Fathers’ day: Once Upon a Father

By Okey Ikechukwu

Many have celebrated, and others are preparing to celebrate, Fathers’ Day. Some men are busy grumbling that “their” day is not getting as much attention, and noisy approbation, as Mothers’ Day. Others are contending with a world that has become too busy with “father bashing” and “male gender bashing” to appreciate what needed to be appreciated. There are many men of genuine good faith, and fathers of exceptional inclinations who would put all father bashers and men bashers to shame and to flight. But let us leave all that and get on with today’s business. Please note that there is not an ounce of fiction in the following narrative.

This piece about a certain father was written at the behest of Rev Father George Ehusani. The reverend gentleman is a Catholic priest and a friend who has consistently invested in anything and everything that would improve the quality of any human being he encounters, advance the spirituality of the wider society and create future leaders who would be exemplary in every sense of the word.  So, I am here doing his bidding, since he wanted me to put in the public domain a true story of a man who was a father and a spiritual guide to his son.

“Prof”, Ehusani said over the phone after the initial pleasantries, “as fathers’ day is being celebrated in some places around this time, I would like you to write about … (identity withheld for now), whom you have often spoken about in some of our public engagements. Please, you need to share some of that moving reality you are privy to via your newspaper column. Yes, many people need to hear about fathers who were true fathers, as are many toiling, unsung and misunderstood fathers today. The general denigration of men and fathers, as well as the growing pretence that parenting now depends on how any adult feels about it, is doing incalculable damage to society”. So, here we are, to talk about a certain father.

The man was such a benign and edifying influence on his son, that the latter easily recalls, very vividly to this day, how this man often sat with him in front of the house one evening after another. It was during one of such evenings that the boy, a primary four pupil, brought his Michael West English dictionary in order to anchor the question he had for his father. This was not unusual, because whenever the boy came to join him in those solitary moments he sometimes inflicted on himself in the usually cool breeze that blessed School Road in Umuahia, it was like the unburdening of a soul to a trusted guide.

These moments were the boy’s favourite opportunities for asking his father the meaning of new words he had read about, and of asking him about anything whatsoever on which he needed clarification. A soberly quiet and clear-headed man of uncommon perspicuity and his son, all by themselves in the evenings, more often than anyone would expect of a father and son in the city. The man’s simple, patient and unassuming nature belied his deep knowledge of life and so many other things. The boy simply saw an older, and very dependable friend and nothing more – even though he called him father.

On that fateful evening referred to above, the boy had come to discuss the meaning of names. The word teacher spoke of clement weather and inclement weather during the boy’s lesson in Nature Study at school. He later checked his dictionary and it turned out that the word ‘clement’ meant “mild and merciful”. So, there he was with a simple question for his father: “Papa, did your parents know you were a very kind and gentle person before they gave you your name? His father’s name was “Clement”.

The man turned, looked at his son with some amusement and asked in return: “Why do you ask?” Then the boy explained what transpired in school earlier in the day.

Seeing the quizzical look on his father’s face the boy said, “Papa, that word is your name, and it describes you exactly. So, I have been wondering how your parents gave you a name that describes who you are”. The man smiled, rubbed the boy on the head and suggested that they went into the house. He did not answer the question. 

When the boy was ready to proceed to secondary school, he took the Entrance Examinations for several boys-only schools. But he was posted to a mixed sex school, instead. He was in tears, because several friends and members of his church always said that people who attended such schools stood a much higher chance of going to hell. Well, he was determined not to go to hell!

During the long vacation, after the boy had just finished his first year in secondary school, he came to tell his father that he no longer wished to change his school to an all-boys school. Believing that one must avoid mixed gender secondary schools in order not to get corrupted and go to hell, the boy was in tears when he was posted to a mixed school after the general common entrance Examinations. Now, he wants something else.

