This is a story that I have been cooking for a while…hopefully it is well done now. Me, I don’t like medium rare steak. Well done wins every time. 🙂
His eyes are the color of slate, the color of roads yet to be traveled, the color of hope and of warmth. I leave the lights on at night so he is the last thing I see as I fall asleep and so when I wake up he is there to catch my good dreams and drive the dark ones away.
I will be eighteen soon. The age of independence. The age when all the things that were so wrong to do before eighteen magically become alright to engage in. Mama says I can perm my hair if I want then. Papa says he will finally teach me to drive one of his many cars. I don’t tell him Saidu, his driver already taught me all that I need to know. I know better than to break Papa’s heart to pieces.
18 is also the age I get to go in search of my father. Not Papa. Papa adopted me when he married my mother. Papa is all the father another girl would need. He is all the father I would need too if my eyes weren’t the color of slate.
My eyes are the color of slate. The color of roads untraveled. The color of my father’s eyes. When I stare in the mirror my father stares back at me.
I have no memory of the man from whom I inherited these eyes. Of course, that is because I never met him. He has never laid eyes on me either, I hear. Mama says he ran away from the town when she told him about me. Thanks to my fertile imagination (Papa’s words, not mine), I have made up many memories of us together. In these memories, my father is kind; he lets me sit on his shoulders, he smells like Old Spice, he listens when I talk, he is more patient than Papa could ever hope to attain to. In my memories, my father is perfect and so am I.
I haven’t told anyone of my plans to seek out the slate eyed man. I am afraid they will try to stop me. I am afraid pain will dislodge from its current residence in Papa’s arthritic knees and find its way to his heart when he finds out that I still think of another as father. I am afraid it will be the beginning of his death. I am afraid that Mama will never forgive me.
Papa is wise and kind but he is not my father. His eyes are brown, like the muddy pools that form on the broken slate roads when it rains. I love him more than I could ever love the slate eyed man but love is not enough. I need to know where it is I came from. I need to know why the slate eyed man frowns in the photograph that hides in my box of special things. I need to know where he came from and where it is he ran away to. I need to know if that is where I should be headed.
I wake up on the day of my 18th birthday with an excitement that has nothing to do with the evening party Papa is paying for and everything to do with the envelope that spent the night underneath my pillow. The internet has proved a worthy source since I started the search for the slate-eyed man.
In the envelope are directions to his house and information about the life he now lives. My father is a principal at a Government High School. He is on some board of high school principals. His profile picture on Facebook shows him surrounded by children in an ugly brown uniform. The photo I have of the slate-eyed man has found its way from my box of special things into the envelope as well. I will show it to my father when I find him and point myself out to him in those eyes that stare out from the faded photo.
10 Glover street is his address. It is two buses and maybe one bike ride away from where I live with Papa and Mama. It is still dark outside and Musa, our Maiguard is snoring like a truck on its last legs. I get past the iron gates that keep the world out of our lives easily enough and that is when fear assails me.
I have never been on a bus before. I am not even sure where the bus stop is. What if I enter one of those buses people at church give testimonies about; the ‘one-chance’ buses, the dread of every Lagos commuter? What if I get lost? What if I never see Papa or Mama again. What if the slate-eyed man is evil and kidnaps me?
‘Fear is the enemy to greatness’ Papa told me the first time I fell off my new bicycle and refused to try again.
‘Fear is the enemy to greatness,’ Papa said to me as I got on the plane for the first time and experienced a panic attack.
‘Fear is the enemy to greatness,’ Papa has repeated over to me over the years when the nightmares found me.
‘Fear is the enemy to greatness,’ I say to myself and begin my journey.
The okada rider that deposits me in front of 10 Glover street is kind and promises to wait for me.
‘No tay, you hear. No market this early morning so I go wait you for no extra money,’ He says. His eyes are the color of kindness.
The slate-eyed man’s house is quiet; there is no gate, or barbed wire or the other defense mechanisms Papa has secured our home with. I envy the children that live here already. They will be never need to repeat mantras about fear to themselves. They already live fearlessly.
It is 7am and I stare at the house. “Fear is the enemy to greatness,’ I say again. There is no one to hear me, just the trees and the wind.
My knock is answered by a boy rubbing his eyes. I have woken him up from his sleep but he chooses to smile at me in welcome. We stare at each other for a while, measuring each other up. I am about to say something when I hear a voice booming behind him.
“Osato! How many times have I told you not to answer the door without an adult?”
