You should have been there to hear him speak. He wore a stark white dress shirt, a subtly coiffed afro perched atop his head. He had that calming demeanor, listening to him. He spoke in unhurried sentences with emotive marrow filled on the inside. His hands remained folded across his chest for the most part, as if memories brought him chills. An engaging storyteller.
“Do you meditate?” I asked him. We were seated at an Italian restaurant with lousy service. He nodded bashfully, artfully re-spreading the napkin across his lap. We sat by a wide-open window.
He spoke gently, pausing to tear his bread with his hands and dabbing it in olive oil like we were in the bloody old testament and our donkeys were tethered outside to a green olive tree. He would pause mid-sentence as he searched for the words to describe the man he was talking about. During those moments he would stare outside, chewing slowly, savoring each bite, looking at the clouds or over the rooftops or a distant bird perched on a balcony. My eyes followed whatever his gaze searched. I liked listening to him. Hearing emotions spill out of him like a slowly leaking pipe that you would ignore but that eventually caused a flood of emotions around our table.
There was a slight knock on the classroom door, interrupting the math lesson. The whole class turned to stare at the door which cracked open just enough for the PE teacher’s head to pop in. His glasses had thick lenses, making his eyes look owlish. He smiled at Mr. Wekesa, the math teacher, who promptly stopped scribbling and walked to the door. They conferred in murmurs. Mr. Wekesa turned and said, “Patrick, you are needed in the office.” Patrick was me. Still is me. I sat on the last row, by the window that overlooked a small hedge that led to the school shamba where the class eight students planted maize and beans for agriculture classes. Sitting at the window had its advantages; if someone farted – and that happened a lot – all I had to do was stick my head out. During those hot afternoons, I stayed awake courtesy of the breeze that blew into the room through the open window.
I scraped my chair back as I stood. My deskmate was a girl called Lavender who always beat me in exams. We hardly talked – Lavender and I – because this was 1988 and I was 12 years old and it wasn’t cool to talk to girls. Yet. She looked at me inquisitively, wondering what I had done to be summoned out of class. Every eye in the room escorted me out of the classroom. As soon as I closed the door behind me, I heard Mr. Wekesa resume class. Back then teachers shouted while teaching.
The PE teacher – God, I can’t recall his name – stepped back into the corridor and said, “How are you Patrick?” I said I was fine. He then put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You are needed in the head-teacher’s office. Follow me.” I took the stairs behind him. At the office, the secretary, a glum elderly lady who had a big shiny afro on her head, looked up and told me the headmaster would let me know when he was done. I looked at his door, where a rectangular plate emblazoned in small print read “headmaster”. I sat on a chair. The PE teacher patted my shoulder again and left. Up on a wall, mwalimu number moja, President Moi, stared down at me from a framed picture. The loud ‘tak-tak-tak” sound of the secretary’s typewriter filled the room. The air smelled of ink and paper and ribbons. I was both nervous and curious. Once in a while, a teacher would come in and ask to see the headmaster or drop a file. As they turned to leave they would look at me but not say a word, perhaps assuming that I was a troublemaker. I wasn’t a troublemaker, I was a fairly disciplined student. I did my homework, I worked hard, I tried to leave my name out of the noisemaker’s list.
After what seemed like an eternity, the secretary’s phone rang. She listened in the receiver and said, “Yes, he is here. OK, right away, sir” asked me to go in. I knocked and waited until I heard the headmaster’s deep baritone voice through the door say, “Come in!” He was a big and overweight man with a neck the size of a baobab’s trunk. He filled his chair and his office. Behind him was a shelf full of gleaming trophies. It took me a second to realise that the other man seated in his office was my father. I was astonished. Dad never came to school. It was always mom. He wore his kaunda suit. He was a lanky man with a modest afro and sideburns. He wore spectacles. People said I looked like him. I disagreed. I was 12, I didn’t want to look like a man with sideburns. He was sitting upright in the chair. The air was still stiff and heavy from whatever conversation I had interrupted. I shook my dad’s hand because that’s what you did, you shook your father’s hand, never a hug.
“Hi, Patrick,” the headmaster said, “How are your classes going?”
“Going great, sir.”
“Good, good,” he said, “what lesson are you having now?”
“Math, sir.” I said, my hands held behind my back.
“Good, good,” he repeated, then looked at my father but my father’s head was bowed to the floor. “Well, your father has come to pick you up.”
