‘I noticed two blacked out police cars in the yard. A detective inched closer. ‘Your father is dead.’ Lottery ticket rumors spread throughout the family.’: Man honors late father by chasing dreams, becoming better father

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“I never really had a close relationship with my father because he and my mother separated when I was two years old. My mother was completely in love with my father. However, she couldn’t envision marrying him because of his other 14 children and the drama that came with them. Despite this, my mom was a good-hearted woman and she allowed me to see my father whenever he wanted. I remember growing up and seeing him once or twice a year until the age of 18. I wasn’t happy about the little time I spent with him, but I enjoyed the moments we did have together.

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

At 18, I knew I could make my own decision about seeing him, so I tried to make the most of it. College life did not last long for me because I ran into some legal issues and also found out I was going to be a father. So, I reached out to my dad to see if there was anything he could do to help. My partner and I moved to South Carolina to live with him. He gave us our own house and paid our rent and light bill. He helped us out in every way possible. In return, I did various things for him. I worked on his property, took care of the animals, worked at his store, restaurant, and moving company.

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

You see my father was an entrepreneur and had many businesses in the community. At this time, I really felt like I was regaining the relationship I had lost over the years. Before all of this, I had started playing around with the guitar. I always had a passion for choir and musical theater in high school. I remember telling my dad I was learning how to play the guitar and I had learned a song. He said, ‘Okay son, play it for me.’ I distinctly remember his eyes lighting up; he had this big smile on his face. Something about him changed. He fell in love with me playing the guitar and he made sure everyone knew. He would always say, ‘My son is going to make me some money with that guitar.’

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

My girlfriend, Kelly, and I stayed there for about 6 months before moving back to North Carolina to be closer to both our parents. It seemed like we only went down to visit when we were struggling financially. I remember asking my dad why my brothers and sisters were in New Jersey and not in South Carolina. He said they only came to visit when they needed money, help, or for the family reunion. I knew I was following the same trend as the rest of my siblings. Something in me changed and I could see him in myself. My family members began to recognize this, and they would say we walked and talked the same. He always told me I would be the son who kept the family together. Any chance I got I would go and spend time with him for as long as I could. I wouldn’t go just because I was struggling, but I would go to have quality time with him.

Things were really starting to settle in until I did something I should have never done. I stole from him. He saved quarters. In his closet, he had 8-10 5-gallon water jugs filled with coins. I didn’t need to take from him because he gave me what I needed, but I had an issue with money. I took some change from the jug that wasn’t full. I ended up stealing about $300 in quarters. I took them to the local Food Lion change machine. I thought I had gotten away with it. Hours later, my dad came home. He said, ‘Son let’s talk outside for a minute. Son, what did you do today?’ I replied, ‘I hung out with Jordan and worked around the house.’ He asked me again what I did. So, I repeated it. He stopped me and said, ‘I know exactly what you did today and how many?’ So, I repeated it. He stopped me again and said, ‘I know exactly what you did today. How many quarters did you bring to Doris at Food Lion? Son, why did you do that?’ I was very nervous and didn’t know what he was going to say. I said, ‘I have a problem.’ He replied, ‘If you would have come to me, I would have given it to you.’ As a former pastor, I should have expected it to go down like this, but I was stuck and blinded by my evil ways. He left and I didn’t know what to do.

A couple of days went by and he didn’t have any work for me. He didn’t even stop by. I never called to see if there was something I could do. Then, my partner Kelly got a call from her mother saying there was a family emergency and we needed to come home. We just left. I never said goodbye. He never got the $300 back. He tried to call once he saw we had left. I didn’t answer. A year later, I contacted him because I was in a bad financial situation. I had never fixed my problem. I was still stealing to the point I was on the run. He told me, ‘Well son, take care of what you need to.’ He did not want me to run from the law. By God’s grace, I took his advice, handled my legal issue, and was put on probation.

