Fatherhood (Part 1)
I was about five when my maternal grandmother died. As I held onto my mother’s leg, every teardrop of hers that she didn’t wipe away with her handkerchief landed with a plop on my forehead. I couldn’t understand why an elderly man at our Mbaise village home in Imo State, Nigeria, was telling me to control my emotions. My mother was inconsolable, and her sadness was contagious. Like a virus, it infected my entire being. How could I not join her in rhythmic formation? As her crying intensified so did mine.
Why were boys not supposed to cry?
You see, my parents were separated from the time I was two until I was thirteen. My father came around for a quick visit when I was seven. I was thrilled to see him. We played monopoly and at one point, I rolled the dice on his behalf and it landed him in jail. I cried me a river. How could I put my Daddy in jail after not having seen him in years?
When I visited friends, I saw fathers of varying types, and I stitched together an image of who a father should be—a provider and protector, who was hard working, strict, and respected, and who left chores to women and never cried. I realized that there were men who didn’t abandon their families and were present in their homes.
I often heard stories about the kind of father my Daddy had been before the ‘dark days’. He was described as a man who was family-oriented, loving, fun, and kind. An entrepreneur and philanthropist, he served his community as a volunteer police officer and Boy Scout. But all I really knew was that he wasn’t there for me in my formative years. I masked my daddy issues with comedy, but there was nothing funny going on within me. I was on a heavy dose of sports because of my asthma, so over the years, I poured my energy and anger into more sporting activities than I can remember, annihilating the competition as a way of dealing with my inner hurt. I felt a void but was never vocal about it. And I taught myself how not to cry about it.
Two years before I turned thirteen, my father returned to Lagos. He had been steadily courting my mother during that time frame. Many family members and close friends whispered into my mother’s ears that under no circumstance should she take him back. A few preached forgiveness, truth, and reconciliation. It was a difficult time but eventually love won out. God reunited the Chukuma family; Daddy was back! I didn’t care about the lost years and dark days anymore. I just knew I too had a father who was present in the home.
So it was a new beginning of sorts. I saw a father who was determined to get involved in the lives of his wife and children, a man trying to get to know us individually again. He was always willing to listen and give me advice if I needed it. One of the upsides of my budding relationship with my father was getting a yes from him for things that my mother would have typically said, ‘most-definitely-not’ to. For instance, at thirteen, I wanted to drive badly and although my mother forbade it, my father jumped at the opportunity to teach me himself with two provisions. He insisted that I accompany the driver to the mechanic every time his Mercedes Benz went for service and that I could only learn how to drive in the Peugeot 404 pickup truck. So by fourteen, I was a good driver. Everything I know about cars and engines today, I owe to my father.
I quickly found out that whenever I asked my father for money, he gave me some and hardly asked what I needed it for. I suppose he felt guilty about not being around all those years and wanted to make up for it. Like an arbitrage trader, I took advantage of the asymmetric information that existed between my parents in order to profit.
My father attended many church events and read his Bible constantly. Whether out of curiosity or a puppy-like desire to please him, I went with him to church when he invited me and said yes, when he led me to faith. I have since evolved on my faith journey, but it was my father who provoked the first stirrings in my heart for a deeper relationship with God.
I noticed that often he just stared into the abyss. I sensed that his thoughts were weighing him down, but as boys and certainly men were not allowed to cry, he sometimes just sat on his easy chair lost in a world I could not enter. I had so many questions that I wanted to ask him, but I was afraid or maybe I was not quite ready. I hoped that in time, I would summon courage; I was getting there slowly.
While I was at the University of Lagos, my parents lived in a different city, in Abuja, because my mother had come out of retirement to work as the executive chairman of the National Commission for Women. I hadn’t seen them in almost two months because I was busy at school. One Ash Wednesday, I arrived at our Lagos home in Ikoyi from church to find a few strange faces and some barely familiar ones whom I hadn’t seen in a while. I wondered whether these prying elders had been sent to ensure my older sister, Ozege, and I were keeping the peace in my parents’ absence. An aunt asked my sister and me to sit down and eat. Strange behaviour I thought but hey, there was good food on offer. I was game as long as their courtesy visit didn’t last too long because I wanted to start making plans for the weekend with my buddy, who was living with us at the time. Meal over, as I was about to return to my room they said, “I’m sorry to tell you that your father has died. God knows best . . .”
The rest of the words said that fateful day were lost to me because my memory placed them in an irretrievable part of my brain. I became numb and expressionless. Minutes later, I came to myself as I heard women wailing, but I remembered boys don’t cry and since I was a nineteen-year-old man, I wasn’t going to cry. I manned up and focused on consoling my sister and the rest of the women around me. My buddy came to tell me sorry and I winked at him as though it was nothing. How do you explain being without a father for so long, then finally getting him back, and then losing him just like that, after only a short time of getting to know and love him?
I learnt the hard way that getting to know your father is important and a rare gift. Having a heart-to-heart about his dreams, aspirations, likes, dislikes, interests, regrets, worries, generational curses, lineage, and family tree is best done now because no one is promised tomorrow. I have never missed an opportunity to reconcile friends with their estranged fathers because of my experience. Just when I became a man and was almost ready to be more inquisitive about my father, life dealt a heavy blow.
It took me years to agree that indeed, ‘God knows best’ and that it is okay for men to cry. I made a note-to-self that when I became a dad, I would use my experiences to be the best dad possible. It is a promise that has proved to be a journey, and I am still walking.
These stories are dedicated to fathers living and of blessed memory. I celebrate all fathers present and for whatever reason not present. I see you and acknowledge you, my brother. Keep striving to be a better father knowing that it is never too late to be present in your home or kids’ lives. Choose to be a good dad today and every day that God gives life.
I dedicate this fatherhood series to my father, Charles Ballantyne Chukuyenum Domokumo Chukuma (15-Mar-1932 to 24-Feb-1993), and to my one and only brother, Charles Bruce “Chaz B” Chukuyenum Ayibatonye Chukuma (01-Jan-1962 to 22-Nov-2014). They were beautiful souls, good-hearted, funny, handsome, and charismatic men who lived life to the fullest and exited the earth’s orbit a little too early in my opinion, but God knows best. See you much later; I’m going to be here for a while longer.
What were you told as a boy that a man should be?