I looked at my father. Dad never smiled much but now I noticed that he looked very sad, almost mournful. He also looked defeated. “Yes, we have to go home now,” he said.
“So go back to class and get your bag,” the headmaster said.
“Is something the matter?” I asked nobody in particular, but I was looking at the headmaster.
“Get your bag,” my father handed me car keys, “and wait for me in the car.”
When I left the office I ran into my younger brother, Martin, seated on the same chair I had been seated on. We didn’t exchange a word but I noticed that his knees were trembling as I left the office. Later, my brother and I sat at the back of the car and waited for dad. “What do you think is wrong, Patrick?” he asked worriedly and I shrugged looking out the window. Something was definitely wrong. We sat in the hot car in silence. Dad drove an old red Renault GTA, always as scrupulously clean as himself. It smelled of hot leather.
Dad got in the car and closed the door with a soft thud. I handed him the car keys from the back. He rolled down the window and turned on the ignition. The car sputtered but didn’t start. He tried again, with success this time. He engaged the gear and drove out of the school. We drove in silence. I looked at the back of his head for answers. He stopped at a store then left us in the car without a word. When he came back he had two cold bottles of Fanta for us. We sipped in silence. He turned in his seat and faced us. “Something has happened to your mother,” he said.
“What?” Martin’s voice was high and shrill. He was only 10 years old.
“An accident, she was hit by a car,” he said, then he turned in his seat and leaned his right elbow on the door and supported his head with his hand. He started weeping soundlessly.
“Is she dead?” Martin panicked, holding dad’s shoulder.
Dad wept, maybe a bit louder this time.
“Is mom dead?”I asked.
“Yes,” he whispered.
Martin started crying. I started crying. Dad was crying. We were all crying in this old contraption that smelled of old leather and despair. We were crying, holding our bottles of Fanta. It was a very cruel moment, unintentionally on his part, knowing that we wouldn’t drink the sodas after hearing the news. But what did he know? He had never lost his wife before, never had to break the news to his two sons that they had lost a mother in their childhood. When I do my math now he was only 32 years old, much younger than I am now. He didn’t know shit about anything. He was already a widower. Already bereaved with two boys. Already lost before he even found himself. Everything in my life spins off the axis of that fateful day in July 1988.
It was a trying period. There was a house full of fussy aunties in lesos, trying to restore order in the wake of my mom’s death. Our house was suddenly full of grief and strange people, every room with a face that introduced themselves as an auntie or uncle. There was the clanking of pans in the kitchen and the pot was always boiling. Women cut and fried and braised. I felt stifled, blindsided and breached by all these people. Dad stayed in his room a lot during this time. I remember how much thinner he looked each time I caught a glimpse of him walking, head bowed, down the corridor to use the bathroom down the hallway. Funeral arrangements were a blur. We were not allowed to see her body in the morgue or even in the coffin. In fact we never saw mom again. My last memory of her was that morning as she saw us off. “Make sure you hold your brother’s hand,” was the last thing she told me because I hated holding my brother’s hand to the bus stage. Why should I? Was he a girl?
After we buried mom my father remained depressed for two months. Of course depression wasn’t a thing then but I remember him not coming out of his room at all. We hardly saw him. Often I could hear his bedroom door opening in the dead of the night then footsteps as he shuffled to use the toilet. One of our aunts took care of us. She fed us, made sure we were washed up, she kept the house clean. She would leave food outside dad’s bedroom door and it would remain untouched. Martin would wake up and cry at night and when he did I would wake up and sit with him and I would tell him not to cry while crying myself. Relatives came and went, telling us childish things like “your mother is now in heaven.” That she was now an angel. I hated hearing such lies. I knew my mom would never die and leave us just to rush to heaven. She would rather go to hell first than leave us.
One day we came back from school to find my dad taking tea in the living room, reading a newspaper like nothing had farkin’ happened. His cheeks were sunken and his bones stretched his face but otherwise his eyes were alive, bright and alert. There was some hair in the dining room sink. The whole house smelled of aftershave and mint. He seemed different. He came to our room and talked to us as we changed out of our school uniforms. I will never forget the speech. He said something about life being unfair, about tragedy and about God’s will. He said there was absolutely nothing we could do to get our mother back, that we were now alone, the three of us and we needed to stay very strong and close together if we were going to overcome this tragedy. He seemed so assured and strong. “The world is watching how we handle this”, he said looking intensely at each of us in the eyes. “No more tears, gentlemen,” he said, “okay? No more tears. We take care of ourselves now.” He called us gentlemen a lot.
