It had never occurred to me that I would be yanked out of a hall full of admirers in the middle of a talk. These young students had flooded my timeline and inbox for months on end daring me to ignore their call, finally I had run out of excuses and succumbed to their summons. I was in my element when the door swung open. Generally I do not allow any late comers to my talks, in all honesty because I don’t prepare much and allow the moment to direct me – once this is interrupted I shrivel back in my little cocoon. That the door even opened was a shock to me, I had given strict instructions to the security guards not to let anyone in under any circumstances. But alas, a stern-looking young man stood at the door looking me straight in the face as if daring me to object to his intrusion. My equally intrigued audience shouted out in protest, some mentioning his name.
Unperturbed, he summoned me outside with his head, when I moved towards the door the protest grew even louder. Shut that door! Someone shouted as I walked out. In a haze I duly complied and shut the door from the outside. Only then I realised that the call was for me to shut out the intruder and continue with the talk. This was getting all too weird for me. I turned to this unknown intruder who seemed to have this spell on me. To him all seemed normal. There was nothing distinguishable about him. Except his face had death written all over it. I immediately feared for my life. Would this be my day? Is he my assassin? That’s how most people go, under the strangest of circumstances. A series of broken links – one thing that is usually done that for some unknown reason was not done at that particular day. Death comes in strange packages.
“Sir I’m sorry to inform you but your father has been admitted in hospital. The doctors say he does not have long. He has asked for you.” He snapped me out of my martyr conspiracy theory with no ceremony.
“Can,” I cleared the lump on my throat, “can you drive me there?” I think a tear run down my cheek at this moment. He was still non-committal emotionally.
“I don’t drive sir. But there is no need for that, he is here in the university hospital. If you would just follow me I’ll lead you…” He said it as if he was just there visiting, as if he hadn’t just told me that my father was on his death bed. How insensitive? Selfish?
I lead the way to the hospital, he followed closely. As if he was keeping an eye on me like a prisoner or wild animal being paraded in public. But there was no crowds cheering or leering at me. Just throngs and throngs of students going about their business with their no worry in the world swagger. What is with all these people? Don’t they know I’m about to lose my father? Do they not care at all?
I had attempted to call home just yesterday. No one picked up. I called both my parents’ cell, no one picked up either. I had thought it strange but dismissed it as nothing. But why haven’t they returned my calls? Again the strangeness that acquaints death. My mom in particular. Maybe I ought to call her. But I found my pockets empty. Another trait of mine is that when I get comfortable in any place, I clean my pockets of all contents. I asked my parole officer for his phone, which he swiftly relinquished without so much as a peep. I failed to recall my mother’s digits and dialled the only tens I could remember even during a nuclear blast: my home numbers. For some odd reason my mom picked up after just one ring, her voice was calm and soothing. Almost as if she knew it was I on the other line. I didn’t think it strange that she should be home and not at the hospital, I was just glad to hear her voice. I knew that my world hadn’t completely collapsed. The other half still held the fort.
“Mama.” I wept. She sang. Or rather hummed a beautiful melody that just plunged me into a deep reserved calm. There were no words to be said. I just walked on even though I felt like sitting down with my face between my knees like I would do when I was a boy. That was my sulk pose. He would pick me up by my knees and let my head swing, and wouldn’t let go until I laughed hard. My mom would always throw harsh words his way, warning that should he ever dare hurt her child he better run towards his own mother if he is to live. Half of him is mine, he would retort, so he will only hurt one half and leave her half intact. She would go even madder, telling stories of people who went mad because of blood that ran to their heads. Her stories, told in all sincerity, would always serve to knock the suppressed laugh right out of me. See, he would say with a smile behind his feigned frown, now you almost gave your mother a heart attack. You should laugh more often.
I chuckled a bit. My mother did not miss the chuckle and stopped her humming. What happened ma? Heart attack son. Silence befell us.
But I don’t remember my father having a heart problem, and last I saw to him he was healthy and strong, no sign of death looming around the corner. He was old yes, just a few months under eighty, but where did this heart attack come from. It made no sense at all. These things don’t just happen do they? I mean he went for regular check-ups. I know because I paid for them. A beep replaced my mother’s joyful silence. Just in time it would seem, we had just entered the hospital grounds. Meticulous grounds to a world class hospital. I had always wondered if this is where we train our medical personnel, then throw them in third world hell holes we call hospitals in black South Africa, how do we even begin to expect them to be of any help?
