Fatherhood (Part 2)
I felt as though my heart was going to leave my chest. Heart palpitating, I didn’t think I was ready to be a father, to be anybody’s Daddy. Fear of the unknown gripped me. The trauma of losing my daddy at an early age had left me with many unresolved issues. How was I now going to be responsible for another human being?
“Look at the legs on this one. It seems like you two are having a boy!” the doctor who read the sonogram declared.
It was 1999 and my wife, Elisa, and I were at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, New York. Usually this session was one filled with excitement, but for me, it was partly daunting.
Months later, after a busy weekend at the inaugural African Business Conference held at Harvard Business School, Boston, I returned to our quaint brownstone flat in Jersey City. On the tiring drive back home, I smiled as I thought of the imminent arrival of my opara, my first-born son.
“Chukuka, where are you? You sound like you are sleeping! Wake up! We are at the hospital! Can you hear me? Elisa is about to have your son!” Shawn, my sister-in-law, shouted.
I must have dozed off on the sofa shortly after arriving home and picked up the phone by reflex. I rushed out to the car and screeched off. I was already three streets away from home when I realized I had forgotten my camcorder. I drove back home, collected it, and proceeded to drive like a maniac through the Holland Tunnel, up the Westside Highway, and all the way to the parking lot of St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, near Columbus Circle in Manhattan, running many red lights in the process.
A few hours later, I witnessed the horror and awesomeness of being a woman. While helping to hold one of my wife’s legs, I recorded the birth with as much dignity as I could. My son arrived with a loud cry. Reluctantly, I cut the umbilical cord when asked. Just as I was recovering from the ordeal and congratulating myself for not fainting while consoling Elisa, a nurse came in and announced, “Hey Dad, congratulations! You ready to carry your son?”
Filled with mixed emotions, I carried him in my arms. I thought he looked beautiful though different than I had envisioned. I remembered all the questions I wished I had asked my father and wished he were alive to see his grandson. I then inspected my son closely to ensure all his parts were accounted for. Would I be a good father to this fragile little thing? We named him Christof (meaning, of Christ) and Ikenna (meaning, strong father or God).
The early days of fatherhood were difficult. I was working sixteen-hour days, six days a week, on Wall Street, thanks to all the deals we were closing. However, once I made it home, though exhausted, I would take Ikenna from my wife to allow her sleep. Then, I would wake him up so we could play until we both fell asleep. I told him stories about our lineage, his grandfather, and my early years living in Nigeria. When he turned five months old, I accepted a job with Citibank Nigeria partly because I wanted to raise our kids in Nigeria so they would grow up with strong values and a sense of deep roots. I moved first to ensure this African expedition was sustainable.
When they visited me at Christmas, three months after my departure, the bond between my son and I was gone. He appeared to have forgotten me. At work, I was leading three landmark deals simultaneously, but I still tried to rebuild my connection with him by closing at 7 p.m. instead of 11 p.m. and not working at weekends. Just as we started making good progress, it was time for them to return to the States. Three weeks seemed like three days. All the preparation and excitement about their coming seeped out of me like a deflating balloon, and the hole in my heart that ached for my son grew wider.
Sadly, I became telephone dad. This was in 2000, during the last days of Nigeria’s national communications company, NITEL, and before the mushrooming of mobile networks, so calling New York was an event. I felt guilty that I had engineered a separation of our once tight unit so early in the life of my son. I wondered if I was any different from my father who had abandoned his family. I assured myself that I actually hadn’t abandoned my family but was simply working in another country.
Four months later, I arrived in New York for his first birthday armed with lots of toys and presents, which I’d purchased from Hamleys in London, on my way. Renewed hope surged through me at the prospect of getting back into rhythm with my mini-me and pride as I witnessed his first steps. But this trip was frustrating, for me at least, because Ikenna didn’t want me to carry him and was always reaching for his mother. After just two weeks, marked by plenty interruptions from the office, it was time to return.
In Nigeria, my career soared, but the price for successfully executing large, complex multi-currency, multi-source landmark financings and milestone transactions, was getting more expensive with each passing year. As time went on, Elisa and Ikenna joined me, but my fatherhood journey was a mess. I ran on the career treadmill even faster—if I could just make bigger bonuses then I could retire early and focus on my young son. Run Chukuka run! Alas, on a treadmill you can acquire plenty mileage but still get nowhere.
In Ikenna’s early teen years, I agreed to almost every international school trip that he wanted to attend with his friends. From Geneva to Brussels, from Milan to Venice and Amsterdam (for God knows what), all I wanted was to buy his love by funding the trips. I bought bigger and costlier gifts to show my love, but it seems all he remembers of that time is that his father wasn’t there for him. Period!
Recently, I pressed Ikenna, who is well-mannered and has never gotten into any trouble, for more insight into how we got where we are. Six feet two inches tall, broad-shouldered with a chiselled jaw covered by a full beard, he explained, in a deeper voice than mine, that he felt shut down as a child, and I was basically twenty years too late to now want to flow with him as naturally as he does with his mother. His words violently ripped the chords of my heart, leaving it out of tune. Then I realized with gratitude that he is so brutally honest; he is truly my son.
Where did I lose the plot? The template for fatherhood I’d witnessed and the one etched in my mind was—a provider and protector, who was hard working, strict, respected, and never cried. In my opinion, the root of good and evil in society can be traced to the presence or absence of fathers in the home. Where are the fathers?
As I strive to establish a meaningful relationship with my son, I hope he sees a man who loves him unconditionally but was clueless about real fatherhood. I hope he sees a man who gets weary sometimes and one who cries too. I hope to form part of the constellation of stars in his universe; I hope that he would someday look up, point, and say, “There, that’s my father, my Daddy.”
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. Happy Father’s Day!
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 father should be?