My life changed in the summer of 2012. The morning of July 4th was the last day I spoke with my father. My kids’ mother, 3-year-old son, and I planned to visit him in South Carolina. We were going to stay for a few days to visit, but because he had a lot going on in town it would be better if we came the next day. We started off to South Carolina on the morning of July 5th. I tried to call my dad, but he didn’t answer, which was odd, but I knew the signal was not always great there.

I was close to town, so I decided to stop by my Aunt Brenda’s house since we were going right by. Nearing her house, I noticed there were two blacked out Crown Vic’s in the yard. A guy who appeared to look like a detective walked out of the house to our car and asked me questions. ‘What is your name? Who are you here to see?’ I told him my name was Robert Cellucci, and I was there to see my Aunt Brenda, but afterward, I was going to visit my dad. He asked me who my father was, and I replied, ‘Samuel Rowell.’

He proceeded to tell me he was dead, murdered the night before.

I had no response. I was in shock. In disbelief. In this town, my father was referred to as Uncle Sam for his contributions to the community. Who would want to kill him? I asked the detective, ‘Are you sure? I spoke to him yesterday morning.’ He said, ‘Yes, the coroner has identified him at his address.’ This was the same house we had reunions at. ‘How did he die?’ I asked. He said, ‘He was shot twice in the head, but I can’t go into details due to the investigation.’

I felt like my world had come to an end. I could no longer build my relationship or gain mentorship from him. Besides this, I didn’t tell my probation officer I was leaving the state. I was only going for a few days and thought I could make it back in time. The detective took my name and info so it was known my probation was violated. They told me I needed to turn myself in when I returned to North Carolina, but they understood I was mourning my father’s death.

I can remember the funeral and driving through the community he was well known in. Military personnel lined the street as we made our way to the local high school for the funeral service. It felt like we were walking into the state fair with the number of people and cars in the parking lot. The gymnasium was full. I sat next to my sister Samantha. We cried on each other’s shoulders that day. All the family came down to show their condolences. Everyone was aware of the family reunion house. It was the meeting place for us when we came together. Some were very skeptical about going to the same place where he was murdered, but we toughed it out and went anyways. By the time we had met there, the scene of the crime was already cleaned up and all the information was gathered. We could not tell anything happened.

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

They caught the guys four days later due to surveillance cameras my dad put up. Some claim the family money was the motive. Some family were unsure. Others thought it was over a lottery ticket. None of the reasons were ever proven. All I knew was my dad was dead. At the burial service, we watched as he was going six feet under and it started to rain. I remember standing there in the rain, not giving a care it was pouring. I felt the rain fall from my head down my face. However, this wasn’t rain, they were tears. I remember asking God why. Why couldn’t I have been there sooner? Why couldn’t I fix my problems? Why couldn’t I get one more chance to make it right? It was not a good day. I knew when I got back to North Carolina, I was going to be leaving Kelly and Jordan because I had to turn myself in.

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

I got a letter from my mom saying she was doing everything she could. She had contacted a lawyer and he said we could appeal to get me less time. That letter gave me hope. Ultimately, what happened was I had lost my father and my son had lost his. Something had to be done and my mom was working hard to make it happen. My mom said the lawyer was working on an appeal to get me in front of the judge. She said, ‘Son, I have paid him a lot of money and have sold everything I could in order to afford him. I even sold the car your father gave to you.’ The car was the only piece of him I had left.

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

I kept praying to God for him to give me a second chance. A week later, I was called back into court and my sentence was reduced from 12-14 years to 18-24 months. Although I still had to do time, it was much better. I was thankful. I got on the bus to leave the central prison and move to a different prison with a smile on my face, not because I was out of trouble, but because I had a chance for freedom with my family. I was sent to a prison near my mom where I finished the remainder of my sentence.