Patient as ever, his father asked why. The boy explained that it was better for him to face the challenges and temptations of daily living and come out successful, than to avoid the real world that he would come out to face after secondary education. The man, seeming totally unperturbed, tried to convince the little boy to stick to his original decision, to no avail. Midway into the holidays, the boy’s mother brought up the matter of change of school in the parlour one evening. His father told her that they would discuss it later and decide how to go about it. Till date, the boy never knew what his parents discussed. But no one ever brought up the change of school issue again, until he finished with secondary school education.

When it came to university education, the teenager said he wanted to study philosophy. Everyone: uncles, aunts, and possibly even passers by who heard what the discussion was about, were dead set against it. The boy wanted knowledge of the meaning and purpose of life, but everyone else was talking about employment and earning money. The young man’s father said nothing when the latter bought a JAMB form and applied to study philosophy at the university of Nigeria, Nsukka. He said nothing when the young man said that he would rather get involved in his father’s printing and publishing business, than go to the university to study anything other than philosophy.

Then, one day, during one of those evenings in front of the house, which the years never took away from them, the man asked his son: “Did you consider studying psychology?” The boy said the subject had too many wrong answers about human nature. The man said nothing to his quick retort. He knew his son’s familiarity with all manner of subjects. He saw his teenage son switch from the sciences to the arts a few weeks before his final year secondary school examinations. He watched him spend his money on comics, esoteric literature and science books. He saw the boy subscribe to many publications, including Spaceflight, which is published by the National aeronautical Space Agency (NASA) of the United States.

Unbeknown to the boy, his father was ever closely watchful and attentive to his stirrings. He was feigning aloofness while keeping a close tab and acting as a gardener whose only concern was to ensure that “This plant” actualized its true potentials, rather than follow the wishes of the gardener.

He was always more of a friend and protector to his son and his siblings, than a father. He never showed his boy whether he had any flogging skills, or huge and scary frowns often used by most parents and adults to drive home their authority. He would rather calmly explain  to you what is right and what is wrong. To make him admonish you was to disgrace yourself.

Going back again to the past, there was an occasion when the little boy stood before his father, helpless and confounded. He was facing judgment as a bad boy, for “smoking cigarette” at the age of four.  “I learnt that you spent the entire evening smoking cigarettes, so I want you to tell me who taught you such a thing”, the father said. The boy was silent. “The entire evening” kept ringing in his head. Meanwhile all he did was put the stub of a cigarette he picked up from the pavement in front of the house to his mouth once. He was disappointed when no smoke came out. The taste was revolting! He ‘smoked’ it by blowing at one end. But nothing came out of the cold and foul-smelling thing.

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? Unbelievable! And cigarette is not food. Now, his dinner is gone! What a calamity!

His father mercifully brought the episode to an end before midnight when he, along with the boy’s ever-gentle mother, woke him up and inflicted a meal on him. Awake, the boy starred around him in consternation. “How could adults behave like this?” he wondered. His dinner was apparently hidden away somewhere all the while! And everyone made him believe that he was going to feed on cigarettes for the rest of his life. The same people who said you should not tell lies? Oh, the world must be coming to an end.

Bigman was 88 when he came to spend the Christmas with his son, as he promised. He only just stopped driving himself, at his children’s insistence, four years earlier. He was as happy as a baby on arrival. All his practical jokes came with him by the truckload. It was now him sitting with his son in front of the latter’s house. He was impatient for ‘a conversation’, from the moment he arrived. As they talked into the night, laughing and throwing jokes at the wind, Bigman began to say something specific, including messages, concerning all of his children.

Later, the same day, he was gone! When the bereaved called his childhood friend, Paul, who made the travel arrangements for Bigman’s last trip to Abuja, the latter exclaimed: “Oh dear! Okey, Papa’s last statement to me as he left for Abuja was ‘Paul, under no circumstances should there be any misunderstanding between you and your brother, Okey, or I would come from wherever I am and beat the hell out of you both”.

I am grateful to God Almighty for the parents he gave me. As for fathers’ Day, Bigman’s “Legacy” is ever-present for me. He was an insightful, firm, considerate, non-indulgent and very understanding father.

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