By Simamkele Mchako
Photo by Rasaan B. c/o nappy.co
“Your father is dead;” my mother told me, with a false casual tone that she uses when trying to avoid an intense and possibly emotional conversation with me. She gave me this only moments before she went to work. She was working the night shift, and as she said goodbye I could see the worry in her eyes. The thought of leaving me alone after such news was a burden that was weighing heavily on her. The year was 2015; I was 18 years old and in Matric. I had only met my father once in my life, in 2004. We never had a relationship that went passed a couple of occasional phone calls. My father’s absence used to bother me a great deal, yet by the time I was 16 I accepted it. I spent a large portion of my adolescents resenting and loathing the man I was told was my father, and the other portion wishing that he could be a prominent figure in my everyday life. I was stuck between trying to convince myself I did not need him, and asking myself if I was to blame for his absence.
The day my mother told me of his death, my brain became stagnant. I was stripped of all thought and emotion—and for a few--it felt as though my body was on autopilot. Confusion flooded my brain as my mind was completely submerged under a sea of questions that seemed to have no answers. Questions like, how should I feel? What should I think? Why should I care? These and many others was ringing incessantly in my ear like the buzzing of a mosquito. For two and a half hours, I sat on my bed, staring at the wall, contemplating the death of a stranger. After much deliberation, I had decided not to care. I convinced myself not to mourn an individual whom I had only met once, not to mourn an individual who had never taken the time to fulfill his intended role, not to mourn an individual who lacked the care, love, and conviction that I had imagined a father should have. I made the decision to block him out of my thoughts completely, in order to protect myself from the inevitable pain that people experience when they lose a parent.
This felt cathartic.
I would no longer be wondering if he would call or not, what he was doing, if he had other children or not, and if he ever thinks about me. Everything seemed to be okay until I stood up from my bed to make myself dinner. My arms had lost its strength. It took quite a few seconds just to get off the bed and stand, which was the exact moment that I realized that my knees were also too weak to support the weight of my body. I tried, but I fell on the bed again. The sudden lack of strength in my body became even more disconcerting as I realized I was struggling to breathe. My heart was racing, and I was breathing heavily. My chest felt like there was a kilogram of bricks placed on it, and my sweat was suddenly seeping through my skin. At the exact moment when I noticed that my hands was shaking, the tears coming out of my eyes like water from a fountain overwhelmed me. I couldn’t help but wonder about his life, his likes and dislikes, his sense of humor, and all the idiosyncrasies that built up his character and personality. Anger, frustration, and hate immediately filled my heart and there was no one on which to aim them. I was flustered by all these conflicting emotions, which were extremely overwhelming.
I laid crying there for what seemed to be an eternity, I felt as though all the life was sucked out of my body, and then my phone rang, “Siyeza. We’re coming.” I do not know if it was divine intervention or a simple coincidence, but on the day, I learned of my father’s death, it was also one of my closest friend’s birthday. They did not even know of the news, and I had decided not to make my friend’s birthday sad and depressing. I wanted the attention for the entire night to be on him. I wiped away all my tears, and I put on a cheerful facade to greet them when they arrived. We went to his house, and had snacks, drinks, and talked about “guys stuff” for the whole night. After a while, my fake smile slowly became real, I started to enjoy what was possibly one of the worst days of my existence. Whether they knew it or not, my friends saved my life that day. I knew that at some point, I would have to go back to the reality of my situation, but during those hours, I did not care because I was happy.
A few days passed, my mom and I left Port Elizabeth for eNgcobo to attend the funeral. Curiosity filled those hours I spent riding that taxi; I kept on wondering how I would react once I reach my father’s home. I had an intrusive thought about how my relatives would treat me and how they would act around me. As anxiety started to seep in, I looked at my mother’s eyes and felt a sense of relief and comfort. I don't always get along with her, but she has a look in her eyes that says, “Relax, everything will be alright,” and it eases me each time I see her beautiful smile. My mother had been the ultimate support structure throughout the entire ordeal, conveying just the right amount of care and sensitivity without smothering me with a suffocating and awkward affection. She was, and still is, my primary source of strength and stability, and throughout the entire chaos of that time. She was there when I needed her the most.
We finally arrived at eNgcobo. My mom walked me to the house where my dad lived, and as we walked in the room became silent. No one actually knew who we were, but everyone looked at me as if they recognized me. I went to my grandmother to shake her hand. She paused and looked at me for a few seconds and as she stared into my eyes. I could see the expression on her face change from confusion to realization to joy to grief. I attempted to smile and greet her, but she cut me off with the most haunting scream I had ever heard. Her cry felt like a large thorn was shoved through my chest, and as she pulled me in to give me a tight hug I could almost feel her heart breaking.
It turns out I have a striking resemblance to my father; and when my grandmother saw me, for the first time in over 10 years, she thought he had risen from death to say his last goodbyes. It took three other people to loosen her strong grip on me and calm her down. As she calmed down, she looked at me with an unassuming smile and her eyes reflected a glimmer of hope. She asked me a lot of questions: she asked about my academic life, my social life, my love life, and various other topics that she could cover in the small amount of time that she thought she had left with me. My grandmother would not stop parading me to all the other women in the village as they came in to pay their respects: “Mjongeni; uyifotokopi katata’khe. Look at him; he is like his father’s photocopy.”
After an entire week of meeting new people, connecting with relatives, and helping with the preparations, which included digging the hole that my father would be buried in; the day of the funeral finally came. I was very nervous. I did not look forward to it. Surely enough, my grandmother called me to meet someone. She sat me down in front of a beautiful young girl who seemed to be roughly the same age as me. A light-skinned beauty, with small eyes, a teddy bear nose, and a curious stare that lit up her surroundings. For six seconds, I was infatuated. The level of awkwardness increased with each passing second that we sat in front of each other. The awkwardness peaked when my grandmother told us that we were brother and sister. It turned out that she was my father’s daughter. After that, we struggled to make eye contact; and we did not know what to say to each other so we just sat there quiet while my grandmother had a huge smile on her face. The fact that my father left her grandchildren was the most comforting thing to her. After a few moments, my sister and I finally started talking and attempted to connect. We were learning things about each other, and at that moment I learned things about myself.
After my encounter with my sister, I was excited to meet her, but my sister angered me with what she told me. She spoke of all the times my father visited her and the times that grandmother and my cousins went on holiday with her. It seemed as though they all had a relationship with each other. She showed me pictures of them smiling together. It seemed as though I was the only child that did not receive their affection. My grandmother had five children and in that large pool of grandchildren. I was the only one with whom she did not have a relationship with. It was very disconcerting. I was frustrated by the prospect of my so-called family not caring about me. I also became insecure as I pondered if it was, in any way, my fault. Then, I saw my mother crying. She cried for a man that she spent years without seeing, shedding tears for an individual who left her to raise their child alone. After everything that my father had put her through, she still cried for him.
At that moment, while holding my mother in my arms, consoling her, I let go. I let go of all my anger and frustration. I forgave my father for not being there, not because he deserved it, but because I could not continue living with the burden of hate in my heart. I realized that I spent many years yearning for my father’s love when my mother had given me all the love that I would ever need from a parent. I let go of all the hatred and ill feelings that had been a large part of my childhood and even though the mental and psychological scars remained; and I healed.
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