Upon entering the hospital I headed straight for the cardiology wing, a former fling of mine had worked there. It was the best in the country, which meant that it was exclusively for the monied. Which again added to the strangeness of it all, how did my father end up here? And why was my mother at home? It smelled too much like death. I composed myself, he would want me to walk in with a smile, he’ll probably laugh at me for fearing death so much. You’re such a coward. You should laugh more often, I remembered. I managed a chuckle. Even I wasn’t convinced of it, so I let my sombreness be.
“Look son,” the doctor said once my guard had announced my arrival, “to put it simply the main artery is all but gone, he is currently on life support. There is absolutely nothing that can be done. He asked that we keep it on till you spoke. He can barely talk, but just try to say your goodbyes without him exerting himself too much with speech. It will only bring him more pain. Good luck.”
The doctor opened the door and I walked in. Apart from the strange contraption by the bed, this could as well have been a three-star hotel room. I cleared my throat to get his attention. I feared sneaking up on a man on a short fuse. I stepped forward again and got a bit closer.
He turned and stretched out his hand. But the man who begged me to come closer was not my father. Well he was but at the same time wasn’t. He was no stranger, but he was not my father. He, or rather I looked like him in all respects but he was not my father. I am flesh of his flesh and blood of his blood but he was not my father. I turned back to ask the doctor where my father was, but he was gone and this man kept calling out to me, ‘son’ he pleaded.
I wanted to cry. There were so many people, too many people, all draped in gold and black, all gigantic to my small frame. Papa. I cried. It was noisy. Everyone was shouting. I thought I was too. Papa. But I was just whispering this over my muffled cry. I had forgotten all about the bicycle winner Mchichwa had jolted the mighty khosi into a frenzy with. Papa. I let two tears drop. I couldn’t see where the gates where. Papa. I couldn’t see where all the people were heading to. They seemed to be going everywhere and anywhere. Papa. I let go and wept. Which only served to disorientate me even more. This man lying here, wearing the black and white, picked me up and tried to calm me down. This man that was guilty of my conception – beyond that he had no charges brought up against him. I punched him repeatedly in the face. I want my father! I screamed. I hit his shades and cut him just under his eye with one of my frantic fists. The scar remains 20 years later as he lies in his death bed. He put me down and firmly held on to my hand, preventing me from the Usain Bolt jolt I was intent on. Just at that moment my father appeared. He was laughing at my hysterical behaviour. I calmed down instantly. Papa. How I wish he could walk through the door with his infectious laughter and save me from this man who today dares call me son.
I thought it best to laugh. As my father would, but maybe it might be insensitive. Anyway I never really inherited my father’s ability to laugh at will. I tried to remember all he taught me, all the wisdom I had inherited from him in dealing with difficult situations.
‘Son,’ he spoke in laboured speech. I approached the side of the bed. Holding his hand I looked deep into his eyes. He was hurting. His soul was hurting. I knew because that is exactly how my eyes look when I’m in emotional turmoil. For the first time in my life I felt a sort of bond with this man, a bond I could explain neither its origin nor nature. We spoke with our eyes for a moment. But I did not understand the message he was desperately trying to convey. I have never been much of an eye reader. He noticed this.
‘I regret abandoning you every day of my life’
Abandoned? I have never considered myself abandoned before. Least of all in the manner in which many a black child experiences abandonment: an absent father. Not once in my life had I lacked a father. Not once. What was this man on about? I felt bruised. Many of my friends, colleagues, cousins, lovers and comrades have always commented on my fortune of not only having a father but having a relationship with him. Many had felt abandoned by their fathers, whether absent or present. Which only made me appreciate my father even more.
I realised through the experience of most people I dealt with, that by and large we are a fatherless nation. And this is both the source of the over-compensatory love and irrational hate for our mothers. We give them the love due to them and our absent fathers. For playing both roles, for holding the fort against all odds. And we hate them for either not being able to hold on to our fathers, or pushing them away. Either way, our relationship with our mothers seems to be tainted at every step by our fathers.
My own mother, the one who actually gave birth to me, passed when I was very young. Though I remember the day vividly. I was playing cricket when I heard my name being called. Not in the usual impatient tone, but soothingly so. That excited me to no end. That could only mean I was summoned for good news. I had not really had the required experience in bad news to catalogue this soothing call as also a signifier of grave news. As I was jogging home I wondered: could one of my favourite aunts, uncles or cousin have just arrived. Maybe my father had finally relented and bought me the bicycle I had been pestering him about.
