I met him when he was twenty six years old.
Tall, dark, handsome. A civil engineer working on his masters in England. Born and raised in India and then Tobago, studying in England. Passionate about his career, family, current affairs, history and knew how to make an amazing chicken curry.
He was already married for two years and they had a daughter, before they had me.
We had a brief meeting before I was whisked off to Trinidad. The next two years are blurry with virtually non existent memories of my father, we must have seen each other again but I don’t remember. My maternal grandparents took the reigns of caring for me while my parents tried to keep it together in London. They just couldn’t cope with the pressure of another baby on their hands.
When I was two, I was re-introduced briefly to the idea of a nuclear family but that didn’t last very long. I longed for my grand parents, I didn’t know these people. Added to which, one day, while I was at home with my father, as he left the shower I walked in and turned the water on the hottest and ended up with third degree burns on my left arm and the left side of my back. What followed was a series of events - hospitals, skin grafts, fights, newspaper front pages, court.
I was then back in Trinidad. Permanently living with my grandparents who won custody of me following a case of child abuse.
Child abuse? I had no idea what that meant.
All I know is that following that, I grew up sheltered, somewhat isolated, closed in, disconnected.
My grandparents were lovely, they did everything to ensure I had a good, stable life. To them, this meant keeping me away from my father whom they deemed to be a dangerous person as much as possible. They spoke of him with such disdain, I grew up afraid of this version of him. For my mother’s sake, I was able to go once in a while to their home or a random birthday party of my sister’s or my cousins. But I felt like a guest. I didn’t know these people.
In an effort for me to have some kind of relationship with my sister, we were placed in the same primary school. I have one memory of my father walking in the school to pick her up and I saw him walking in and began to quiver in fear.
In my pre-teen years, he would buy me books. He had no idea how to be with me. I had an appendectomy when I was 11 and he brought me chocolates.
My parents eventually got a divorce and my sister got catapulted between them intermittently. I watched as an observer as she shared this relationship with each of them, something that felt a bit more cordial to me. She says during the marriage they fought a lot about me, he wanted his daughter back. I hoped their marriage falling apart had nothing to do with me. I don’t think I can handle that burden.
When I was 15, my father was pretty much at the top of his game career wise. CEO of a prominent company, president of the contractor’s association, looked up to by all his employees. He went to the gym 3 times a week. And then, on an executive medical evaluation, he was found to have stage 4 colorectal cancer.
In an odd turn of events, my mother passed away shortly after this.
Maybe its the feeling of impending doom as I described in my last post but something got triggered in my father. He demanded to my grandmother that he get his daughter back. He threatened he wouldn’t cover my university expenses and given the situation, she reluctantly let me go.
Over the next 4 years, I got to know this person. I was still shy, scared, closed in. A silent observer.
But I marveled, oh how I marveled.
He got dressed impeccably everyday. Always clean shaven. Couldn’t pass his reflection without fixing his hair. He read the newspaper every Sunday in the living room splayed out and we all got a part. He taught me how to cook. He taught me about history, current affairs, business, globalization, the world. How to cut an onion properly. How to use chopsticks. How to play chess. How not to be too open to boys because my sister and I were not just any other girls. He held my hand when we went out, he stayed up frustratingly for hours trying to teach me additional math. Gave me a bedroom fit for a princess. Taught me discipline. Taught me privilege. The value of hard work. The importance of calling my grandparents regularly. Generosity. Giving back.
I also watched violent fights between him and my sister, you see in between all of this, his one downfall was his temper. And my sister was often the target. So now, when he had enough or couldn’t deal, back we were by our grandmother. Until he called in a few days and asked to come back and pick us up. This cycle also continued on for the time I stayed there. Yet, he and my sister had a palpable connection that was unbreakable. Something he and I didn’t share.
Despite this, he tried his best to father two teenage girls while battling life’s greatest enemy.
Many girls have many moments throughout their lives where they share moments with their father. Making them breakfast, staying in tune with their lives. I have a handful and I hold them like my most prized, precious possessions clutched to my heart.
When I lost one of my friends to an unfortunate death, he joined me as I sat on the ground at 18, and held me as I cried. I was so distraught I couldn’t even register what was happening or try to do my usual freeze up. I just let him hold me. He knew and maybe thats why he also began to cry.