My mom held me down while I was in prison. She took my family in. While I was in there, I got my electrical license, laid brick, cooked, and got involved in the church where it became known I could sing. I started singing in church and all over the camp. They referred to me as ‘Country’ because I would always sing country music. I was settling in easily by making friends amongst my population from my singing. Before getting out, my mom moved to Florida with Kelly and Jordan. She moved to pursue a life with her high school sweetheart she found over Facebook. She had stated to me she did not want me to go back to an area where I had not made a good name for myself. She wanted me to start over. Kelly drove up from Florida on my release date. On that day, they told me I could not leave to go to Florida. I was forced to stay in North Carolina until my parole was transferred to Florida. I got a job two days after being released. After having the time in prison, I did a lot of thinking and had to change my life. Instead of stealing this time around, I vowed I would work for it.

I was offered a management position only after two weeks. I turned it down because I told them I would be moving to Florida, but they gave it to me anyway. Two months passed and I was able to move to Florida. Once there, I was in a place I was not aware of. It was very new to me, but I needed a job. I found a job within a week of moving. It was a sales job. I had never done sales before but, in reality, my dad had already instilled it in me.

Kelly and I moved into an apartment and purchased a new car. Things were running smoothly. We were expecting our second child, Jaycie, to arrive soon and things became stressful. I was there every step of the way. My job gave me more money to help with the new baby coming and with a baby shower, we had more than what we needed. During my employment there I made it known I loved to sing. I would often play songs and sing during morning meetings, so much so the CFO of the company sponsored my first EP. I included the first hit song I wrote in prison called ‘The End of the Rainbow.’ It was my perception of being at the end of the rainbow with Kelly. It landed me shows in Florida opening for the Charlie Daniels Band and Craig Campbell. I also got to perform at a lot of charity events.

I was starting to realize music was where I really belonged, but I knew it wasn’t going to pay the bills. Kelly was out of work after the baby came. Life became very stressful managing my job and taking care of my family. I began to run late to work because I was trying to get Jordan to school and all that came with it. I ended up losing my job. My old job gave me recommendations and referrals in the Raleigh area which was near Kelly and the kids. The day I got there, I went straight to see the kids. As the day neared to an end, I got a hotel room and decided to go to Nissan and apply for a job. The next day, I got ready as if I was meant for the job. I remember getting there with that letter in my hand and proceeded to walk in the door, but something stopped me, and I immediately turned around. I could feel my dad talking to me. I knew if I took this job, I would lose time again with my children and I didn’t want that to happen. I was unsure about how to make money or find a place to live. The only thing I could think of was the phrase my dad used to say all the time: ‘My son is going to make me some money one day singing and playing guitar.’

I got on my phone as soon as I got to the car. I researched places nearby that did live music. The first place that popped up was a bar and restaurant by the name of Krafty’s. So, I drove there as my first stop from the list. I walked in and there were only two people there. One person sitting at the bar and the other a bartender. I said, ‘I hear you guys play live music and I am interested in playing for you.’ The gentleman at the bar asked if I was any good. I said, ‘Well, if I didn’t think I wasn’t good enough, I wouldn’t ask for the opportunity.’ He asked the bartender to grab his calendar book and asked me to sit down. We sat there and went through some dates. He booked me for 6 shows right then and there. I could not believe what had just happened. I asked him, ‘Don’t you want to hear me sing? You don’t even know what I sound like.’ He said, ‘I don’t need to. You seem like you know what you are doing. I trust you.’ I left and proceeded to go to the second place. I was booking shows at every place I walked into.

I had no equipment or money to purchase it. I had only a few hundred dollars left and nowhere to stay. I started sleeping in my car. Kelly allowed me to take showers at her parents’ house after they left for work. I used the last bit of money I had to rent equipment from Guitar Center which cut my earning to less than 50%. I was struggling, but I felt there was a reason things were happening the way they were.