The child looks behind him for a split second, winks, then pushes past me into the street where a ball magically appears before him and he starts to play. I laugh and love my brother already.
‘Yes,’ The booming voice says to me, ‘How can I help you?’
I turn around to find a man with slate eyes looking at me with questions I thought I had prepared answers to. I start to speak but he gives a small cry first, cutting me off.
‘Osanobua!!!’ He says!
I cannot call him ‘Papa’; that name is reserved for the man who loves me more than life itself so I say ‘Dad’ instead. Dad, an innocuous noun, simple, unmemorable, forgiving….
The slate eyed man insists on waking up his whole household to announce his long lost daughter. I am hugged, kissed by step-mothers (he has two wives!), and brothers and sisters aplenty. It is not what I expected and I end up sending the Okada man away with a tip for his time.
They make me breakfast, fried bean cakes and yellow pap that tastes like sawdust because someone forgot to add milk and sugar to it. They regale me with tales of important life events I have missed in all their lives. One of my step mother shows me a scar from the time an Okada rider hit her. The other, refusing to be outshone, shows me a scar of the time the soldiers beat market women at Yaba to get them off the train tracks. My father tells me my grandmother died only last year. I want to ask if she knew about me but I can see the pain is still raw in his eyes so I do not. My step brother, the one who opened up the door shows me his report card. All As except in Moral Studies. Papa would have killed me if I had anything less than an A in Moral Studies of all subjects.
No one questions where I showed up from and it occurs to me in the midst of all the noise that it might be because this has happened before. My father’s family have learned to accept strangers that show up on their door step claiming kin.
Time passes and my welcome crowd thins till it is just my father and I.
“Why?” I ask.
“I was poor and couldn’t afford to take care of myself, talk less of two other mouths,” He tells me.
And so he ran away from town the day after my mother told him about me. He ran to Cotonou and found a job teaching children to speak English. Five years later, he returned to Lagos with a wife and three month old Osato in tow.
“Why didn’t you look for us then?”
“I had nothing to offer you, my child,’ he says to me, his slate eyes filled with shame.
He shifts uncomfortably before me. I know he feels naked without the people he has surrounded himself with; naked and open before eyes that look exactly like his.
He is a small man, small in stature and all the things that matter to me. The photo I keep in the special box showed me none of that. If it did, I never would have come.
I get up to leave.
He says something about coming back but I do not hear. I went in search of my father only to realize he was never lost. I went in search of myself only to realize I have all I have ever needed.
I let the man kiss my cheek goodbye. I let my step brother, Osato walk me to the bus stop; his hand holding tightly onto mine because he has somehow rightly guessed he is about to lose the elder sister he just found.
I give him the novel I brought with me for the long journey. Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. In between the pages, if Osato ever bothers to read it, he will find five thousand naira. I hope it makes up for the fact that he will never get to know me.
I wave to him from the bus until he is out of sight.
Two buses later and I find myself where my journey began.
Mama is cooking; a feast for the evening party that will celebrate my 18th birthday later today. I cannot find my father anywhere so I go to my room.
He is sitting on my bed and looking at a photo collection that chronicles the last seventeen years.
‘Papa,’ I whisper from the doorway.
‘Hmmmm,’ He answers without lifting his head from the album.
I go and sit beside him.
‘You grew up so fast,’ He says.
‘Not fast enough,’ I say and we share a smile.
We sit that way for a while, I and Papa. He is a big man, big in size and of heart, and big in all the ways that matters to me, in all the ways that matters to daughters everywhere.
I reach for his hand and squeeze it.
‘Can you slow down for the next few years? Can you not grow so fast?’
‘I will try,’ I promise him.
‘Good,’ He says. ‘Tomorrow you can show me how well Saidu taught you about driving.’
‘You knew?’ I ask, surprised.
‘I am your father. I know everything, Mayowa.’ He says, rising up.
I rise with him, kiss his cheek.
‘Thank you for the party, ’ I whisper. ‘And for everything else.’
He says nothing but I can hear the love pumping his heart as he holds me. He lets go abruptly. Papa is not one for overt displays of emotions but there is a spring in his step that wasn’t there yesterday and I know why.
I am eighteen today. The age of independence. The age I find that I no longer want the freedom I have so often craved from Papa’s love and protectiveness. The age I find out the color of my eyes doesn’t have to be the color of my life. The age I find out that it takes more than sharing eye color and DNA to father a child. The day I find out Papa is all the father I have ever needed, all the father I will ever need.
Photo Credit: UNICEF
Song of day: William McDowell – I Won’t Go Back