For three years after my father died I occasionally experienced what, in retrospect, were fleeting psychotic episodes. Without ceremony, a touch of light headedness would swirl in my forehead and spread, like fog, towards the back door of my brain. A feeling of urgency to call my father would overcome me. Reaching for my cellular phone I would stare at it for what felt like an eternity while I tried to recall his office number. I ransacked my contacts list in a desperate search for a number that did not exist. At the time of his death, my father had been long retrenched from his work, remarried, had a son and lived some 350 kilometres away.
These moments of intense delirium would always end in the same fashion—the memory of reality would expel me out of this spell and I would feel the slimy mixture of sadness and embarrassment washing down my face. The episode would then slowly drift away into the ether of mild insanity as I continued with the business of everyday existence. These episodes added to my already disorientating experiences of adjusting to university life, for which, I was wholly unprepared as a first generation university student in my family.
Growing up in an informal settlement as a teenager, I was always around peers who, like me, were also struggling to make meaning out of a chaotic and violent environment without fathers. Fathers, we imagined, had they been in our lives, we would feel safe and would not have to take up their safe keeping responsibilities. Ours was a different fate and so we each, in our own way, became a man-child. A few of my peers are now fathers and they still talk about and remember their absent fathers with the same impoverished emotional register of abandonment. The pain, anger and sense of being inadequate that is characteristic of abandonment has never had a hold on me, at least not to the same extent, that I’ve witnessed among the peers I grew up with and other young men I’ve come to know over the years. Strangely perhaps, I’ve always thought that my father ought to be the one feeling a sense of self-imposed abandonment since, despite his absence, my mother, two sisters and I always managed to get along and make the best of life.
When I do remember my father, my memories come to me enveloped in varying degrees of indifference and harsh judgements on my part. Sometimes, I must admit, I do feel guilty for thinking ill of a being who no longer walks the earth as a man-child searching for meaning and purpose to quench his thirst for a father he never knew. Perhaps one day, all the stories of intergenerational cycles of pain will be told around a fire burning from the core of the earth and just maybe, our hearts will finally taste warmth and our souls will burn with a new desire for life.
I’ll be honest with you today, the indifference and harsh judgements that I lay at my father’s feet are a fragile shell to the intense emotions hibernating inside the memories of my father. Memories which always appear in a dreamy aura as though I’m watching scenes from a past life that somehow leaked into my current life when I was younger and my mind more malleable. Scenes which come to me this very moment as if projected from the echoes of time and the silences of space.
Your garden was meticulously beautiful. You kept the plants trimmed and the grass cut. You come back from work still smelling fresh as though you had barely lifted a hand all day. Immediately, a change of clothes and then straight to the lawn and, as with everything you do, every movement of your hands is the meaning of patience and care for detail. The garden scissor clips-claps; the water makes intricate patterns as it irrigates the lawn and flowers; children run about in their role-plays; the sky is dressed in a beautiful canvas of rusty orange, pale purple and off white colours as the sun graciously dies at the hand of night; light disperses across the sky like scattering squirrels; and when the frog leaps, almost out of nowhere, all your gracious movements come to an abrupt end. You murmur a curse as you half jump and throw the garden fork at the frog. A handful of salt comes to the rescue and the poor creature swells and looks like it would burst at the seams at any moment.
Any moment now, I think to myself, as I wait for you to show up at grandmother’s gate. Life is difficult with grandmother but you know this—she’s wicked, your mother. Your monthly visit is something that I look forward to with much excitement which, of course, I have to conceal from grandmother. When you visit, my heart faintly plays musical chords, imaginary soft sunrays caress my face and the smell of jasmine pours out of my soul. In the summer, you give me a R5 note. The old R5 note with a pinkish colour, Jan van Riebeeck’s face on the front and a gold mine on the back. When the ice cream truck does its serenading round about on my street, it’s Christmas season until the last of the ice cream disappears in my mouth and I savour the remaining taste of vanilla on my tongue. Our conversations during your visits are exhibited now in my mind like erased lead pencil scribbles on paper. The sound of your voice, your symmetrical teeth, your piercing eyes and your permanently groomed appearance—all fresh in my mind like the scent of lemon grass.
I like being in the kitchen when mother cook’s dinner and the kitchen is filled with the aromas of Asian spices. The smell of whole cloves is still distinct. Dinner is served, jokes are traded and, as usual, Bob Marley entertains us in the background. Both you and mother like Bob Marley and whenever you are high on marijuana you dance around the living room in what must feel to you like coordinated movement but is, in actuality, disjointed stomping. This entertains us, and not least of all you, as you laugh and make bad jokes. All this would not be that night. A mild tension hangs on the walls like nicotine stains. In place of jokes there is anticipatory silence on our lips as incense smoke slowly drifts around the room like a predator circling its prey. You too are circling your prey in your head.