I slept in my car in a parking lot close to Kelly’s parents’ house. I was at my last resort. By the fourth night, Kelly had realized what was happening and she gave me a week’s worth of money to stay in a nearby hotel. Wednesday night I ran into a woman who really caught my attention. Something came up and I had to leave to help with the children. I didn’t even get a chance to say bye. Within an hour she messaged me on Facebook and said it was great to meet me. We talked and decided to meet the next night at a nearby bar where I opened and told her my story. She was so genuine, and her attitude reminded me of my dad’s wife Lula Mae. I could see the resemblance, not between skin color but attitude and attributes. By the end of the conversation, she opened her house to me. The entire time I felt comfortable, this was a blessing like no other. I still live with her today and have grown to love her ever since. After I moved in, she helped me financially by getting me the things I needed for my music, and she became like a second mother to my children. She helped take care of them when I needed it most. This was the most important. She turned rooms in the home into bedrooms for them. The kids have grown to love her ever since. I know my dad is what led me to her.

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

At the beginning of 2019, things started to drastically change. I started to observe signs from my dad. I had very vivid dreams of me being shot and killed. It was abnormal because every other time I died in the dreams it was by falling. I always told close people I was going to die by being shot. I didn’t think anything of it, but the dreams kept happening. During this time, I started traveling back and forth to Florida to visit with my mom and sister. Almost every time we went down with the children, my mom would mention to me the things I did that reminded her of my dad. For instance, the way I would joke around, the way I would always laugh, or even the fact I was losing hair like him. This would always make me laugh.

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

During the summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to go back to Florida to perform with the Chad Montana Band. Skeptical of the date, which was July 4th, I was unsure whether I should do the show because of the day. Yet, something in me told me to take the job. Melanie, the woman I had been staying with, went down with me and was able to meet my family for the first time. When we got there, they were planning to cancel due to possible thunderstorms, but the show went on. I believe to this day it was my dad holding off the storm to hear me sing. It was the first 4th of July since the death of my father. I stayed to watch the fireworks. Before the fireworks always reminded me of gunshots and how my dad had died on this holiday. Something had happened in me to let that feeling go. I think this was a real first sign I had gotten from his spirit. I believed he was with me. I believed he was right there, as if he was over my shoulder telling me everything I needed to do.

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

In returning to North Carolina, Kelly got a higher position at work which forced her to work more hours. I went from having the children 50% of the time turned into 80% of the time. I was feeling as if I was being more of a father than I had ever been. I started doing my daughter’s hair which I am still not good at (but I’m learning), taking my son to school, going to school lunches, doctor appointments, and memorizing their social security numbers. This was something I never had to do before because Kelly took care of it.

At one point, Kelly even told me how thankful she was and how she felt like she was not being a mother. She apologized for working too much, but I told her I would help in any way. I told her she is their mom and will always be their mom. Being what some would call a ‘single dad,’ it became stressful at times. I felt like I did a good job but sometimes I felt like pulling my hair out, if I had any left. I was there spending time with them and enjoying every moment, which for me are now memories I never had a chance to get with my own father. I started thinking more about my dad and how we were regaining the relationship I never got to fulfill and what I should have said to him. I started to think of this in relation to my own situation, on how me being a father to them was the best decision I have ever made. I was motivated to succeed in the community and in my own personal life just to continue seeing them smile and laugh and to hear them say I love you.

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

Today, I have created so many relationships within my community that I was getting called and asked to perform when I hadn’t played in months. I was getting calls from people I did not know to come and play for them. I was also getting calls from people in the area I had not spoken to in years, saying how proud they were of me. I was getting calls from people asking me for help. In retrospect to music, my father would get calls like this when I was around him.

Toward the latter part of 2019, I got the biggest news I thought I would not get for a while. My music was to be heard on one of the biggest radio stations in Raleigh, 94.7 QDR. I began to be recognized by my community as one of the areas up and coming artists when years prior my name was on a wanted list. And I couldn’t have done it without my dad’s encouragement.

If you’re reading this, just know that we can all do better and be better. It takes a lot of strength not to follow in the same footsteps that hurt you, even if it’s the only way you know. Keep your head up.”

Courtesy of Robert Cellucci

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Robert Cellucci. You can follow his journey on Facebook and Instagram. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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