It was a Friday evening, that magical time for children and adults. Briefcases were put away, book bags tossed into a corner to be forgotten until Sunday night, and healthy, well-balanced meals replaced with feel-good foods of questionable nutritious value. And, of course, there was dessert.
My father always had a sweet tooth, something I inherited from him, and Fridays meant the promise of a sweet treat. This particular Friday it was a package of fudge-striped cookies, my favorite. The fudge-striped cookie is a genius creation. From a distance it looks quite ordinary; a shortbread cookie with thin strips of fudge on top. But hidden from plain sight, what you don’t know until you pick one up, is that the bottom is coated with a thick layer of chocolate fudge.
Growing up, cookies and other sweets were special treats. Money was tight, and there were four of us. We were never allowed to help ourselves; we had to ask permission to have any and also how many. The usual number was three. This particular evening, my six-year old self ate a few, and a few more, and a few more, until the package of fudge-striped cookies was empty. I’d pay good money to travel back to that night and see what kind of stealth I used to get to the bottom of the package uncaught. I could only have pled not guilty by reason of insanity.
As it turned out, my punishment was much worse than the actual crime. I spent that Friday night into the wee hours of Saturday morning vomiting cookies. Though I still have a vicious sweet tooth, especially for all things fudgy, I can’t look at a package of fudge-striped cookies now without grimacing.
But this memory, and the sight of those infamous cookies, is also one of the most tender for me. I didn’t spend that night alone making several trips back and forth to the bathroom and I didn’t change the sheets those times when I didn’t make it to the toilet in time. Sitting in the chair next to my bed was my father. He stayed up the whole night with me, helping me to the bathroom and wiping my face with a damp towel.
I remember his hand stroking my hair, telling me it was going to be okay, that I just had to let this pass. He never yelled, never said I got what I deserved, he just sat in the chair next to my bed and whispered that everything was going to be okay in the morning. My father was a strict disciplinarian, but even he knew it wasn’t the time for a stern lecture. The physical pain I was experiencing was worse than any lecture. I had learned my lesson.
I didn’t fully grasp it then, but that moment taught me the meaning of selflessness. My father was a single parent of three children. My parents divorced when I was two and he became our primary caregiver. Though it certainly wasn’t the life he would have chosen for himself or us, he served the role with an energy and precision I greatly admire. The fact is, some fathers leave. Even now I would say there are fewer expectations for fathers than there are for mothers. Children need their fathers, but children need their mothers – or so it’s often thought.
My father could have left. He could have said this was not the life he wanted, being both father and mother to a son and two daughters. He could have left us with our mentally unstable mother or a grandmother or an aunt. But he didn’t. And he didn’t just stay, he wasn’t just a physical presence, he was emotionally and mentally invested in being a parent to us; guiding us, disciplining us, showing us love and affection.
My father always called me his “black beauty” because of my dark eyes. He told me I was smart, that I could do anything I wanted to do, that I was extraordinary. My self-esteem took a beating in my teenage years, but his voice was always in my head, telling me I was smart and beautiful. Boys might tell me I wasn’t pretty enough, but it was okay, I would tell myself, because I am extraordinary.
In later years, when I learned the specifics of my parents’ divorce, I had a lot of anger towards my father. He was a good father to me, but he was not a good husband to my mother. It’s never easy to learn that our parents aren’t superheroes, that they are just regular, flawed human beings. I didn’t understand how the same man who was so loving and generous with his time with me, the same man who taught me how to read and tie my shoes, who could stay up all night caring for me despite having worked long hours over five days straight, could be the same man who could not show compassion to his wife and the mother of his children as she battled depression.It was my mother, who taught me kindness and forgiveness, who helped me heal. She told me no matter what, our father loved us, and he did what he thought was best for us. And I know, despite the lingering pain in my heart, that she is right. I know because I experienced his love, because despite his flaws I still admire and respect him. I know because he gave so much of himself as my father, and he did it not for recognition, not for praise, but just because it was what I needed.
I’m pretty sure I never thanked my father for sacrificing his sleep to be there for me that night, or apologized for eating all the cookies, but I always think of that night as a time when I learned about what love is. Love, as my father showed me, means giving parts of yourself, it means making sacrifices for someone else because it is what they need from you, without thinking about your own wants or needs. It’s about being selfless.
I can never repay my father for his sacrifices throughout my life. My father has advanced Parkinson’s Disease now. He can’t walk beyond a few steps. His speech is mostly an incoherent mumble. Sometimes when I visit him I have to remind him who I am. Before the disease progressed to this point, back when he could speak and walk, I would watch him struggle to do the most basic tasks. I tried to be there for him, to help him, while also giving him space to maintain his dignity. His requests were simple: a glass of water, a tissue, a bowl of ice cream or a piece of chocolate. When I got these things for him he would thank me profusely, his voice tinged with embarrassment and shame. As gently as possible, I brushed away his embarrassment and apologies. I was only giving him back a little bit of what he gave me.
These days he doesn’t have many requests. Now when I visit him we mostly sit in silence, him drifting in and out of sleep in his wheelchair, me twiddling my thumbs apprehensively and feeling useless. Sometimes I try to fill up the space with ramblings about my life, unsure if he is even listening. Sometimes he talks, or tries to rather, and I just sit and nod my head as if I understand. What he wants or needs now, I don’t know and can’t provide.
Sometimes though – it’s rare and only lasts a few minutes – he’ll look me straight in the eyes and smile and say, “Hey, that’s my Bata.”
And for a few minutes I have my Baba again, the one who always made me feel extraordinary.
As a parent now myself, I am learning about selfless love. I try to parent my son with even a handful of the grace and gentleness my father did. Sometimes, when I am utterly exhausted from being needed so much by another human being, I wonder how in the world did my father have so much patience with me? My son expects everything from me, he expects me to drop whatever I am doing and give him whatever he needs. He is only just beginning to understand that Mama is a person with feelings and a life all her own. To him I am his giver: of attention, love, play, comfort, and care.
I think now that when my father said those words to me that night, that everything was going to be okay, he may have been saying them to himself as well. That despite the circumstances, despite being solely responsible for three young children, despite all the insecurities and fears of parenthood, life, illness, and death, it was all going to be okay.
He isn’t perfect, but he was always there for me when I needed him, and I hope and pray that somewhere in the fog of his deteriorating mind he knows how grateful I am to have him as my father.
Read more by Ambata, here.
Ambata Kazi-Nance is a writer and teacher living in her hometown New Orleans, LA with her husband and son. She is a member of MelaNated Writers Collective, a group for writers of color in New Orleans. She writes for Azizah magazine and is a contributing blogger at Grow Mama Grow (www.patheos.com/blogs/growmama) an online community for Muslim mothers. She blogs about writing and other things at www.aknthoughtsonthings.wordpress.com and you can find her on Twitter @NolaWanderer.