The one thing that drives me to the brink most, other than people who block your way out when they park their car (read my neighbor). Other than pedophiles. Besides people who pray long prayers during family gatherings: You request someone to pray for food and they end up praying for people traveling using ‘vehicles made by the hands of men’! Besides corrupt people, the one thing that I hate most is people who interrupt my sleep. I usually wake up so incensed that I’d activate a nuclear football at that moment.
So, you can imagine how angry I was when I heard voices downstairs in the dead of the night. I could make out my father’s voice, spewing orders like an army general would:
“Your duty is to honor the queen first, to defend Britain and the entire commonwealth! Am I clear corporal!”
“Yes, Sir!” Someone else answered, in a pitched voice, just like a child. Not past puberty, not yet fully grown. And I knew it was my little Timothy.
“Louder corporal! Your voice should intimidate the Japs! It should scare them, roar like thunder!”
“Yeeees Siiiiir!” Little Tim obeyed the order and raised his voice. But it was nothing close to roaring like thunder. Just a high-pitched voice like a prima donna in an opera.
They were so engrossed in their little world war that they didn’t notice me watching from above, leaning on the railing. There was father on one side, in his full soldier’s attire, having been conscripted into the Kings African Rifles during the Second World War, that uniform was his most revered possession. Tim stood facing him, in his pajamas wearing a scout’s hat in and standing full attention, with his little tummy protruding. You could tell he loved acting as the sergeant. But he was too young to realize that his grandpa was sick. That it was not just a game to him. All this was real to him. It was Alzheimer’s.
Father was 19 years old when he joined the Kings African Rifles. Sometimes when he was still coherent, he told us of how they were picked up by army lorries and voluntarily joined the fight, with promises of land and freedom once they came back victorious. Sometimes we forget that the society customarily sends its young men to war. We chose not to remember how young soldiers, are some of them still being boys, and it’s the war that makes them men.
They fought in khaki shorts and were taught to wield guns. To aim well and to shoot without hesitation. Instilling discipline among the African recruits was cumbersome, but order had to be established. My father was among the few who fought the Japanese in Burma. His fellow Africans did adapt well in the Burmese forests, but many died. You should have seen the agony in his face when he told us his experiences, from the constants downpour in the forest to the discomfort in carrying heavy sodden gear. Not forgetting the leeches that were in the murky waters they waded through. The ones you had to pull out by hand, otherwise, they’d infect your feet. The Japs were sneaky bastards, one moment the jungle is all silent, then they appear in front of you with their machine guns blazing in quick succession. Before you know it, one member of your platoon is dead and the Japanese soldiers have disappeared, well camouflaged in the bamboo thickets. But he was a strong man, father made it through all that. He came back bought a radio, acquired some land and married a beautiful girl.
Yet here he was, the man I feared and loved equally. Old age had gotten the better of him. The man who pushed me to venture into medicine. He was there in a full suit when I graduated. Complete with a bowtie and a fedora and the day’s newspaper. It was just me and him, no one else came, or rather, no one else could afford to come to the city. The rest of the family was waiting at home where all the fanfare was. After the graduation, we took a photo, me in my graduation gown and him in his attire. The photo now hangs in our living room. My wife sometimes makes fun of it, she says back then I had a boy-on-a-field-trip look and that dad had never learned to smile. But you should see the way he used to smile in his last days. At every little thing, the children’s paintings, some silly cartoon on T.V…man! It was infectious.
When I came out of my reverie, the general and his corporal in my living room were crawling on the carpeted floor, from one side to the other and back. I could see that Tim was getting weary, all that action was too much for him. I had to intervene. This was the part I hated most, having to remind him that all this was not real. It sucked every bit of enthusiasm out of him. I liked it when he was happy, everyone liked it when he was happy. I went downstairs, and once Tim saw me he stood up. Grinning cheerfully, he said,
“Pa, I am a corporal! I am a corporal!”