Deep in the forest of my sleep mother calls out my name in a horrific cry for help. I wake up just in time to feel fear fill my tommy with hollowness. I listen as your fists hammer mother’s body, tears swelled in my eyes. I can hear the stains of trauma marking her body, sadness saturates my soul. I try to think of what to do, helplessness empties my head. She screams my name as if calling out to a hero to save her from a husband gone desperado. I get out of bed and slowly walk toward your closed bedroom door. I can hear that you are now strangling mother. Her voice is getting faint. My mother is dying. Fear metamorphoses into a morsel of courage and I open your bedroom door. I see the unseeable. I open my mouth to say something but it is unspeakable. My existential ground shifts, the stars realign and I die a peculiar death. Mother is wearing a mask of death on her face, one eye already bulging with bruises, the other bulging with the life you are brutalising out of her. With one eye she stares at me in utter horror. Her legs kicking wildly and her hands struggling around yours.
My respect and regard for your turns to fear and that fear catches the flames of rage in my eyes and burns to ashes. I join mother in her struggle for life. Mother and I kick, bite, slap and punch as you return the favour. In what appears now as a momentary freezing of time, mother escapes from your hands and dashes out of the room. She knows that you locked all the doors and she makes her escape through a broken window in my room that is temporary shielded by a black refuse bag. Bob Marley has gone to sleep, the incense smoke escaped the house long before mother did and the angels of death have arrived in a delirious dance. You grab a knife from the kitchen draw, unlock the kitchen door and purse mother into the darkness of night. Stillness fills the vacuum and I stand in the kitchen cooking up a storm of horrific scenes in my mind. I wait and weep. Time passes. You return, knife in hand and a question hanging on your lips like a rusty anchor— “Are you staying with me or leaving with your mother?” Surely, this was a rhetorical question but the look in your eyes suggests otherwise and so I replied “I’m leaving with mother.” I wanted to know what had happened to mother but you were not taking any questions. I go to my room and comfort my little sister who has been crying all this time. When sleep is finally heavy on my eyes, my last thought is crushed by its weight – “I’m 12 years old.”
When you died at the end of 2002 you had been out of our lives for almost a decade. In that time, mother had battled a chronic illness, flirted with death one more time and survived for the second time. I had just completed my secondary schooling and my youngest sister was still imagining what meeting you for the first time would be like and what her life could have with you. Today, I wonder whether my life would have been enriched by your presence or whether it was, despite the pain of your absence, enriched because of your absence. I will never know. What I do know is that there is a pain born out of the memory of your attempt to kill mother. This pain, which I have carried over the years, is also the pain of having carried, for you, the responsibilities you abandoned as a husband and a father. In the years before your death, I often wondered about your well-being and your whereabouts as mother, sisters and I lived the futures that you abandoned that night. To be sure, there were moments, perhaps long moments, when I felt sad and sorry for myself when confronted with the brutalities and absurdities of being a man-child. Most of my pain though was for you.
As I endured the hardships, delighted in the joys, and weathered the storms of uncertainty with my mother and sisters, I realised that we were living life at the frontline where the battles of experience were most intense and the expanding of the soul most boundless. In a sense, we were living all that had been brought into motion by the poor quality of your decisions. We were also living, without you, all the possible futures that you had abandoned. We are your abandoned futures. A future where your youngest daughter gets to see you, for the first time, in your coffin. A future where your second-born daughter, gets married and has two children that you abandoned, as their grandfather, before they were even a future thought. When we speak of you, mother still refers to you as her husband. You abandoned a future in which you were deeply loved by the mother of your children. You abandoned a future in which we discovered, to our complete surprise, that our real surname, your real surname is Khanyile and not Zuma as you had been led to believe by grandmother.
Relatives retold the story — “your father was manic with joy when he saw your name published in the newspaper when the matriculation results were released.” The following evening, I got news that you had been murdered. Nine years later, I graduated with a PhD and I wondered how you might have received the news. Perhaps we would roll a plant, put Bob Marley on the stereo and stomp disjointedly all night, drift with the mango and coconut incense smoke, and bath with the angels of light in the hot springs of the quarter moon. Sitting in the graduation hall waiting for my turn to be capped, I realised all the senses in which the 12-year-old boy within me is still held hostage in a cage of abandonment, thirsty for your approval and validation.
My sense of abandonment is a deep sadness for all the possible futures that you never lived with us. My sense of abandonment is how you abandoned your own life and went rogue chasing your addiction to women. My sense of abandonment is how towards the end of your life, almost as if sensing the angel of death beckoning you, you asked for forgiveness in a letter and asked us to return to you. We had long made peace with your decision and we held no animosity toward you but we would not come back to you. The fire of your rage still burned the bodies of our emotions and memories. My sense of abandonment is how the ending of your life was orchestrated by the people you had abandoned us for. My sense of abandonment is how your body was abandoned to rot on the floor of a government mortuary and we came to find you, clean you, and lay you to either your rest or your torment, I do not know. Through all and after all of this, when we do speak of you, mother still refers to you as her husband, my sisters speak of you as their father and I still smile awkwardly.
About Buhle Khanyile