My father passed away recently. My brother called me from San Diego with the news. He has just heard from my mother at home. Father did not suffer at all, he said. My mother was feeding him his dinner of Horlicks (a liquid health formula). She went to the kitchen to get a towel to wipe off his mouth. When she came back his head was resting on the back of his chair in an unusual angle although his eyes were wide open. She could not have been gone for more than thirty seconds but she knew in her heart that the man was gone. She closed his eyes before calling her brother on the phone who lived about four blocks away.
It was early Monday morning, the day after my birthday. A sudden inertia set inside me and I called in sick. My sadness smothered me like a cloak of stone and kept choking my windpipes. I sat around all day not having the energy to perform my simplest chores. My father had not been well for a very long time. When he refused treatment we knew that he did not want to prolong his agony and was ready to go when his God called him. He had no unfinished tasks, he said often — and no unpaid debts either. He knew we would collectively take care of my mother for the remainder of her life. He was free to return to his maker.
I was my father’s first born child — albeit a female one — but someone whom he confided in. His father was a poor clergyman and there was never a lot of food available unless for the kindness of the parishioners — who were mostly farmers or sharecroppers — people that did not enjoy abundance of any kind in their own life. But they would bring in things for the young, pious couple with a child: a live chicken, a freshly caught catfish or two, a few duck eggs, a pumpkin or a gourd, bunches of greens, a sack of coarse brown rice. Things they were happy to make available to the family even when theirs’ would not have enough.
My grandfather had mastered all Holy languages but not English. He urged his skinny little boy, who survived infancy without succumbing to a premature death unlike his older siblings, to learn English for a prosperous life in the future. He wanted his son to have a well-paid profession so he could take care of his mother and his younger siblings in case anything happened to my grandfather. So, my father on his ninth birthday started walking from his remote village — about five miles each way — to the nearest town where English was taught in the Middle School along with Geometry, Algebra, Logic, History, and Geography.
He got married to my mother at nineteen upon his graduation from High School at the insistence of his father who believed he had found the perfect match for him. A gentleman my grandfather had met in one of his sojourns through the main cities was looking for a groom for his daughter who had just turned fifteen. This gentleman was English educated — quite highly — owned a home in the nicest part of the big city, had a job with the British Government, and was very solvent. This well-to-do gentleman was looking for a bright young man for his daughter to marry, whom he would send to college and later to the University in order to secure a nice, comfortable future for her.
Convinced by his father that this proposal of marriage was Godsend, my father got married as directed and embarked on a new journey of his own. All this time however, he was secretly hoping that when he finished college in the future he would marry that distant cousin of his whom he had accidentally came upon during his long summer holidays recently and who was so pretty that she looked like an angel. But that was not God’s will; his father had to know what was best for him and so he acquiesced.
I doubted if my father ever confessed to my mother point blank about his platonic love interest, but she somehow found out about his beautiful cousin and always made sure to announce this fact in any argument that ensued between them: she had always known that she was not the desired one. I was an unwilling witness when she hurled her accusation back at him on many occasions. But she had clout, my mother did; coming from a moderately rich family that provided for my father’s education and ultimately his decent livelihood, she declared he was lucky to have married her!
My father became successful in his career as expected. All five of us were born within a few years of his marriage. However, we all felt that there was something missing in our household. Our parents were dutiful to each other but they were not friends like most of the other parents around us appeared to be. We learned that sad truth very early in our life and filed it away. My father always came home right after work and never looked at or praised another woman in our presence. But somehow we knew that he still loved that distant cousin of his whom he had seen only once, and who had since married and had a family of her own. Nevertheless, we felt very guilty about that. I fervently wished, while growing up, that I could exchange my own mother for this other lady and bring her back to my father as my personal gift to him. It made me sad that it could not be done!
We had another brother — the last child of my parents — when I was 16 and I loved him to death; he had my father’s eyes, and that wide forehead!
My father ran a big government agency with about 200 people reporting to him. But he always had time for us. We would wait anxiously for him, our hands and feet washed, hair combed with barrettes and ribbons in place, frocks clean. The veranda where he would lie down on his “Easy Chair” upon his return and ask us about the day would be spotless. He hated clutter and mess; symmetry was very important to him — he declared many times. My father was tall and light skinned; he had large brown eyes, a high forehead, and he knew everything. We were in much awe of him. We feared and adored him. He knew so much and he was never wrong.
