What you need to know:
What would I teach my father about fatherhood? That I know he was trying. But I wish he was there. But then again, if he was there, I wouldn’t be here, I’d be a spoilt brat
One day in the early aughts, my father found me rummaging through his cabinet in the bedroom. I was looking for a handkerchief, which was not an alibi but the truth. He thought I was stealing something—something sinister it seems, but he never said what it was. He asked me what I was doing, and I said, with all the gusto of an 11-year-old, I am looking for a handkerchief. He didn’t believe me. He asked again and I stuck to my guns. Seemingly not convinced, he gave me little, if any, short shrift and took his favourite belt, a full metal belt, the 90s Rosetta stone, which he used to support his jeans, voluminous and aggressively stonewashed. The memory I have of my father is that metal belt whacking my back, then stomach, then face. He believed in the belt-and-braces approach—enough needle to prick a contrived metaphor—and beat me so hard I wondered if he hated me. On the right side of my face, I still have a mark. I quip to my friends that when it comes to my life, my father left his mark.
Weak joke aside, I tell you this story because that was the only time my father ever beat me. How could he hit me again? I retreated into my shell, like a tortoise, occasionally popping my head to read the room. I got off that, like how some kidnapped victims tend to fall in love with their abductors. Stockholm syndrome they call it.
Most of my early memories of my father are of me getting scared of him. I learned to mistrust authority, to fear power, to loathe control. I have never wanted anyone to dominate me like that again. Not at work, not at home. I have no clue what kind of father I wanted to be, but I knew which rocks I would not build my church of fatherhood with. A handbook for when I too would become a father.
One sunny day, in the year of our Lord 2019, I was home in Kakamega. I had assumed the role of the man of the house because where I come from, firstborn sons are where power rests at. We were having lunch with my mother and my four brothers. Johnnie, my father’s favourite child, and the second-born son was running his mouth as all second-borns do. I don’t remember what he said but he must have said something smack to mom, and I got worked up. I was burning with the righteous anger that being hurt gives you, and I remember picking the ugali on my plate and hurling it across to him. I swear if it had connected that would have been the first Luhya death occasioned by ugali. I also remember my mother turning to my siblings and saying, “Unajua Eddy ako na hasira kama ya baba yake.”
There. I had become my father. I had become the very thing I was running away from. A cushion had become a bed of nails.
But I also remember my father taking me to Wimpy at Corner House where he would get us what at that time was a slice of heaven. Chips and Fanta Orange. Na sausage mbili. Not fries, or the pretentious “French Fries”. I remember him christening me Edco—please never call me this—then baptising me into the hedonistic world of books. I was the only one of his many children who loves books. And this is something I treasure between us, a shared memory, our own DNA strand.
And then he started getting old. The white hairs which he has valiantly tried to hide with his bald head. Even the anger subsided after a while, splintering into ennui and resignation. I could for once feel his humanity. He softened his rough edges, and I in turn started looking at him as a man. Whether your parents are your heroes, villains, or extras, you never really truly know a person, their own hopes and dreams, their history and hereafters, until you see them age. That’s when you see their humanity, their fragility. I love my father more now as an adult than I ever did as a child.
The real difference between youth and age is neither physical nor abstract. Some people are just old because having years behind you does not necessarily mean you have been conferred with wisdom. Seeing my father’s steady erosion of ambition and time relentlessly chipping away with attrition is jarring. There are mountains of sorrow that cannot move; and one way or another, we'll all kneel there. My father represents the ghost of my future. Himalayan pink salt meet wound.
What I took from him was his youth. He never really got to enjoy being a young person because I was always there, demanding food, school fees, time. By the time he was my age, my father had me and some other children. I feel like he was thrust into adulthood much as I have refused to let go of my childhood.
See, my father loved my brothers. Kwanza Johnnie. That brat. I was (probably still am) jealous of their relationship. They are buddies, they have running jokes, they even talk about women together. I feel like an intruder, a cockroach with the lights switched on, the other woman.
I know this affected my relationship with Johnnie, this callous creature that took his heart away from me. Johnnie is 21. I am in the sunset years of my 20s. We couldn’t be more alike than a catfish is a cat.
So I have worked hard to learn the man. To be like the man. I thought, if I could be like the man, maybe he would like me? Maybe he would know me. Maybe I would know him. Maybe writing about him is my way of bridging our worlds. Words fill up the empty spaces, they shine in the shadows, and I hoard words about my father with the hunger of a prisoner.
I carry his history, but I know I don’t carry his scars. And I hope that makes all the difference. My father’s father was a polygamous man. He was a looker too, but always a bit too footloose. I am named after him, but we are no closer than a priest holding court in a strip club. We are contranyms, his name and I; like the word left, which means how many stayed—but also means to leave—which is also the spine that backs our relationship.
What would I teach my father about fatherhood?
That I know he was trying. But I wish he was there. But then again, if he was there, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be a spoilt brat. I’d be Johnnie. Maybe by the time you figure it out, you are a father and you have a 20-something-year-old son blooding his soul in the newspaper.
By the way, I have never owned a handkerchief since then.
What would you teach your father about being a father?