Like it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“That’s great Tim, but grandpa is tired now. You should be in bed.”
Tim looked disappointed. “Grandpa is not tired. Are you tired, grandpa?”
But grandpa didn’t reply, he lay on the carpet, eyes closed. Snoring away. Tim went straight to bed, he didn’t say a word.
I woke my dad up and helped him get to his room, I took off his hat and army jacket, untied his belt and his tie-Yes, he was fully dressed for combat-Then helped him into a t-shirt. All this while he stared me with lost eyes. They had no life in them at all. It was as if he’d never met me. At that moment I was fighting tears. As I tucked him in, he looked away and started snoring again. The man who was so active just a few minutes ago had changed into someone else. No one prepared me for this. I let the tears fall as I closed the door. I went to the kitchen, made coffee and sat there lost in solitude. Having lost my mother just three years before. There was no one else to take care of my dad. My sister and brother couldn’t have handled it the way I would. Yet it sometimes took a toll on me too. He was a strong man, who raised strong children, to see him weak like this was heart-wrenching.
Sometimes visitors would try to initiate a conversation with him, but it never ended well for them. Unless he liked them. I remember this one time my sister-in-law had visited and we were all having dinner, he had not talked to anyone that day, except Tim. Tim was an exception. we were all eating silently and he suddenly pointed at my sister-in-law and asked:
“Tim, who is the fat one?”
“That’s aunt Lisa.”
I thought Lisa would take offense, but she laughed instead. She laughed till we all joined in and everyone was laughing. That’s what most days were like. But there were dark days when he refused to eat or talk to anyone. When he withdrew inside his room, though fortunately, he couldn’t lock it from inside. And there were times he wanted to get out of the house and walk away. Sometimes he’d pick a book and it’d seem like he was so engrossed in it, but on a closer look, you’d find that he was holding the book upside down or he’d been staring at one page for hours.
It was on a Sunday morning when we all woke up and found my father sitting in the kitchen, in his full combat uniform. He seemed sober and logical. He even greeted everyone, which was unusual. His mornings were mostly dull, but that day it was quite the opposite. He told everyone that he wanted to go see his wife. He requested that Tim and I take him to her. We usually took him to mum’s grave and let him get some closure, which he never really got. But he was always at peace there. It was as if he couldn’t see what we saw. We left for the cemetery after we had breakfast. It had become a routine, once or twice per month, he’d want to go there. We always obliged, we’d do anything to make him happy. Mostly it was me and him. Sometimes Kim came along too but I didn’t want him to come along often.
On the way, he started telling the story of how he met my mother. He always did, during these trips. We knew this story by heart. Every time he forgot he’d told us about it before, so he told it afresh with so much enthusiasm. How he was friends with mum’s brother, how he visited her home often and he knew he had to marry this girl. How her brother noticed he had a thing for her and they fought over it, yet even after exchanging blows they still remained friends after he won my mother’s heart. How everyone in their village was shocked when he paid the highest bride price to have ever been paid then: twenty cows, fourteen fully grown goats, and several gourds of Muratina, enough to wet the beaks of every in-law, their friends, and friends of their friends. He usually mentioned those items in that order, just so you know.
By the time he was done with his story, we were already at the cemetery. He plucked a flower from the roadside and walked to the grave, leaving us behind. Tim ran ahead and walked with him. I followed them and waited from afar as one of them paid his respects to his wife and the other to his grandmother. On the journey back home, everyone was silent. Tim too. Usually he was the one who broke the silence. The sun shone brightly that morning, and the rays blinded me through the windscreen. I put on the radio and Kaleo’s ‘Way Down We Go’ was playing on Xfm.
‘Whoa, you let your feet run wild
Time has come as we all go down
Yeah but for the fall—oh, my—
Do you dare to look him right in the eyes?’
That night, on Sunday, the 9th day of August in 2009. My father passed away in his sleep. He went to heaven in his combat uniform.