“Empty vessels sound much,” he would quote from Aesop’s Fables when my mother would start ranting and raving about his family back in the village home and how they were draining our family budget. Yes, my grandfather’s prophecy had come true and he had died just a few years after I was born leaving a widow with three children, all under eighteen and — other than the ancestral home — no money for their upkeep. My father was their only source of support and he took complete responsibility for that.
“Honesty Is The Best Policy,” he would write a single line for me to practice a dozen times down the ruled page, to improve my penmanship. Or, “As You Sow, So Shall You Reap,” and other times, “A Friend In Need Is A Friend Indeed.” He bought me the complete “ESOP’s Fables” before I was seven and later “The Golden Verses of English Poetry” when I was nine. “One more unfortunate weary of breath, rashly importunate gone to her death,” he recited when giving me the book. Bridges of Sigh by Alfred Tennyson, I think. He bought me many books during my childhood. In fact, for my birthdays or other special occasions he always bought me books, which actually disappointed me at that time. I had wished for dolls and toys and a new frock secretly. But he had a different view of my life, which I was destined to live.
“I wish you had been born a boy, with all the intelligence that God gave you, it would have been better utilized in a boy,” he would say often. Strangely enough, I always took it as a compliment. In a culture where being born a girl was considered unlucky he was apprehensive of my future with a brain loaded down with intelligence! I was already asking too many questions, why this and why that, and he did not always have a good answer for me. That’s just the way it is, he would finally throw up his hands in exasperation and I would ponder over his answer for a long time until another question surfaced its ugly head through the thick sludge of my intelligent head.
My father sometimes talked to me about his retirement and what he was going to do after he retired. He knew that my mother, being raised in the city, would not be interested in joining him in his journey towards his past. But he was going back to his ancestral home in that remote village, no matter what. The house he was born and grew up in was in great disrepair and he was going to restore it to a habitable condition and live there. He would not miss the electricity because he remembered how bright the stars were in his village sky. Besides, he would have kerosene lamps and candles for the evening and he would get all his reading done during daylight hours. And not having indoor plumbing would not bother him either. The outhouse would serve him just fine as it had his family before, and the river was only a short walk down for bathing and swimming or maybe, catching a fish or two — a sluggish lobster sunning by the water’s edge with its big fat claws limp in a sun-induced stupor!
He retired at sixty-two, ready to realize his dreams. And then his longtime physician disclosed to him that he had only one of his kidneys functioning and very soon he would need to be on a dialysis machine to keep his remaining one from going bad.
I went back to visit him after I heard that news. I have been gone for twenty-seven years; I really wanted to see him, sit with him, talk with him, and share with him my days here in the U.S., my thoughts, and my life of an expatriate in my adopted country. He did not sound resentful at all at the strange turns that all of our lives have taken. He looked genuinely happy to have me sitting near him and listened with rapt attention of a child to my stories from a faraway place. I knew that he has accepted whatever his God’s will might be for his remaining days along with the future of his family. When it was time for me to leave he told me that he was very proud of all of us and he knew no matter where we were in this world we would always be good people and do our best to help others in need. He also told me that his long forgotten cousin’s name was “Aleya” and she had passed away nine years ago.
As I was going about my house thinking about my father I remembered a little story that he told me long ago about his early boyhood days. On days when there was no school he would take a little hand woven fishnet to catch fish for his mother in a nearby river. He would have to wade quietly into the deeper end of the water for bigger fish. Barefoot, he would step onto a lot of muck like jagged tin cans, a sharp chunk of wood, broken glass which would then gash the soles of his feet. As he tended to the bleeding from his cuts, he would tell himself that when he grew up and made a lot of money he would buy himself a pair of shoes made of iron. Those shoes would protect his feet from all those cuts when he went fishing so his mother would have something to cook for all of them to eat. He would finish the story with a laugh and tell me that it was such a silly wish for a boy of ten — nobody made shoes out of iron; they would be extremely heavy and would probably drown you! Besides, when you did have the money you could simply go to the market and buy all the fish you wanted for your mother!
I finally broke down and cried when I remembered this story.
I love you Baba, wherever you are, I will always love you. I am glad you were my father. I know I will never see you again, but I am happy to have made your acquaintance.
Khojesta A. Price writes to us from Glendale, Wisconsin.