When I got my first painful back spasm and he picked up and held me like a baby and took me to the emergency room.
In the last year of his life, when his chemo treatments started to have a greater effect on him. Despite his greatest attempts to work through the illness, as always, it prevailed. his routine of going to work 2 days post chemo ended in days of him basically curling up in the couch of his office.
At home, my sister and I didn’t know what to do or how to be.
But I knew before it was too late, I had to ask- what really happened when I was two? Why have I lived my entire life with scars on my body? Why did you send me away?
He was ill in the time surrounding to my return to stay with them in my second year, he battled with polyarthritis. This left his hands weak and he did not close the tap tightly. He didn’t hear me go into the bathroom, only when the water started and he heard me cry. He admitted that he should have kept an eye on me but he took his eyes off me for just a few seconds...A scenario I’ve learnt is all too common now, after working for a year and a half in the burns unit. They lost the case of custody to my grandparents and legally there wasn’t much they could do to get me, exacerbated by the fact that my grandparents kept me away.
I spent the remaining time trying to get to know this man. I stayed home from school, cooked him meals, bore the brunt of some of his frustration some days. Watched Alexander The Great- his favorite movie. Played chess. He helped me write my personal statement for medical school despite the fact that he believed I was too gentle to be a successful doctor. We talked. I cleaned up blood stains, learnt that the answer to the question “Daddy, can I get you anything?” would be usually be met with “cyanide please." We listened by the door as he threw up and moaned and groaned in pain.
The last few months of his life, I saw a man crumble. From the top of his game, to being consumed by a disease.
The job went. The Audi replaced by my grandfather’s old car. My sister's and my college tuition poured into hospital fees. His hair he was so proud of thinned and eventually disappeared. His body became emaciated and frail. He lost his strength and required a wheelchair. 13 surgeries. Radiotherapy. Chemotherapy. Ayurveda. Again, I didn’t know this person.
Still he fought. He was enrolled in a trial at John’s Hopkins in the last few weeks of his life. Due to visa trouble, I was unable to go and once more looked on as an observer through the eyes of my family and sister who were all able to go to Baltimore.
My sister called me from the hospital room for the last conversation I would ever have with him while he took his last breaths on the 31st December, 2006. He couldn’t speak, but I promised to make him proud. I said ‘I love you” over and over. She and I cried. She said he did too.
A nurse who cared for him wrote in her own memoirs that in all of her time at the hospital, she had never seen someone smile after taking his last breath and look so at peace.
It has recently dawned on me that our parents have the greatest impacts on our lives. A concept I've tried to avoid my entire life. Their absence, their presence. Their time on Earth.
A few years later, during my internship, I pronounce a cancer patient's death and break down.
My relatively short interaction with my father built the image of what I deem to be the perfect man. Almost 10 years post death and I’ve become almost completely blinded to his flaws. A more formidable romanticized version. The one who swept my mother off her feet, introduced my sister and I to sushi in a small Japanese restaurant in London when I was 14. Who brought home outfits every Divali for my sister and I to pick from, who quoted (in vain) Alexander the Great to his fleet of truck drivers. Who sang along to the radio to his favorite Hindi film songs. Who looked up and mapped out stars to us. Who teased his parents and siblings.
I see his brown eyes in every patient. I painfully observe daughters with their fathers. Visited places in India he went to in his childhood, imagined his life then. I measure every man that attempts to be part of my life to him in hopes that it will give this hole in my being some form of filling.
But it never does. People say time heals all. It doesn’t. I still smell the medications I took out for him. I still smell his Ralph Lauren Polo Green and Blue. The older I become, the emptiness becomes more prominent and heavy to carry around. My graduation. My marriage. My divorce. Birth of my nephew. Big decisions.
Sometimes its almost as if in effort to deal, I place myself back into the familiar shell of sheltered, protected, disconnected. When I knew he existed but life just couldn’t place us together. Except now, instead of someone I’m scared of, he’s my hero. I cling to the features we share, his face in mine. His mannerisms that I inevitably and subconsciously inherited.
My father often said his dreams were composed of him in ancient war, leading a calvary. I suppose he’s there now, riding horses, directing troops and soldiers.
Its funny how things come full circle.