A Father Like None Other?

13 Nov 2012

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It was exactly November 13, two years ago today, that he called to say he would spend Christmas in Abuja. No one knows how his children got used to calling him ‘Bigman’, but that’s what they called him. He the man was more of a friend and protector to his son, than a father. He never showed his boy whether he had any flogging skills at all and he also lacked the usual huge and scary frowns – often used by most parents and adults as some sign of authority. He would rather calmly say what is right and what is wrong. To make him admonish you was to disgrace yourself.

Then came an occasion when the little boy stood before his father, helpless and confounded. How was he to now find out from him what makes the cigarette produced its smoke? The one he ‘smoked’ was black at one end and produced nothing. For that he is facing judgment as a bad boy – smoking at four years of age! Then he was brought back to the present by Bigman’s calm voice. “I learnt that you spent the entire evening smoking cigarettes, so I want you to tell me who taught you such a thing,” he said. The boy was silent. “The entire evening” kept ringing in his head. Meanwhile all he did was put the cigarette to his mouth once. He was disappointed when no smoke came out. The taste was absolutely revolting!

He ‘smoked’ it by blowing at one end. But nothing came out of the cold and foul smelling thing. Where had all the fire and smoke gone, the boy had wondered? He blew harder and, not seeing any smoke, shook his head and threw it away.  Apparently the thing only gave out smoke when handled by adults. The experience was enough to shipwreck his fascination with cigarettes, since the excitement it held at a distance did not measure up to the close encounter. But because his elder sister saw what transpired, here he was – facing judgment!
Then came the verdict: “Since you have already taken your preferred meal, namely dozens of cigarettes, you will skip dinner”! The boy was aghast. Surely his father had been misinformed! Dozens of cigarettes? It was only one. Unbelievable! And, come to think of it, cigarette is not food like is being suggested! Obviously the man knew nothing about cigarettes at all! But how was he to get round to tell him that?

Having behaved badly and disgraced himself completely, he had no defence. His dinner was gone as well! And the person who ruled that he should skip dinner does not know that cigarette is not food! What a calamity! He was called to the sitting room an hour later and offered more cigarettes, in case he was hungry. He saw the sticks of cigarettes and, to his shock, the same foul smell came from the distance.
Well, his father mercifully brought the episode to an end before midnight when he, along with his wife, woke the boy up and inflicted a meal on him. Awake, the boy starred around him in consternation. How adults could behave so like this” His dinner was apparently hidden away somewhere and everyone made him believe that he was going to feed on cigarettes for the rest of my life. The same people who said you should not tell lies?

Looking back now today, his son’s memories of Bigman revolve around several major incidents, one of which was his ‘chain smoking days’, as narrated above. There was also an interesting episode when the boy was ready to proceed to secondary school. He took the entrance examinations for several boys-only schools, but got posted to a co-educational school, instead. He was indignant. Several friends and members of his church had already told him that people who attended such schools stood a much higher chance of going to hell. This dutiful and faithful catholic, mass server and block rosary crusader was determined not to go to hell!

He grudgingly accepted to spend one year in the ‘terrible’ school. Then several things happened. His contempt for non-Catholics, whom the Catechist said were inferior Christians, suffered a major setback, as he realised that he would not be catholic if his parents were not. His schoolmates were similarly circumstance, so he resolved to read the entire Bible and finished it before the end of the second term. His consternation multiplied when he later saw several versions. So many versions of the Bible when Our Lord Jesus Christ did not have any denomination?

After the first year in the school, on one of those evenings when he would sit outside with Bigman to ask him the meaning of words he did not know, he declared that he no longer wished to change his school. Unperturbed as ever, his father asked why. The boy said that the world outside the school was made up of boys and girls and that the adult world was also made of men and women. “That does not say anything about why you wish to remain in your present school,” his father said quietly. The boy mumbled something about not wanting to finish school and then start learning how to live in the real world.

Bigman was silent. Unsure of the impact of what he said, the boy added: “No one will really know whether I am a good boy if I spend all my time in a school that does allow me to prove that I have any self-discipline.” His father managed his usual half smile and changed the subject. As the holidays drew to a close and the boy’s mother raised the matter of changing his school, as originally agreed, Bigman said: “Well, maybe we should just let that be for now. Yes, don’t worry, he will be alright”. That was the end of the matter.

When it was time for university education, everyone opposed the young man’s choice of philosophy as subject of study. He told Bigman that it was the only subject that came close to raising questions about the meaning of life; and that it was pointless going any further in education if he could not thereby find out why he was in this world in the first place. The older man smiled and asked whether no other subject interested him, but said nothing when the young man said he came across something called pedagogy, but that it was not offered in any Nigerian university.

The man plied his son with questions and then asked what he knew about psychology. Fearing a possible nudging in that direction, he said quite frankly that he had also read much about psychology and that had moved from its roots as psyche-logos to advanced biology and chemistry. Bigman smiled, nodded in agreement and said nothing. Weeks later, the older man calmly dismissed all the objections of his relations who felt his son wanted to deny ‘the family’ a brilliant lawyer.
A bolt from the blues

Then two years ago, following the promise he made on November 13 of the same year, Bigman came to spend the Christmas. He was 88, but only just stopped driving his car (at his children’s insistence) four years earlier. He was as happy as a baby and had all his practical jokes by the truckload. But he was impatient for ‘a conversation’, from the very day he arrived. When he finally laid bare his life they talked into the night, laughing and throwing jokes at the wind. He also had something specific to say, including messages, to all of his children.

Later the same day, in the hospital, he was gone! The son told the doctors that there must be a mix-up, but the man was really gone! The bereaved later called his childhood friend who had made the travel arrangements for Bigman’s visit. When he heard what had happened, he exclaimed: “Oh dear, so that is what he meant. Papa had said to me before leaving that under no circumstances should there be misunderstanding between us, otherwise he would come from wherever he was to beat the hell out of us.” Then he thought back to the two caps Bigman brought out the night he arrived. He thought of his words when he said, after making his son take one of the caps: “Aha, very good, only two of us can wear these caps. I have won mine, so it is for you to wear yours.” They had laughed it off at the time. Bigman! His life story, as written by the man himself, was in the briefcase he brought on his trip.

The bereaved thought of the many things the old man made sure he said and of his complete detachment from bitter feelings over anything in his life. But how was he to call his youngest sister who had spoken with their father less than six hour earlier? This life! I am grateful to my father, the man we his children called ‘Bigman’ for many things!

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