Remembering Lost Fathers

On December 5th 2013, South Africa lost its most cherished father figure. The world lost one of our most celebrated statesmen. A family lost its father, grandfather and more. There is much to be said about Mandela’s symbolism to everyone – as leader, revolutionary, terrorist, statesman and diplomat that I feel it better to leave that to those who knew him or who will spend the time doing the hard research.

Today, on Father’s Day 2016, I find myself selfishly contemplating the “loss” of my own father, Stephen Gawe. Since 2013, we have only heard sketchy reports that he is alive but have no idea whether he is well. He apparently suffers from dementia and – whether this is as a result of his current medication or otherwise – he has been “lost” to most of his family for more than four years now.

Madiba reminds me a lot of my father in temperament and attitude – at least in my memory of him. I wouldn’t consider that to be overly contrived, but I do think it was deliberate. My father sought to emulate Mandela’s poise and thoughtfulness and – while he may have been a little different in his youth – I think that fatherhood, mellowness and a tendency towards peace was always part of him. While my Mother might tell me to stand up to the bullies and tormentors at school, my Father found this a difficult subject. Mum would often tell me to “kick ‘em in the shins” or call them “pink pigs” in response to the many racist taunts that would send me home in tears. Dad, though, would say very little. I think, for him, it was a case of being unable to express a breaking heart.

My father’s story is, like many other exiles and comrades in “The Struggle”, one that is almost impossible to comprehend but in his admiration of so many of the key players in the story, he is more likely to play his part down than try to talk it up. I am only now starting to build up a sketchy picture of parts of that story – and that is part of the loss. Without wanting to make him live through that time again, I would love to be spending time with him, hearing more of his stories and sharing those with my own family and friends.

I miss him terribly – but am also left unable really to mourn. When we were last in Johannesburg in December last year, we tried to visit but were once again frustrated. Although we could see movement in the house, no one even acknowledged our presence. High walls and a solid metal gate surround him and even his closest family is not permitted entry. My father’s cheeky, intelligent and astute sense of humour and sensitivity means that most of the time we have spent together has been uplifting and positive. However, I feel as though I am now missing all the down beats that come of a full relationship.

My Father is alive but is also no longer able to maintain a relationship with us – his children, grandchildren, sisters, brother and so many dear old friends. It is not for want of trying. We write him, email and attempt to elicit responses. We used to try phoning until the numbers he used went dead. We know my Father is alive… but is he well? Until a few years ago, I was in contact with the Reverend at his church and she would email with news of his decline whenever she could spare the time. Unfortunately, his church attendance has also waned and even she is no longer in contact with him.

Unfortunately, there is almost no way to tell and the latest news via the awful grapevine of South African gossip-mongers is just too painful to recount in any detail. I would like to be re-united with my Father – for us all to be his connection to the past which (if his diagnosis of dementia is correct) might at least be something we can help to manage and understand. It would be a wonderful thing to be able to tell the many friends who ask after him so often that he is “doing well” or even that he is “deteriorating badly but he had a good day last month”…

There is a prolonged and wearing state of partial grieving that goes on in the meantime. Have you ever stood outside your parent’s home and not been allowed in?  You can see them moving around inside but they don’t even come to the door to tell you you’re not welcome? If you have experienced that, you have my utmost sympathy – there is a “loss” that is very difficult for some people to understand. What makes this even more difficult for me to accept is that I don’t even believe that it’s what he wants.

Happy Father’s Day 2016, Dad. I hope you are well and know just how much you are missed by too many to mention.

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