It was the day before Easter – March 31, 2013 – that Derrick Duff received a call at his Aurora home that his first-born son had been killed in a car accident in California.
It was a tragedy that changed the trajectory of Duff's life. Struggling to find ways to deal with the grief that consumed him, the Aurora man – a long-time barber, personal trainer and model – set up a nonprofit, Daddys against Daddy Abuse (DADA) to address hurdles loving fathers face when dealing with the court system after the breakup of a marriage or relationship.
Duff also turned to writing to assuage his pain, and two years ago published a book, "A Father's Love; My Promise to Derrick Jr.," as a tribute to his 18-year-old namesake, as well as a way to encourage "mothers to wake up and stop playing games, and for fathers to step up to the plate."
Now, on the fifth anniversary of the fatal car accident, which again falls on Holy Saturday, 44-year-old Duff is taking his message and ministry to the stage of the Paramount Theatre at 4 p.m. March 31 in downtown Aurora, with "An Evening Above the Clouds."
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This musical celebration will feature Bishop Marvin Sapp, pastor of Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is also a popular gospel and R&B artist and whose songs, Duff says, "helped me get out of bed ... stand up." Also performing will be the choirs from Progressive Baptist, Main Baptist and Mount Olive churches, as well as Spates Temple's Legacy Worships and LXW Chicago.
Duff insists he's in a much healthier place than he was two years ago when we met to talk about the release of "A Father's Promise." Book sales have been good, he told me, so much so he needs to order more copies for this upcoming event. But he's hardly satisfied with the impact of DADA, and wants to use this faith-based celebration to kick-start his foundation that he hopes will shed more light on what he thinks is a skewed system that tends to ignore dad's rights, particularly if the father is African-American.
"They see a black man walk into the courtroom and they automatically think dead-beat dad," Duff said, repeating a concern he expressed two years ago. "We need to learn to co-parent better ... love these children regardless of our personal failures."
But this March 31 event is much more than about raising issues of father's rights. Duff is hoping to especially draw parents like him who have lost a child, whether through gun violence, suicide, medical issues, car accidents or drug overdoses.
So many people are hurting out there. Duff knows that because he was one of them. Is still one of them.
"I live with this huge sword right through my heart," he says. "I get dressed around it, sleep around it. I am used to it, but some days it aches more than other days. Like it's all fresh again."
In addition to his deep faith, Duff credits music with helping him heal, and he's convinced this lineup at the Paramount will help others as well.
"The plan is not to mourn Derrick's death but to celebrate his life," he says. "And that does not apply to just my son but to all of us because tomorrow is not promised to any of us."
Tickets for "An Evening Above the Clouds" are available at the door or through Eventbrite. And more information is available by calling 630-470-2214. All proceeds, he said, will go toward scholarships in his son's name for private high school tuition so "we can keep his memory alive."
Duff insists he's come a long way from that morning when he considered running out into the traffic on Orchard Road after that phone call telling him his son, a popular senior and basketball stand-out living with his mother in California, had died in the back seat of a Jeep when the driver lost control on Highway 101.
"I gave it all I had but it wasn't enough," he said of his long custody battle and having to say good-bye to his son seven months before the accident. "When the courts allowed Derrick's mother to take him (to the West Coast), that was God's way of beginning to separate us. It would have been harder to lose him had he been here with me."
Years later, Duff still will not describe himself as a happy person. "But I am getting there," he said, adding that he finds joy in his three surviving children, ages 21, 17 and 14; in working out and in his customers at a local car dealership, where he's found professional success.
His ministry, he insists, is only beginning ... as is the healing.
"There is no time table on when our wounds will heal all the way. It is a process."