1. Maybe the first thing to understand is that you cannot outrun the blood coursing through your body. It is alive in your veins. You cannot end your blood without ending your body, without ending yourself. And so, whether or not you like it, family is your first country. It is your first history.
2. Though my project does look at familial intimacy (and the lack of it), what I’m more interested in understanding is the roughness that sleeps beneath the picture-perfect. In becoming a woman, I have realized the hard way, that the path is not well-lit. For me, it has been like trying to find my way into myself in a long, dark corridor with many doors on either side. My mother is the door I keep bumping my body against in a bid to enter into myself.
I know that I always run back into the dark, frightened, trying to find another way and another way, but I keep ending up at the same door. Every bend leads to her. Where am I running to?
[With this work, I am saying, or I am trying to say, sit with me. Let us talk about the ways in which we are already wearing our parents.]
3. A man walks into the lobby as I’m having this conversation with the group. He is dressed as if he was lifted from an 80s album cover. He has the classic denim and black long sleeved shirt look, unbuttoned to reveal his chest. I expect him to breeze by after greeting the writer, but he hangs around.
The writer we’ve been talking to about our work introduces me to the man. “This is my friend O,” he says, to me. I talk to the man about my project. I tell him I’m interested in looking at behavioral patterns that form in intergenerational relationships. The conversation flows freely, because Mr O is generous with words. So I bring my questions.
How does the man your father was affect your definition of what it means to be a man? How has it shaped the person you are now? Are you a second draft? A second chance? A photocopy? Are you a clean slate? If it’s the latter, how did you break the cycle?
He responds quickly. “Blood is stubborn. Nobody is a clean slate. We see it even in little things. My friend here knows me, so he can attest to this. I have a pattern of getting home everyday at 6pm, and as a general rule, I don’t leave the house again when I’ve settled in it. My friends know. I only realized this some time ago that it comes from my father. No matter where I am, except I have made alternative plans to be out past that time, at 6pm, my feet already know how to make their way homewards. That’s just one of the random ways. Obviously, there are more serious things.”
I ask him to spend the next day with me. We exchange numbers and part ways. That night, I go to sleep late because I’m excited. But for the first time in days, I sleep well.
4. I learn this over lunch:
Mr O was not close to his father; but the man invited him – just him – to the hospital when he knew he was going to die. He asked him to bring four specific items to his death bed: Rich Tea Biscuits, Shortbread Biscuit, a bottle of Malt and a bottle of Coke. It was not a strange request because those had always been his obsessions.
When Mr O arrived at the hospital, he admitted that he still felt the tension of the distance between them. He was in a room with a man he was equal to in stubbornness; and that man was his father, and that man was dying. But they had spent the whole of their relationship ignoring the elephant(s) in the room. Too much practice had gone into this, and so, now that death was there too, standing heavy and thick between them, Mr O had to skirt around it. To do anything but, would be wrong.
His father asked him to sit down. Then he asked for the Rich Tea. ‘Bring one,’ he said. Mr O passed a biscuit to his father. The man asked for a shortbread. Then he asked for the malt to be mixed with the coke. When that was done, he raised it to his lips and offered the rest to Mr O. Mr O drank from the cup. When he was done drinking, he turned to his father in the bed and the man was dead.
5. Mr O said, ‘I did not start looking like my father until after he died.” The writer with us laughed that night in the lobby. “No, seriously. I did not start looking like my father until after he died. All of a sudden, we were inseparable. Everywhere I went, people saw him. Everywhere I go, people see him. It annoyed me for so long. But now when I look in the mirror, I see him too.”
6. Mr O has a 25 year old son whom he fathers from a distance.
“I always wondered why my father did not tell me how hard life would be. But have I told my own son? I get it now. If I tell him the truth, he will die because of its weight.”
7. When I asked Mr O if he regrets not talking things out with his father before he died, he frowned.
“Do you think there’s only one way to have a conversation? And of all things, about something as many-sided as forgiveness? There’s more than one way to make peace.”
8. A distant relative stopped Mr O on the road once and called him by his last name, his father’s name. She clearly wasn’t one hundred percent sure. He said he felt like being cheeky that day, so he said, “that’s not me.” But even that gave him away. So, the woman responded to him with anger, in Igbo, “Stop playing games with me, my friend. Is this not your father’s face?”
9. Everything is borrowed.
10. In the photographs we take, Mr O is sitting on a chair, with a black briefcase by his left leg. It was his first inheritance, on his graduation. Mr O’s father’s shirt is clothing an empty chair. We dressed the chair as a way to bring his presence into the frame. There’s a brown briefcase in front of Mr O’s father’s ghost, at the foot of the chair. The case belonged to the man when he was alive. I tell Mr O, “your father is in that chair. Look at him. Say something.” He says what he says.
When I look at the photographs later, I know the one I’ll keep. Mr O is divided in that photograph. He is looking feebly at the frame, while his hand sits limp in the chair where his father’s lap would have been; should be. He had exhausted his words, but you imagine that this would have been his way of feeling for the man’s approval or hesitation.
And the photograph is powerful to me, because from what I know of the man, I know that even though all we can physically see next to Mr O is a constructed presence, his ghost is present in that chair, responding to his son’s fingers on his thigh by staring the camera lens dead straight in the eye.