My memory was born the day my father died.
Coincidentally, it was on the 1st of September.
September, the month of my birth, will always be a time of internal conflict as it is characterized by pain and joy. Pain because my father died on the first day of the month, and joy because I was born on the 12th day of the month.
I can’t say much about life before my father’s death. As a four year old, then, I was not aware of much around me. My memories of that period are vague and probably convoluted.
However, life changed and with my father’s death came the birth of my consciousness. I became acutely aware of everything around me, more attentive to people and my surroundings and more aware of what was happening around me.
Tragedy has a way of transforming us and always comes with some lessons.
For me, the most significant transformation was on my mind and I have carried some lessons from that experience throughout my life.
I guess it’s because part of my centre, as parents are central to any child’s life, had crumbled.
First, I learnt the value of people and relationships.
Perhaps because my father went to a land from where he would never return, I developed a new sense of consciousness about those who were left with me. Part of me learnt to appreciate people. Consequently, I value relationships and those around me, and treasure every moment with them. People matter to me and I pay close attention to them. I’ve been accused of paying attention to the minutest details about people, but that is their uniqueness, that which makes memories about them precious, and that’s what my father’s death taught me.
Secondly, I began to value words.
At that age, my memories of my dad were predominantly of him telling us Shona folklore about Tsuro na Gudo (the hare and the baboon) around the large blue asbestos heater on a winter night. I certainly remember him teaching me our home address, phone number and other details in case I got lost, as a first step in preparing me for the outside world before I started nursery school. Needless to say I still remember that phone number more than 30 years later. I also remember the values he imparted to us about respecting people regardless of their station in life, after my siblings and I had disrespected the house help. Most of my memories of his words though, were based on what my mother and my siblings told me. I am glad they are balanced words that have molded me and shaped who I am today.
I may not remember much of what my father said to me individually, but I certainly became more attentive to people’s words after he died. Perhaps it was because I would have wanted to hear more of what he said in my mind, memorize his voice and immortalize him through his words, but that opportunity was lost. I desperately wanted to hold on to some of our conversations and retrieve some quotes from him in later years, but I missed that chance. But then again, how much can one really say to a four year old, and how much of those words can one so young retain?
You see, words are the glue that binds us together as human beings, because they are the vehicle through which we express our thoughts and emotions. My father’s words would have been the string that connected us, despite our being in separate worlds, and I wish I’d heard more of them. I treasure the words that have been passed to me by family, and from that experience, I learnt the value of words.
I believe people when they speak, and I take them at their word. I trust that people think before they speak and weigh every word before it is uttered. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but that’s been a major weakness on my part because I judge people based on their words and trust them. Unfortunately, some people just don’t take themselves seriously and are very flippant with their words. I’m amazed at the number of people who make plans and promises that they don’t live up to. I’m equally shocked by the number of people I’ve met, who forget their own words as soon as they are uttered. I am appalled at the number of people who don’t place any weight on their words, are careless with their tongues and don’t mean what they say. I guess they don’t realize that their words will form part of the memories they leave behind when they die. It would be a tragedy to be remembered for abusive, untruthful or flippant words.
It’s very uncomfortable when you remember what people say, yet they don’t even value their own words enough to retain them in their memories. This sometimes puts me in an awkward position, particularly when I have to hold people accountable or repeat their words to them.
Sometimes my tendency to remember people, places and events can have negative consequences, like the time I caught my landlady’s husband trying to play the bachelor a few days after I was introduced to him. He had no recollection of our introduction, so you can imagine his embarrassment when I reminded him of how and where we had met before.
My third lesson was to celebrate life and to value memories we create with our loved ones.
Not surprisingly, the year my dad died, my fifth birthday was not celebrated. How could it have been, in the midst of mourning?
The following year though, we celebrated my sixth birthday.
It was a memorable occasion, although bitter sweet because one person was missing. This, to my young mind, marked a first step in our collective effort to move on and start living again, in spite of our tragic loss.
I vividly remember it like it was yesterday. I remember the creamy orange cake, with neat little orange slices, some of which turned out to be made of jelly when I tasted them. I remember all the children from our row of seven houses being present. I remember my mother reverting to her old wardrobe, after shedding off the black clothes she had worn for a year as part of our cultural mourning ritual for widows.
But most important of all, I remember my mother picking up the pieces of what was left of our lives, and rebuilding the family that we became. I will never stop admiring her strength and resilience. After that bleak year, we forged ahead. Mom went back to college, and built her career, thus enabling her to provide us with a comfortable life despite my father’s absence.
This was my fourth lesson, that tragedy may strike, but you have to get up and move on.
Indeed, it is important to mourn, but it is even more important to move on, give the best of yourself, live life to the fullest, create your own memories and carve your own legacy.
That was my fifth lesson. My dad lived his life to the fullest and gave his best in all he did. He excelled in what he did and at the time of this death, he had risen to the highest post available to black Africans at his workplace in colonial Rhodesia. Without saying it in words, he passed on his values through what he left behind, be it a note from former Prime Minister Garfield Todd, evidence of appreciation from his employer or his foresight and forward planning that ensured we were covered financially long after he was gone.
I respect my father for what he imparted, both in life and in death. I appreciate the lessons he taught me, and the senses that his death awakened in me, which form part of the legacy he left behind. He will always have a special place in my heart. Although I wish death’s cruel talons had not snatched him from us, I’ve learnt to accept the loss and to draw lessons from it. So on this day, I take time to pay tribute to him and express my appreciation to him in the best way I know how, through writing.