After that it felt like he had deleted mom’s death from our lives. He never referred to it, never mentioned it. Never got dragged into that conversation if any of us tried talking about it. The only thing that he left as her memory were the framed photos of her on the wall. I became very protective of Martin. In school I would fight his fights. I would wait outside his classroom after school. At break time we shared our samosas or fried cassavas. We often walked home together.
Dad struggled as a single parent. He came home early from work and we almost always had dinner together. He asked about school. He helped with homework. He was strict and stern but loving. He never hit us, hardly ever raised his voice at us. If you erred, he sat you down and asked you why? Why did you behave like that? He made you explain your actions. Then he told you what he thought of your buffoonery, then you felt really stupid and irresponsible and you never did it again. We always knew he had our backs even if he scolded us. “Gentlemen, we have to cross over this river together,” he would often tell us. “We all have to row, if we don’t row we don’t cross. If I row and you sit watching me we won’t cross faster. We row together and we cross together.” He would also remind us that nobody owed us anything. Nobody.
On the weekends when the help went away, he supervised the house chores. Wearing shorts, he sometimes joined in cleaning the toilet as one of us scrubbed the bathroom.
He worked tirelessly at his government job that hardly paid enough, but he supplemented it with sugarcane farming that often didn’t do very well. I don’t think he was a businessman, he was just a man who tried. He was always shuttling between the village and the city, a journey that was over 400kms’ drive. He always wore his Kaunda suits but he couldn’t afford any more, so the ones he had were faded and frayed at the collar. He was the quintessential civil servant. He never gained any more weight after mom died. I don’t recall him getting any bigger, so he cast a very dispirited look for anybody who didn’t know him; willowy with old kaunda suits.
We had barely enough. Often our electricity would be disconnected and we would go about the house in darkness. We always expected this because over dinner dad would always prepare us by saying something like, “Gentlemen, we are going to run into some storm, and darkness will descend upon us for some time. So let’s hold on tight to the boat.” He always made problems so romantic. I can’t count how many times we ate under the glow of candles but it never once felt like we were lacking, that we were poorer than our neighbours. It always just felt like, I don’t know, life. Upon reflection, I have been able to manage my downtimes in life much better from this childhood experience because dad never saw lacking as an embarrassing thing. My first time visiting the barber was in university because dad always cut our hair. He used scissors and then later clippers. He would shave me and then shave my brother then I would shave him but later Martin took over because he was better at it.
When I finished primary school, off I went to boarding school and two years later Martin joined me. The day he dropped me off he hugged me for the first time and said, “It’s not about how smart you are but how disciplined you are.” I worked hard to make him proud. We became friends. We wrote letters; mine long, his pithy and full of advice; avoid bad company, keep your head low and work hard, stay disciplined, be grateful for the little we have, focus, focus. He always ended his letters with, “I’m praying for both of you, gentlemen.” Sundays were very quiet days in our home. After mom died we never went to church again. Dad was spiritual but never religious. He would sleep in until midday. He encouraged us not to leave our beds as well until late. “Sundays are for quiet reflection,” he would say. “It’s the day you give to yourself and your God.” So I never went looking for God because somehow I was convinced God lived in him. He never drank or smoked.
He came for all visiting days. All. Visiting. Days. He came in his old Kaunda suits and his old rickety Renault. We would sit in this car and eat chapatis and chips and sausages until our stomachs hurt. He was curious about our education, he questioned us about our performance, about what we wanted to do in life, about the friendships in school, about our teachers. He treated us like men, like gentlemen, but most importantly like his brothers. I was afraid to disappoint him, to make him sad, to bring shame or disrepute to him. We both worked tirelessly to make him proud. We respected his authority, trusted his instincts. We went to university, when we both graduated he was there; smiling, proud, validated. When we both got our Masters he said, “halfway there, halfway there.” When I got my Phd, he got very emotional.
