at the im­age of his youth­ful self on tele­vi­sion. ‘Wasn’t I some­thing?’ he said as he watched him­self telling re­porters how he’d whopped Ge­orge Fore­man.

‘You still are, and you al­ways will be,’ I replied. He smiled and kept watch­ing with an ex­pres­sion of in­de­scrib­able peace and sat­is­fac­tion on his face – one that a 72-year-old man with Parkin­son’s wasn’t sup­posed to have. I then re­alised it was my heart, not his, that was still fret­ful with un­re­solved sor­row about the past. In that mo­ment I de­cided I would do as my fa­ther had done so many times be­fore when faced with sor­row or loss, in or out of the ring. All I needed to do was let go and give it to God. My par­ents shared a great ro­mance and Laila and I were born from that love. Some­times there was pain in the 12 years they were to­gether and my fa­ther would be the first to ad­mit that he made mis­takes. It still sad­dens me, though, to think they cost him the love of his life. ■ This is an edited ex­tract from At Home with Muham­mad Ali – a Mem­oir of Love, Loss and For­give­ness by Hana Ali pub­lished by Ban­tam Press and avail­able now, price €28

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