A letter to … my father who is now younger than me

Now 36, the age her father was when he died, a daughter reflects on growing up with absence and navigating the memory of those we live beyond.

Illustration of a young girl looking at a picture of her father
[Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

The memory rises like steam. A dense, soaring mist that turns gauzy before fading altogether. Me not yet four years old. My only memory of you:

The room is full of people by the time I arrive. All eyes fall on me; mine fix on you. On the floor, you lie, a white bandage with a big splotch of red on your forehead. Everyone in this room moves, so does everything. You, though, remain unmoving, unmoved. In the next room, amid a huddle of women, Aji, your mother, bawls.

I do not quite grasp what it means for a parent to lose a child, nor even for a child to lose a parent. So I do not really know how to feel, or what words to put to the feelings I must surely feel. Life had come to me, in all its fullness, just a few years before; naturally, I do not know what it means when life leaves.

Today, I am the same age you were on that day I so vividly remember. I look for you in my thinning, greying hair, my blemished skin, my youthful-no-more body. But when you died – at all of 36 – as a very young person, I looked for you in the stars, the clouds, the mountains, the trees. For an unhealthy while, I thought you would emerge from the depths of the seas.

When it became clear you wouldn’t rise from the dead, I learned something vital: Absence is the distance between you and me.

One day, at school, a boy screamed across the classroom at someone: “Baaaaastard!” I was no more than 10. I asked my bench mate if he knew what the word meant. “A child without a father,” he replied, smugly. I finally had a name for who I was. A bastard.

Not too long after, I was at a friend’s home. Her father, imposing, loud and loving as fathers are, returned from work. By now, I was used to being asked the one question I dreaded that every new person seemed to have: “What does your father do?” I answered: “He is a doctor.” My friend who knew the truth didn’t tell on me. Instead, she nodded in solidarity. I had another name for who I was. A liar.

If being a fatherless girl didn’t prompt pity, it did questions and discussions, and I wasn’t prepared for them. What did I know anyway? It seems that after you left, I kept asking Mamma when you’d return. One day, she said that you had gone forever, that I mustn’t keep asking. I never did after that, she told me recently. And thus, we settled in our comfortable silence, as did others around us. You were barely mentioned. I stopped thinking of you.

Years later, when friends recounted dad jokes in mock exasperation, I laughed. When they spoke about daddy issues, too, I laughed. I could not laugh when I saw them shaping and silhouetting themselves, guided by their fathers’ robust, vibrant, very alive presences. I wanted my own lodestar.

There was a time when being reminded of you – about what I had lost – was oppressive. Summer after summer, Mamma and I visited your shrine, our nucleus – the house we had lived in together as a family. We moved out from there within a few months of your passing, to another city, away from your memories. For years, everything in the house stayed as it was when we left: that reclining chair where you must have drunk your last tea, that cupboard you must have opened to take your clothes out one last time, your cologne with its fragrance still foolishly whole, your pencil lines on the wall marking my growing height. You, however, never grew, and within those four fusty walls, nothing changed. How could that place have thrummed without you? I never liked visiting that static reminder of what-could-have-been.

There, I only encountered you as a black-and-white painting hanging on the wall: hair parted to one side, gaze fixed on something not very far away, a hint of a smile below your moustache. What a perfectly ageless stranger you were to me – adorned always with a garland of flowers – before whom I had to join my palms in prayer because you, my father who art in heaven, were now God.

I wish I had known you enough as a human, that there had been pulsating memories of you I could excavate from and sift through. I am left, instead, with scenarios that never happened, or that never lodged themselves as memories: Your eyes gleaming with pride when you looked at me; your tears when you saw me in pain; and your belly? Your belly jiggling ludicrously when you laughed with me. I wish you had left me with tangible markers of your love, because without them, it doesn’t make sense now, this formless delayed grief of mine, which sits stupidly wedged in my throat like a big bolus, impossible to ingest, impossible to expel.

When people asked me about you, I did not want to speak. Now that I am ready to draw you out from the depths of silence, nobody wants to know. It’s not their fault – I kept you hidden in an impenetrable part of myself for too long. But here I am, trying to reach out to you, admittedly too late, before you disappear altogether from my mind. You must be more than a mere apparition, so I write these words to you, adult to adult. I squeeze this alien language between us, so I can blink you back to life.

Who am I? Who are you? I am mostly water, as are you. I am because you were. One of my “x” chromosomes belongs to you. Parts of my face, my body, my blood, my personality, too. I also am because you were not. But I don’t belong to you any more than I do to the tree outside my window. You did your time on Earth, I am doing mine. I will, one day, vanish into the cosmos, just like you. Then, we will be one. We already are.

The day you left this world without any preparation or punctuation, it rained hard. No slow-motion pain of long illness, no lengthy battle at the end. Only a moment. A moment is all it took for the truck to hit your scooter, and for you to be separated from your life and ours. That moment could have come and gone with you intact in it, if only something had delayed you for, yes, a moment. “Play with me,” I should have said. “Pick me up, throw that ball at me, give me some water.” I could have sent a toy car zipping your way, so you would have tripped over it. I should have made you linger just another short moment, long enough for my sense of time to never be eroded, me to never grow older than you, you to never walk out of our home into the frigid arms of death.

Turn around now, won’t you, please?

Source: Al Jazeera