Remember that night when you woke up and asked me to make you tea at 2:00am? I was studying for a test or writing a paper – I can’t remember which. I do remember being very irritated that you would interrupt me for your cup of tea. Studying after all, by your words and actions, was the holy grail that kept us exempt from any and all chores and parental errands, wasn’t it? I set aside my papers and stood up slowly to register my silent protest. You stayed watching me and I looked up at you, caught off guard that you hadn’t punctuated your request by walking out to the veranda without looking back like you usually did. You looked tired. Your whole face seemed to hang loosely, sagging downward into your grey-stubbled chin. Your eyes were red, which wasn’t unusual when you were tired in those last days, but I had never seen you look so uncertain and troubled as you did looking at me that night.
“How many years till you finish university again?” you asked
“Two-and-a-half” I answered.
“Bring the tea and meet me outside” you said, finally turning on your heel and heading to the veranda.
I met you outside with your mug, expecting you to be sitting in your favorite spot. Instead, you were standing by the rails and you asked me to join you there, watching the stars as you told me you were worried about me. I was the only one of your adult children left without a degree, you said.
“How will you stand on your feet if I’m gone?”
I hadn’t answered because you weren’t expecting an answer and I was too preoccupied with my growing irritation at your whimsical concerns and your sudden need for star-gazing. Both were completely out of character for you and I remember thinking: What’s gotten over him?
I now believe you already knew you were dying. You could already feel that something was seriously wrong in your body.
This 2018, twenty years after you left this side of eternity, I have found myself remembering that night often. I notice there is a lot I want to say to you now that time, distance and maturity have done their work in me. I don’t know how it works on the other side, but just in case you can catch these words in the stars I am sending them out. The realist in me (I got that from you!) also knows that I am most practically writing this letter for myself – to fulfill that human need to process our thoughts and in so doing make meaning. It is also for those who have lost earthly fathers and who might find food for thought in my musings. I know the intellectual part of you would have been ok with me sharing you in this way.
So here’s what I would now tell you over tea.
Daddy I want you to know that I am fine. In fact, life has been kind to me since you left. I am more than standing on my feet. I am grounded and these days I stargaze a lot, dreaming of what I might do next. You taught us well and you would have been so proud to see how we came together and how the older ones took charge in the aftermaths of the war events and your funeral. I finished that undergrad degree you left me doing and have done three degrees since. I made Dr but I am not Dr. Kanu because I got married to the boyfriend you only met once. I wish you had been around long enough to get to know him. But if the dead can speak then both you and Lana’s dad did when we found a picture of you together hosting Colin Powell – a week to our wedding! We didn’t even know you had met or knew each other. We thought that was a God thing. We have 3 children and having them has helped me understand your troubled look that night you asked me to make tea. I wouldn’t want to leave any of mine behind before they looked like they could stand on their feet without me either.
You have 17 living grandchildren! I often wonder how they would have changed you. I experienced you softening in your later years and I think you would have been a grandfather extraordinaire. Of course you would have busied yourself planning all our children’s futures and would have expected us to follow your directions! In my imaginary life, I have made up scenes of you meeting Shola and Amira and the others we never got to see or name. I imagine Amira talking nonstop and filling you in on all the details you missed that she got to experience. You would have been so proud to see us gathered to honour your living legacy a few weeks ago. You’d be happy to know that the Lokomasama school is still going strong 30 years after you founded it and the clinics are still running, among many other ways you continue to be alive to those you touched and served. You did good. And we are all fine. You can rest in peace.
Daddy, I didn’t think I would miss you. I was so angry at you for most of my teenage life for what I saw as your personal faults and failings. The only year we had for our relationship to re-form was not enough! So, I thought I would barely notice you were gone because in my mind and teenage experience, you weren’t really there anyway. These past years, I have learned that nothing can replace an earthly father. I understand a tiny bit now the oxymoron of why those who have living fathers who are missing-in-action or unsafe to be around will struggle with ‘fatherlessness’ anyway. You show up in my thoughts at the most unexpected moments. I find myself hissing my teeth at you when I think: I wonder if Daddy would have approved. Or laughing out loud when I call my kids hooligans and nincompoops in jest like you used to when we were being silly. Or seeing you in my mind’s eye when I impress on my kids the privileges they have that they should never take for granted.
Most of all, I have missed you at every important milestone in my life. I remember waking up on the morning of my first graduation, feeling heavy and down. I couldn’t shake the feeling and as you know, being down is not like me. During the ceremony, it suddenly hit me. One of your last wishes was to at least see me through undergrad before you died. I mourned you quietly that day – silently wiping the spontaneous tears that sprung to my eyes. You’ve missed every one – every graduation, my wedding and the birth of my children. You would have been pleased that your bestie Uncle Modupe Taylor-Pearce officiated my church wedding. You would also be proud of all the community/professional accolades I’ve received that would have had you beaming and bragging forever, even though you would probably have only said: Of course, I expected you to do that! That’s not special – what will you do next? I still hear you saying that. You taught me never to rest on my laurels or failures.
Daddy I have forgiven you. Oh, I know you would hiss and say: who needs your forgiveness! Or who do you think you are to forgive me?! But hear me out. I am older and wiser (I think!). I realize now that no one – and no earthy father – is perfect. In our humanity we all have faults and failings. You made mistakes as a parent and as a human in spite of your incredible public service. I could not reconcile those things then. I can do so better now. I got to the point after much prayer (and yes, I went ahead with that faith conversion – sorry!), of realizing that I cannot hold you in judgment while carrying hurt and pain that you can’t come back to change or fix. Working through that taught me to release my fiery anger that you also used to warn me about when I was younger. So these days, I hold the memory of you in all your flawed humanity. I will not idolize your memory by denying our disagreements and fighting, but I love the memory of you just as you were. It helps that in adulthood I can now see my own faults and failings too and therefore appreciate yours!
Oh and Daddy, I know you loved me! I have this distinct memory of us staring at each other after yet another standoff, our eyes spitting fireworks between us. You suddenly shook your head and walked away! What victory! You did not try to beat me down – I won the day! More importantly, in the split second before you walked away I saw it! I saw your rage at whatever I had just said change to pure unadulterated admiration – that I, this 5-foot rebel child of yours would dare challenge you who world leaders listened to! I think you saw yourself in me that day. I think you walked away because if you had kept my gaze you’d have had to admit that you admired my spunk and loved my fire. So when Memuna, Musu and Isata told me how you used to talk about me nonstop on your trips to visit them between conferences, at first I was like: “what are you talking about! All we ever did was fight!” Then I saw you looking at me like you did that day and I remembered that it was true – you were proud of me. You loved me.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this tea talk. I’ll be thinking of you all day today. April 12 – your birth and memorial day, and your youngest grandson’s birthday. Your legacy lives on.
Your Rebel Child, aka. Dr. Yabome (Satia) Gilpin-Jackson. (Yes, I know you scratched Satia off my birth certificate but I like it, so I use it sometimes anyway :)!)