I sat on my father’s lap as he had instructed me. The house was in a sombre mood, which although I could not interpret it at that age, except to wipe the expectant smile on my face. My mother was not in the house. I got to learn later that she had been too hard-hit by the sudden passing of her only child, that she herself was admitted to hospital. It was said she was a suicide risk. My father smiled at me. But I could tell it was forced, so I couldn’t return it. He remained calm and told me about the love I enjoyed from all. Now I got scared, which I misunderstood. He tried to break the news to me as gently as he could, but there is no way to break a child’s innocence gently by introducing the monstrosity of death. Even he stumbled as to who had passed. My mother or my sister. The former would be confusing, especially since I regarded only one woman as my mother – that was my maternal grandmother. My actual mother was my sister. As much as this was clear to me and in all practicality, somehow the monster of death succeeded in bringing in foreign distinction that I only familiarised myself with later on in life. For a moment I was unsure as to who exactly had passed. As both women were not with us. However my pain was not misplaced in that confusion as it was when I was told my ‘father’ was on his death bed. It seemed death had a way of playing tricks on me at the best of times.
‘I cannot imagine how it was growing up without your father,’ he continued with his torrents of insults.
I couldn’t imagine either. Something’s are just circumstantial. In a world over determined by patriarchy – the love of the patriarch (the father) is the most sought after. The benevolent patriarch is a good man. A good father. One we all wish to have. One we all wish to be. He takes care of his family. Puts them through school. Guides them in the ways of the world. Protects them from the world. Prepares them for the world. But what is then the case when blackness seeps in? What is the role of the father when the world is coming after the child. And him. Especially him. What is he to do?
I grew up with father. We are best friends. And that is how I got to know him not as the hero I looked up to, but as a man. I got to understand the meaning of his laughter – he had no tears to cry no more. Just like all black males, he had long lost his manhood. And subconsciously he knew this, but consciously he did all he can to prove otherwise. Hence his dedication to me and the family. It was his way of reclaiming his manhood. He lived for us. He had forsaken all his desires. He hurt whenever he could not meet up to the standards of manhood. I remember how he congratulated me after I had saved up enough through two years of sheer hustling to get myself to varsity. With only enough to cover registration and the first few months stay. His congratulatory words were an eclectic mix of pride and shame. He had always preached that the least a man could do was to give his child tools to live; and there was no greater than education. His structural position now denied him an opportunity to prove himself a man. I felt it then that that when he said I had proven myself a man, the other side of that was that I had proven him less of a man. It seemed as though my budding manhood was the diminishing of his. He promised to cover the rest of my tuition, ‘you needn’t worry son, just focus on your books’. I thanked him, knowing very well that my only chance was to get a bursary or loan. It was the most dishonest encounter we’ve had. And we both knew it. It was embarrassing to say the least.
I will admit that sometimes, especially after leaving varsity, I would feel a bit neglected whenever and elder black male, more especially one that had ‘made it’, failed to acknowledge my presence as one would a son. Or failed to offer a word of advice or chastises ‘the youth of today’. We can say that in the general sense, I felt that we were abandoned by our fathers. On the personal front though, I had no issues of abandonment or growing up without a father. However I had often asked myself, much to my own embarrassment and shame, given that I had to sort myself out ever since I left high school, could I really say I had a father?
My father loved me. But in this anti-black world, love is not all the black child needs.
How do I navigate the muddy waters
How do I deal with the white gaze
What do I tell my daughters
When they ask the worth of a man these days
Oh great patriarch
What am I to do with the world
That hates I so?
Caught up in their own struggle to keep afloat in these very same muddy waters, our fathers never had the presence of mind to question having to swim in the first place. There are questions that we ought to raise, questions that our fathers will never be able to raise never mind answer. How do you prepare a child for a world that only has hate for them? How does she deal with it? How will he be protected from it? And most importantly, how does she destroy it? All this, that society has preserved as the role of our fathers, we have to take upon ourselves.
‘My time is not long, before I go all I want, is for you to acknowledge me as your father.’
I felt his hand lose its grip. My eyes were fixated on his. They were sparkling with hope and expectant joy. I looked at his face. He did not look twenty years my senior. He looked just like me in every respect. Young and healthy. That’s when I knew he was gone. Though his eyes still stared in hope. A deep sense of regret fell on me. A tear fell. I hadn’t had the chance to tell him the truth. The least any dying man who just confessed his sins and regrets to you in utmost sincerity deserves. I had been unable to tell him that I cannot and will not acknowledge him as my father. Not because he did not raise me, not because he abandoned me as he claimed, not because I hardly knew him. But for the simple fact that the white gaze was still fixated upon my black body as was his dead eyes on my face. But for the simple fact that the crack still dances on my back on the daily. But for the simple fact that I am still an undesirable in the world. But for the simple fact that he is not a man. I wanted to tell him, and I want to tell my father, and tell those elders who refuse to advise or rebuke me, and even those that do, in fact I want to tell everybody, that I, that we are our own fathers.