This morning, Rohit Brijnath wrote in the Straits Times on his father’s passing, on grief, loss and the memories.
For an honest man with perfect eyesight my father was a beautiful liar. He’d look at me, gangly, chin-less, awkward, 14, and then at my two slightly more becoming brothers and proclaim like a judge:
“You are my handsomest son.”
I’d grin at this transparent sweetness and say: “Relax, Dad, it’s cool. I know what I look like.” My self-esteem was strong and only because he’d helped build it.
My father “was” is a hell of a thing to write, but this is the unarguable grammar of death. In these pages I’ve written about his shoes, his train journeys, the anxiety of his ageing and the scruffy white field of his beard, which he pulled like a man tugging at new ideas. I feel I owe him some final words as he’s gone travelling, back into the earth from where he believed he came. His god was nature.
Even in the week of his death, my father was helping me learn. Intensive care waiting rooms at night, I realised, are therapeutic, long hours of silence that invite reflection. Here, no one god is greater.
The young man in the next chair, whose father awoke from brain surgery and could not speak, said little to me but we were united by apprehension. In a life smudged by uncertainty, the loss of a parent is inevitable. This is our shared humanity.
Down a snaking corridor from where I sat, my father lay, ventilator down his throat, a man who sang Summertime with such gusto now silent as winter edged closer. Medicine sometimes cannot return a man to a dignified life and yet it will not let them pass to the next world. They are stuck in this holding area of diminishing hope. Illness strips humans of personality and authority and if he was awake my father would tear away these tubes and say “enough”.
Days later, when he’s gone, I go through his bedside drawer, exploring his clutter of old bills, folded notes, a poem to his mother and a list of great men he’d made for a lecture series he had done at a school. Lincoln is there, Gandhi of course, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, and also Michelangelo and Akbar.
In possessions lie clues to a person and my father had few, a cigarette salesman at the start who preserved his simplicity. He had his shirts stitched at a local tailor and got the roadside cobbler to make his shoes. Some men who come from little can be nervous about wanting more. When my eldest brother bravely bought him a Business Class ticket to Dubai I could imagine my father approaching his luxurious seat with suspicion.
I enjoyed rifling through his cupboard because it spoke of him, two ancient cameras (he was a lousy photographer), an unopened after-shave, a musty set of binoculars, pens with no ink, a clothes brush and, befitting an old-fashioned man, a tower of handkerchiefs. But his treasures, we knew, lay elsewhere – his family, his hats and his Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Grief visits like the tides but I am grateful. I don’t believe in god but I do in luck, in the inexplicable cosmic lottery that places you as a child in the arms of a decent man. My father stubbed out his last cigarette years ago but in my mind he’ll always smell of old smoke and out-of-date after shaves. It was my smell of safety.
At the end, he did not suffer long and he was not alone and neither were we. The Turkish novelist Elif Shafak spoke to the National Public Radio this year about the Cemetery of the Companionless in Istanbul, where “there are no tombstones, no surnames… nothing personal on the graves, just numbers”. It is the place, she said, of “many outcasts”, of sex workers, AIDS victims and refugees.
I read this recently and it makes me think of my fortune. I have family who use love to soak up each other’s sadness, friends who bring food and emotional sustenance, the local vegetable seller who comes in the ambulance with me to the funeral. Everyone knows loss and in the stories that are exchanged is found perspective. One friend lost her mother in childbirth and another his father 23 years ago.
My father died at 84 and I am fine with it, for to see him already diminished, struggling to recite Rumi, his memory unable to resurrect familiar lines, was hard enough. His favourite word came from Urdu, and it was “insaniyat”, or “humanity”, and part of it is the quality of being kind. Letting go is also love.
My peace also arrives from my absence of regret. We were men who left no love unsaid and no argument unfinished. Behind the label of “father” was a man I liked immensely and I told him. An atheist of conscience and knowledge, imperfect and gentle, provocative and generous, who assailed bigots on the television with a string of invective. My father swore loudly and musically, while my mother sat unmoved like a veteran school teacher who could not be surprised any more.
Fathers give us things and so he handed me John Coltrane, Joe Louis, James Baldwin and bad jokes. Mostly he gave me a voice. He did not ask me to fear him or blindly obey him, he did not patronise me or order a career for me. He let me be contrary, let me fence with him, let me slam doors and try out ideas. Freedom is a gift. One of my brothers wanted to study tigers and my father pulled his beard and worried and then opened the door to the jungle for him.
Middle age is comforting but also confronting. If our lives are like jigsaws, and we’ve spent five decades finding a degree, then a job, maybe having children, putting a life together, then now some of those pieces, often in the form of friends or parents, are falling off. There’s no replacement for them and we just become people with parts missing, incomplete forever.
Loss is a companion in the shadows, who suddenly flickers into view. I see chess boards and peg measures and I think of my father. What we are left with is memory and things, like old watches that speak of another time, just small fragments of a life lived. One of my brothers took two of my father’s shirts home, another has asked for a hat but, through sheer coincidence, I have his last full sentence.
I was the first of my brothers to reach India and the infection that eventually claimed my father had begun to seize him. He was barely conscious and yet, even in his distress, he found the lucidity for one final act of fatherhood. He smiled and said to me what he always did:
“Hello, my beautiful boy.”
And then he went to sleep.