We never saw him with a woman. We would tell him, ‘Dad, why don’t you marry?’ He would brush it aside with jokes, “No woman would marry a man with these sideburns,” or, “you gentlemen eat too much, it can scare away any prospective,” or “find me a woman who looks like your mother and I will marry her.” He brushed it aside. We worried for him, we wanted him to marry to be happy but he always said we were his happiness which just put pressure on us. If he had an affair with women – surely he must have – he sure kept it under his hat. There was never any trail. When I brought my fiance home to meet him for the first time, he bowed and kissed the back of her hand and said, “You remind me of his mother when we first met. She was amazing but not half as beautiful as you.” Emma blushed so hard she almost fainted. “Stop it dad,” I said, “she is taken.” Emma adored him. Really adored him.
Dad was my best man because he is the best man I know. I got a tailor who stitched an amazing Kaunda suit. He looked elegant and dashing. He gave a moving speech at the reception that brought everybody to tears. When he sat down he looked bashfully at the floor. When Martin got married he was part of the groomsmen. Of course he missed the stag party. My brother got married to a foreigner with a daughter he adopted. He later moved abroad to be with her. When his wife got a brain aneurysm, dad and I dropped everything to join him abroad for three weeks at the tail end of winter. Emma couldn’t understand it. How I could drop everything and just run to be with him, she didn’t understand that we were gentlemen. It’s hard to explain certain things to your spouse, a deep history, a connection that isn’t just about blood and relations. They can’t see it through their own lens. She wondered if I was more committed to my brother than to our marriage. It’s an ongoing conversation in our home. I named my son after my dad. Poor kid, such large shoes to fill.
In December of 2015, he invited us to the village for Christmas. Martin’s family couldn’t make it. I went down with Emma and my son. When we got there he had stepped out briefly to get some supplies and a stout woman with a kind face welcomed us. We knew who she was before he introduced her. “This is your mother,” he later told us, one arm around her. It was just perfect. They were just perfect. We call her Mother. She has a daughter Martin’s age. She’s a bit reserved, a bit introverted so that relationship hasn’t taken off like it should.
Two years ago Martin called me and told me that dad had prostate cancer. I was in the office. I booked the last flight out, picked my coat from the back of my chair, went home and quickly packed a bag. I got to the village at the stroke of midnight. Dad in the verandah seated in his old wooden chair in the darkness waiting for my arrival. I dropped my bag at my feet and embraced him. He felt brittle, small, weakened. I wept. Still holding me he said, “No, tears, now we are gentlemen.” Mother woke up and served me food and some food that she had prepared earlier then she left us to talk. I got Martin on speaker. Just before dawn it was resolved: India. Martin emptied all his savings. I emptied all my savings. I even took out my son’s education policy. “I love your father, God knows I do, but you can’t undo everything in our lives.” Emma said the night before we left for India. We were whispering because Dad was asleep in the spare bedroom. She was frightened at how erratic I was. “Our son will be okay as long as I’m here,” I assured her, “but first I have to try to save dad.”
Mother came to India with us and stayed for two weeks then she came back home. I honestly didn’t see much of India, we were always by his bedside. We took turns to sleep in dad’s room. We spent the whole day by his bed. We pored over his medical reports, we questioned his doctors, we Googled procedures, we took turns to shave him, we talked about everything, he told us about his childhood. When I hear other men talk about not being able to talk to their fathers I don’t relate. There is nothing dad doesn’t know about us. There is nothing embarrassing enough not to tell him. Dad got better, then he got worse, then he got better.
On July 13, 2019, on a Saturday, we brought Dad back home.
Mother met us at the airport. She had on one of those big headbands like a Nigerian woman at a wedding. She hugged him for what seemed like an hour. We stood back respectfully and pretended we weren’t watching. They whispered things. They held hands. She adjusted his collar even though it didn’t need adjusting. He said something that looked mischievous going by the look on his face. She threw her head back and laughed then turned to us,” he hasn’t changed,” she said adoringly. He hadn’t; he was weak but he was alive. He is still alive, fighting cancer.
When I think of that day, July 1988, I macabrely think that it was a blessing in disguise. I’m certain I wouldn’t have had the relationship we have with dad had my mom still been alive. Maybe mom would have loved us better, but I don’t know that, what I know is that dad is here and he loved and still loves us like two parents can. He has taught us how to be men, about compassion, about modesty, discipline and about being gentlemen. He has been many things, but most importantly, a friend. I’m almost certain that I won’t be half the man to my son what my dad has been to me. I try. I keep trying and hoping that it’s in me. That this thing is in the genes. That it’s generational. Sometimes I think tragedy does in fact bring out the best in us.
Dad, I know you will read this because I will send it to you today. [Ha-ha]. I love you.
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