I remember my father in flashes. His back bent over his Singer sewing machine as he worked through the night to deliver orders placed at the eleventh hour. His bald head gleaming in the sun as he held me up, me giggling at the magic of how much more of the world I could see. His flashing presence and absence when we moved from Benin to Emuren and he travelled across the South West in search of a living. His eyes drenched in tears when I saw him for the last time, limping, broken but undefeated. His humanity left a lasting impression on me.
I grew up on his side of that father-son veil behind which many children never got to see the flaws and struggles of their fathers. Before I knew him as daddy, I knew him as Oris. That’s what his friends called him when they came around the house every weekend, chatting about politics, family and the bustling Benin night life, which they had all left behind. If as a child, I knew such a word, I saw my father as a guy.
His love for his family and his work was unflinching. Even as an infant, I remember that love. How he would tickle me until he had to leave for his sewing workshop before 8 am. I remember the modest smile that adorned his face as his clients showered him with praise for the flawless garments he had made, but customers only paid just enough for them.
We made the best of life in our one-bedroom apartment, tottering on the brink of poverty, fearing that the slightest shock would send us crossing over.
Then, we were robbed.
My father’s machines, customers’ clothing, finished or in progress, all carted away. The money he saved in a kolo stowed in the darkest corner under our bed was gone. That day, I saw him in his lowest of emotions, face washed white bypanic, eyes shot red by dammed tears, lips trembling in defiance of an uncertain future.
Hard as he tried, we rolled downhill from there. As he worked hard to pay back his customers and feed his family, we fell behind on rent and soon had to move to his family house in the village, Emuren. He would be gone for months, chasing a living, while we suffered in the village. I despaired at the fading prospects of a good education. Resentment filled the space he left behind and soon, I started hating the man I once adored. I was a child who knew no better. Our silent bitterness grew, dislodging other emotions in my heart. I ached for my father till we – my brother, my mother and I – fled his hometown in search of a future of security. If only we could see the future; the abundance of suffering into which we were heading.
When – seven years later – we broke through that haze to humble comforts, my father was a changed man. In addition to the gaping wound he sustained while lumbering wood in Ondo, he had become a salad of emotions. He would switch from anger to fear, to shame and melancholy, from veiled sorrowfulness to fleeting expressions of the love that once powered him. He was broken, and we were too busy with making our own lives to fix him. Yet, I had grown.
On December 19, 2002, my father visited us in Mayflower School. At first, when I saw him, I couldn’t recognize him from afar. He was pale and slight, a ghost of the father I once knew. When I got close enough for his tired eyes to see, he stood up slowly, leaning hard on his left leg. His tilted stance put his face merely inches above mine. Looking into his sunken eyes, I realized for the first time how tall I had grown. Tears filled my eyes as I watched my frail father muscle up all his energy to stretch his weak arms to embrace me. He understood my tears, but he did not shed any. Even in his visible internal chaos, he was calm; calm as a lake, calm as the father I had lost in Benin. As I looked into his face, that calm was all I could find of my old father. Of my younger father. Of the man he once was. He blinked continuously to suck in the tears. I held him tight for minutes. Soon after, my brother, Lloyd found us and we sat with our father.
He opened his heart to us like the men his absence had made us. He apologized for not having the means to take care of us like he wanted to. For his inability to provide us a home in which to spend the upcoming Christmas holidays. I could feel the weight of his self-loathing. As he spoke, we wept. I promised him I would make him proud by doing well in school and subsequently in life.
If my present self could go back to that moment, I would have told him more. That his absence nurtured me as much as his presence could have. I would have told him he had not failed me. That he had made me a good husband to the daughter-in-law he never met, a loving father to his grandson. I would have told him I still loved him, but I just didn’t know what to do with it.
On December 25, 2002, my father passed on in his sleep. He died in Emuren, in the same house his father had died. He was 47. I cried for him because I loved him. Only years later, would I discover what to do with that love. I would gift it to his grandson. I would pour all of me into making him the greatest man he can be.
My father’s humanity taught me to see my imperfections. He left a big part of him in me and for it, I hope I am the father he wished he had been in his last moments. Now, I live everyday conscious of how I can be a better father to my son, Ademide. Thank you Daddy. I am still doing it for us.
Michael Adesanya is a young Nigerian father currently living in the US. A 2015 Stanford Africa MBA Scholar, he now works at a global apparel business, following his dream one day at a time. This non-fiction piece is an excerpt from Michael’s coming-of-age memoirs, scheduled to be published in 2019. Follow him on Medium, Twitter, and Facebook.