The saddest thing about having parents is being sure they’re going to die. Grandparents are so much easier to lose. Especially if they get properly old—the two degrees of generation dividing you from them makes it easier. I worried my father was getting old too quickly—all of a sudden.
What happens to elderly men is this: they get all quiet and shut up inside. They stare vacantly at their hands and stop engaging in free conversation. You have to ask them questions and then hope for an answer. Otherwise, get used to silence from your father.
Why does this happen?
Mothers are creatures with whom we can be frank. Affections are easily expressed. Embraces are met. A certain knowingness exists between you and the person whose body incubated you and birthed you to life.
The traffic gave off ocean sounds, waves of cars washing up and speeding off in a rushed, hushed, and hypnotic rhythm. I thought back to my school days. My father would drive us to school early in the morning. It was the most time and undivided attention we got from him. He would feed us all his best parenting in that fifteen minute ride. Classical music and life advice. He wore a cap over his uncombed hair and a grizzly morning beard. He didn’t bother to get dressed properly just yet, with a tracksuit top over his button-down, brushed cotton pyjamas. He once suggested, after seeing me frantically waving to my best friend in the car driving next to ours, that he wished we could teleport ourselves over into their car and save him the trouble of having to drive all the way to our school and haggle his car out of the congested parking lot.
The last time I spoke alone with my father was on a walk we took from my house to a nearby shop. He was unusually chatty. No book, remote control, mobile phone, grandchild, or very important visitor disturbed our conversation. It was just the two of us, the tall, swaying trees, the low, rumbling roar of the traffic on the main road, and the syncopated rhythm of our steps on the dusty pavement. My walking speed had overtaken his over the years and so he walked with a bounce in his step as he retold me some story about when he had first moved to the city. I had heard the story many times before. I let him speak and feigned surprise at the plot twist I knew was coming.
I loved my father’s stories.
We bought the fruit and yoghurt we were on errand for and he paid for it all although it was intended for my kitchen. On the way back, he took my left hand and compared it to his. He had done this many times before. I instinctively smiled as he paid me his usual compliment of having beautiful, slender fingers. We, each with a small bag of groceries in one hand, walked back to my home with joyful, long strides, the quieting rush of early evening traffic washing over us.
When I remember my father’s face I understand why he no longer had to say too much. Men’s lives are written on their faces. Their weary eyes, still lips, and fine leathered skin tell tales of battles lost and storms braved.
Women’s lives are written on our hands. The battle lines of nurturing—of cooking, washing, and healing—are at home on jewelled fingers crowned with painted nails. Even if the only jewels I wear are the ones my father imagined for me, and the paint is merely stains from the kitchen. I understand that men speak and women do. So it is expected, at the end of life, that one lets go of life’s hard duties.
My father died on a Sunday in December. It was an exceptionally quiet day. It had rained that morning and the smell of wet earth was a cold blanket to our stunned emotions. The cars sounded different on the wet and empty tarred roads. The city’s atmosphere was insulated by a cool, stark mood.
There was not much to be said.
My mother wailed. As a strange homage, the rest of us adopted my father’s silent expression.
The storyteller, the absent father, the warrior had gone to rest.
Mutaleni Nadimi is a Namibian writer, filmmaker, and publishing professional. Mutaleni holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and a BA in Film Studies, Scriptwriting, and Literature from Bennington College in Vermont, USA.