As I've mentioned before, my father was a chronic alcoholic and I pushed him from my life in disdain for his apparent preference for fermented vegetables over his family. I cut my hair short, when I knew it would upset him, I continued to wear trousers, when I knew he preferred me in skirts, and I never made an effort to visit him when my parents parted ways. I spent years waiting for him to make the first move, not knowing he was probably scared shitless at the prospect of rejection.
Our conversation over the phone in which I was breaking it to him that I was going to college in America still rings in my ears.
Baba: You're killing me, you know, you're killing me.
TeacherLady: I've got to go to college. I've got to go. I'll be back.
Baba: You're killing me. (He's crying.)
I hang up. I think he cried every time we met.
So much for being proud of his daughter going to college. So my brothers went to boarding school in England all the time I was a child. I was educated at home in a school with virtually no arts when everyone knew I was the artistic type. My father never saw me, so what difference did it make if I was ten minutes away or thousands of miles away?
To prove I hadn't vanished off the face of the earth, I went to visit him one summer after I'd completed half of my college education. We sat in awkwardness for the most part. He kept calling my little sister by my name and not correcting himself. When he removed his headdress, I could see grey hairs and a touch of baldness. He was much fatter, and walked with a limp. Afraid of doctors, he never had his gout seen to or the stye in his eye. He cooked us dinner and got upset anytime I said "Thank you".
Baba: You say thank you to strangers, not to your father.
TeacherLady: I like to show my gratitude.
Baba: Not to your father. I'm your father. I'm supposed to give you everything.
I tried to hint to him that I was happy and may even get married at some point. I was already engaged to my husband, but I didn't want to ruin the moment by revealing the fact that my husband to be was not Arab, and more importantly, not Muslim. I guessed I'd tell him later.
The next summer I returned, I didn't go visit him. I didn't know how to go. A little voice in my head told me he'd die and I'd never have the chance again. It's funny how often that little voice is right, and yet I always seem to dismiss it at the worst times.
When my husband called from work to say my mother had been trying to reach me but she didn't understand how to get around the anonymous call block and that my father had died my legs collapsed from underneath me. I fumbled to dial my mother's number back in the Middle East.
You know, I have nightmares that I'm trying to call my family and my fingers scramble so clumsily that I keep dialing the wrong number and can't get to them. That sounds stupid to you, probably, but I hate that dream.
It may have been the alcohol, it may have been his heart, hell it could have been cancer, anything, who knows? No autopsy was performed.
Now that I'm older and wiser, I realize how miserable he truly was. I had thought he had the life he wanted, booze, booze, and more booze without family to get in the way... If I'd known he was trying to numb the pain he felt in his heart, I would have done something more. He was lonely and depressed, and I shoved him away. If I'd been older, I would have understood that the reason he was crying when I told him mum had sold his bar and bar stools was not because he was losing a part of his beloved hobby, but that this was proof that we were excising him from our lives.
I always knew he was a sweet man, with his charming penchant for Arab equivalents of the National Enquirer (he actually believed that crap!), his love of old Westerns (he would sing "I Was Born Under a Wandering Star". Badly). His favorite movie was Paint Your Wagon. He loved Benny Hill and Carry On films. He told terrible jokes. He loved animals with a passion. In fact, he had a desert fox as a pet when he was a child, but his father killed it as punishment for something he'd done. He once bought a whole sea turtle from the souq (market place) that would otherwise had been fated to be cut into parts while still alive. He released it back into the ocean. He bought me my first pet chickens. He loved all our cats and dogs we'd had over the years, including my best friend's dog next door. He would give me hugs so tight, they almost hurt, and kisses equally strong on the top of my head.
Now that I have my own family and a daughter of my own, I can see how you can love someone so much, it hurts.
PLEASE... If you have a family member who is estranged for some benign reason, or for something you could conceivably forgive, PLEASE forgive them. A stupid argument, a difference of opinion, an expanse of miles, must not leave you regretting foolishness for the rest of your life. I sensed the regret that was to come, but didn't fully realize it until it was too late. If someone had made me realize... I'd hope I would have done the right thing. I know it sounds cliched, but at least you'll maybe have the chance I didn't take.