It’s my birthday in a week’s time and to be quite honest, 28 doesn’t feel any different to 27 or 26 or any of the other preceding years that I have been fortunate to experience. But it will be different, at least for me, in that it will mark the first birthday that I celebrate fatherless.
I use ‘fatherless’ here quite restrictedly for I refer to fatherlessness caused by death; there are many people who would tell you that they are fatherless anyway even though their fathers are still alive. And quite honestly, I can say I know what that sort of fatherlessness feels like too. But I will start this piece by writing about fatherlessness caused by death, that final arbiter who decides – as Michael prophetically affirmed – that, “This is it!”
This is it; I can no longer fantasise about certain things, like spending a birthday with my father; that even though this never happened in the past, it never shall in the future for his life has come to an end. This is it; he will never meet my children, my partner, his grandchildren. And this is it because I will never hear him say those three words to me, “I love you.”
My parents divorced when I was two years old. My father then moved to Harare and we (my mum, sister and I) remained in Bulawayo where we grew up. I can recount the years I saw him while growing up; 1990, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001. After that we began to interact more often, but the damage had already been done; seeing your father once every three years – and seeing him for a few hours at that – does not fulfil the little girl’s need to be validated and loved and accepted.
On such meetings, we would go and dine at expensive hotels (a compensation for absence, I suppose) and I would try to squeeze in a couple of years of living into one conversation as I cut into my chicken Kiev, garlic mushrooms and sautéed potatoes – meals that I ordinarily didn’t eat because I lived an otherwise simple life. I remember our 1994 meeting when I recounted something funny about the Fun Day race that had happened a few months previously. I had been burning to tell him about it, but by then, the finer details of the event had become blurry and telling the story didn’t quite feel as meaningful as it would have done had I been able to tell it to him the day it had all taken place.
Because of the grandeur that accompanied my impressions of my father – he played squash, travelled often, sent postcards and gifts from London, Geneva, Sydney, Berlin, Tokyo and every other place that I only knew about from my diligent study of the ‘Student’s Companion’ – he became my obsession, my action hero. And my only girlish desire was to enter the splendour of his life by showing him that I too was worth his attention; that I was just as special as his business trips and international destinations.
I have always been a good student, but the drive to excel was somehow informed by that need to prove to my father that I was worth noticing. I lived to make him proud. I remember him promising me the world if I did well in my O’ Levels. The rush of exhilaration that coursed through me as he said that was one that I wanted to experience again and again; my father, the important businessman, promising little old me the world and everything within it.
And thus I excelled in my O’ Levels getting 6 As and 3 Bs. I can still hear the elated roar of pride my father let out as I told him over the phone that I had done so well. Jokingly, he asked that I send him the results slip with my grades so that he could staple it to his forehead for everyone to see how great I was. “Wow,” I thought to myself. I’d seemed to hack the secret code to him; it seemed to me that doing well at school was the way to make him see me, really see me. And thus I continued with my single-minded focus into my A’ Levels and when I got 2 As and a B (14 points), his pride only seem to swell; finally, I knew how to make my father mine, or so I thought.
What I didn’t realise until later was that all those achievements weren’t really the solution, nor could they ever compensate for the lack of his presence in my life. Because I knew my father solely as the action hero who I saw once every while with a bag of gifts in hand, I missed out on the mundane parts of him, the disciplinarian in him, the bad guy; I missed out on his presence as just my father.
So what does all this matter? I have recently come to the realisation that if I don’t do something about this situation, I will be part of the perpetuation of a cycle. You see, my father was born after his own father had died. His mother was pregnant with him when his own father unfortunately lost his life. He didn’t have a father in his life and in a way, I feel this made it hard for him to know how to be a father to anyone else. In effect, he grew up without what he also could not give to his children; a father’s presence.
The perpetuation of the cycle comes in that I am a living embodiment of what has happened over the course of this long history; I have seen my mother single-handedly tend to my daily needs and try, as best as she could, to fulfil the dual roles and responsibilities of a mother and father. But no matter how many light bulbs she changed or disciplinary speeches she gave, she could never be my father. And why should she have to have been my father anyway? Why should I have had to miss out on the real thing?
The answers to those questions will unleash another series of issues that I am still dealing with and trying to find words for. But for now, I must articulate how the perpetuation of the cycle I have referred to works. For many women raised by their mothers, we inadvertently internalise the idea that men are not a necessary component of life. No, our mothers do not actually need to expressly state this, but we see it in the way that life functions quite ‘normally’ without a male presence; the way that bills get paid and the sun still rises and sets on cue every day.
From an early age we experience minimal meaningful contact with the opposite sex that we ingrain it upon our minds that our pride lies in treating men as optional pursuits. We inculcate a power dynamic to relations with men, particularly men who would want to date or marry us, and want to sit at a vantage point where we can dictate the rules of the game so as to never give away our power to another man the way we did – without much choice in the matter – to our fathers.
I see this in myself quite clearly. And it’s taken me short on 28 years to finally appreciate this in a constructive way; that yes, I tend to use intellectual bullying to push men out and also to show them that I am not weak, no, no, no, I am not weak, you will not be allowed to mess around with my trust because that already happened to me and I won’t let anyone else do it to me!
So there, I said it! I have an intense fear of being loved because my first reference of love from a man is so vague that I can’t even hear his voice echo in my memories telling me, “My daughter, I do love you.” I have none of that.
But what I do have are the memories and I hold dearly to them. The one remembrance that I draw comfort from is from when I was 25 years old and my father paid a surprise visit to me at work. He’d bought me lunch and just came by to deliver it. When he’d met the security guard at the gate, they’d had a little conversation about me. I was really good friends with the guard and the two were comparing notes about me.
As my father gave me my food and went through the normal motions of conversation, he broke with the formality and said to me, “Fungi, I didn’t even have to enter the premises to hear someone speak well of you. If even the man who sits outside the office knows you well enough to hold a conversation about you, then what more can I really say? This makes me proud.”
And finally I realised then that I didn’t need to do anything great for him to see me. He’d always seen me… but he just didn’t know how to acknowledge it. He was dealing with his own absence of a father and trying his best to be mine.
I am told that my father was buried in a pair of black leather shoes that I bought for him some time ago in 2008; I was too wrought with grief to check what he was wearing in his casket. I am also told that he used to tell everyone who would listen about those shoes and how he had a wonderful daughter doing great things who still remembered him wherever she went and bought him gifts.
And now I live with that memory of a winter’s Friday afternoon standing at my father’s graveside looking down at his casket nestled in the ground below.
“Throw the soil, my sister,” the pastor finally whispered to me.
I felt as though I had been standing there for an eternity with that clump of earth clenched within my fist. I didn’t want to throw it, didn’t want to bury him, didn’t want to say goodbye.
The rasping sound of that earth hitting the hardness of my father’s wood casket still fills my ears in the moments when grief consumes me.
We weren’t done yet Baba. We left so much unsaid. But this I will not leave unknown:
“I love you too.”