Updated: Mar 1, 2019
"I Am Not Broke and I'm Not Crying. "
Late one evening, a few years ago, I got off the phone with my dad and left my dinner to go sit outside. The air was still that night, and I sat on a broken slab beneath a sky peppered with a billion stars. I took deep breaths and released each one a little slower than the last. I held my hands out in front of me and rubbed them together –once then again- to lessen the tremors.
I was in Law School, studying at one of the driest regions of Northern Nigeria at the time and physically, it was the farthest I had ever been from home. The overall security level in the country was critically low; the Boko Haram sect was getting overwhelmingly bolder and the insurgencies of the Fulani herdsmen were at the peak. There was an alarming increase in kidnappings, suicide bombings, and pure senseless killings in many regions of the North.
The conversation with my dad that evening had gone the way it usually does, punctuated with all our superficial sighs; automated responses and awkward silences. Full and empty in equal parts and leaving me- and maybe him too- emotionally drained. Wrung out from the inside and beginning- always only beginning to dry and grow firm again.
It had been like this –my relationship with him- for most of my life. He reaches out and when he gets close enough, there is too little time to share because my legs keep moving farther away. It’s as though he has begun the search for something I would rather forget. Like the psychological equivalent of a never-ending tug of war that leaves me sore, alone, tired and brought to my knees. So we talked about my Mother and my sisters and my brother’s new job. He asked and after I spoke- very briefly- about the latest suicide bombing not too far from where I lived, the silence came and stayed a little longer. He was worried about me, and trying hard not to show it.
I was raised in the Eastern part of Nigeria and for the first five years of my life, home was a space I shared with my sisters, my brother, my mom and in a deeper sense, my dad. There were war zones and raw concrete joy in most corners like homes often have. Mom invented and wielded her own threats like a weapon for when any of us stepped out of line. Dad very rarely exploded but he had a deeper scarier voice, very little tolerance and a worse temper.
His tirades, unlike my mom’s always ended in some form of beating or punishment but all that did not scare me away as much as it did my siblings. Mom still says that I figured out earlier on that the best way to insulate myself against his temper was to own up to whatever ill I had done and apologize for it before he even asks. I agree with her, I always have. The result was that I found it very easy to hold ‘deep’ baby talks with him –say about flying cockroaches- chin in hand and wide-eyed; share his meals and slip my hand into his on our family walks back from Sunday services. While my siblings all ran after my mom. Over the years though, we thinned down to memories of a different time. Like old yellowing pictures I’d rather not visit. Occasional flashes I put aside to create space for new joys.
When I was younger, dad used to import cars and sell them to local buyers at profits sufficient for our upkeep. There were long stretches of time he spent in foreign countries, sorting out delays in his shipments and forging new partnerships. Mom juggled her teaching job with taking care of us and so to better manage his businesses, dad began to take on younger men as apprentices.
Each new apprentice was offered shelter and feeding in our home and this offer was the foundation of the agreement. They learnt the nuances of the trade while managing the business in his absence, and at the end of their stay, dad would fulfill a stipulated obligation. Like pay a certain sum of money, usually large. Or help set them up in their chosen businesses. This practice continued till I left home for the boarding school.
The sexual assaults began when I was about seven.
Someday, I may be able to share my confusion and hurt with each thrust. My silent screams each time my mom ignored my protests and pleas and insisted I take meals to rooms I would rather run crying from. The limps to the bathroom on wobbly legs and what it felt like the night I went stuttering to my mom and she choose his words over mine. Nothing came out of it. Only more pain for me.
My dad was rarely around at the time. when he was, I grew silent because I had begun to build a safe place in my own head. I felt ashamed, soiled in many ways and after the way my mom handled my story, I started trying to be invisible. Our relationship slowly began to suffer. I was struggling to understand how I no longer looked forward to coming home, and why no one could protect me.
My dad was too preoccupied to see, and maybe mom never shared my complaint with him anyway. Maybe she did, and like her, he waved it away because how could I possibly know what I was talking about? I was ready to overlook all of that, and I did.
Until the night my brother assaulted me too. I was about ten.
I can’t say how I found my tongue, only that when I did, I ran once more to my mom because this time felt worse than all the others. She panicked and cried a little and woke my dad to tell him herself. He was stunned, I think, for the first couple of days. And then, he began to pay more attention to my brother. He took him along to his sports meetings, and after-work meetings with friends. It was like my brother had completed his rite of passage. Like he had become a man.
I was unbelievably broken and this time, I saw that my dad chose to look the other way. No one prepares you for that. He knew, and he left me to fend for myself. Mom carried on daily like nothing had happened. She always was best at sweeping dirt under the rug. Shortly afterwards, I was shipped off to the boarding school and I’ve been running from home and my dad ever since.
It might have been the air that night. Or life in a community that had lost so much but went on planning and rebuilding anyway. But I saw how fragile life could be and for the first time in years, I began to see how much I needed to uncurl each one of my fingers to let the hurt go. While I may still hold this conversation with my dad someday- I began to see that holding my breath for an apology that is decades late is one of the surest ways I could run out of air.
And air is valuable to me because I had fought hard to live.
When I was a child, it was easy to view my dad as infallible. Like a demigod of sorts. As a young lady, I have made enough choices to know that adults don’t really have it all figured out. I gradually began to look at my parents as two regular people who raised their kids the best ways they knew and I have since become kinder in my judgments of their actions.
It’s been three years since my conversation with him that evening and I have begun to build a friendship with my dad again. Our talks have become more sincere and little more bare and open. Our budding relationship has new colors now; sometimes it is gray and at other times there are accents and smudges of dark red here and there. Like caked blood. Like flashes of love and hope and pain but that’s okay.
Blood doesn’t always mean tragedy and sometimes, red rivers bring new beginnings.
Until Next Time:
“Dream them dreams. Then man-up and live them dreams, because a life without dreams is black and white. And the universe flows in technicolor and surround-sound.”- The Late Great Combat Jack!