I scare myself as I get older. Memories that seem not that long ago, turn out to be years into the past.
My children had laid hands on some old family pictures and were laughing at the hair styles and fashions that seemed so hip at the time. There was nothing wrong with the follow up to the afro, the Q cut, as far as I’m concerned.
I leant forward and picked up some of the fading pictures, vowing to scan them digitally, before the images and maybe the meanings faded away.
There was a picture of my younger daughter, sat next to my father on a sofa. Dad had his arm around her and both with smiles, her’s that of a three year old, with a flashing grin and missing baby teeth and his, in pose, head turned slightly to the left.
The girl in the picture is now married and the man’s demise, over a decade ago.
He was a big man, at one point nine metres tall with a deep baritone voice to match.
Many people say their dad was the best father in the world. I will never say that of my dad, due to my knowledge of human failings and foibles, in which many want to gloss over the dark parts of their lives and have it re emerge like some Walt Disney tale.
Dad had his faults, who doesn’t, but as far as his kids were concerned, he would do almost anything for them that made sense. Education was essential and in providing that, he was a star. If you wanted toys or some fashion item that he regarded as being silly, his response would be to growl ‘I don’t have a dime’. That still cracks me up, whenever I remember it. He did have more than a dime but he was not going to fritter it away, even though there were always three or four cars parked in the drive, which he alternated in driving daily.
I grinned as I looked at this picture and two memories came to the fore.
At almost 19, I had gone to him to tell him I wanted to go to flying school in California and after some minor hurdles over the next few months, he knocked on my bedroom door and handed me a piece of paper. When I looked at it, it took my breath away, as it was a receipt, sent from my soon to be school in California, with the entire fees including accomodation of $31,800 paid up front. I thanked him profusely but he shook it away and said that I was honour bound to do my best whilst there.
The master plan he and I had, was that I would acquire my licences and then return to work in corporate, charter or commercial aviation.
I did my best and in less than the 18 months, I had acquired a commercial multiengine instrument pilot’s licence.
However, I had also acquired a wife and son which was not in the master plan.
Roll forward seven years; I was now back in Africa flying for a living. Divorced and remarried with another kid on the way, I had done the wild living, that a great job and salary provides for.
Now retired, my father spent his days reading prodigiously on most subjects, browsing newspapers and looking forward to visitors he could chat to. It’s taken me over twenty years to reflect, and indeed surmise that my powerful, once upon a time influential dad, was lonely and very little was stimulating him mentally.
Around that time, I again came across that school receipt and realised that I had never ever thanked my dad properly for the education. It hit me like a bolt.
The following week, I went to see him as part of a regular Friday ritual when he and I set the world to rights, over lunch whilst sat on the balcony, with huge plants hiding us from people going past below.
‘Dad, I would like to thank you for everything you’ve done for me, and the one way I think I could even begin repaying you, is to take you flying with me’ I said
He turned his head towards me and pushed his glasses further up his nose bridge
‘No need to thank me, son. It was my duty as your father.’
I replied ‘Yes, I’m aware of the cultural norms but why not take a couple of days and come with me? I’ll sort out a hotel and some sight seeing before we return.’
He appeared to think about it and said ‘No, I’m fine really. It’s your job and I wouldn’t want to get you into trouble’.
‘No, no, it’s no trouble at all. It will be my pleasure’ I said
Dad would not budge. In spite of my entreaties, he would not come to see me at work.
Over the next few months, each time I came to our Friday lunches, I raised the issue.
My older siblings kicked in as well, telling him to have a change for some days.
A month later, when I visited him and had sat down, he said ‘If I come flying with you, will you tell your sisters to get off my back?’
Laughing aloud, I said ‘Yes, I will.’
On the scheduled day, the flight my dad would be on with me was the noon international West Coast flight to Accra, Abidjan, Monrovia and terminating in Dakar for two nights.
I had requested a company driver pick my dad from home and bring him to the airport. As all the company vehicles had airside passes and safety equipment, the driver was to bring my dad to the steps of the plane about 11.25 hrs after sorting out immigration and customs.
I had informed the other pilot, Captain Yemi, of my dad’s ride along which he approved of and had put other things into place.
Passengers were queuing up at the bottom of the forward stairs of the Boeing, as Captain Yemi and I began working our way through pre flight checks and calculations, when I saw the bright red company car approaching the plane.
I pointed it out to the Captain and he got on the intercom asking all the cabin crew to go down out of the plane and line up by the stairs. We followed suit and went down as the car pulled up. The driver pulled up by the steps, got out and went round to open the passenger door for my dad.
‘Hello sir, it’s with the greatest pleasure I welcome to this flight’ I said formally to him as he stepped from the car. I shook him by the hand with all the passengers waiting to board looking on. In a line were the crew of the flight. I introduced them all starting with the Captain. The men bowed slightly and women curtsied, as they shook hands with my dad.
Leading him up the stairs with the crew, I pointed out Seat 1A which had been reserved for him. As he sat down, the passengers began boarding, most of whom looked at my dad, wondering who he was that he got such star treatment. Captain Yemi and I got back into the cockpit and finished the flight checks.
I got on the intercom and announced the flight to the passengers and ended by saying ‘I also welcome the father of the co-pilot on board. I would like to thank him for giving me the opportunity to fly for a living and for being my dad.
May I ask everyone to give him a round of applause please’?
Even behind the closed cockpit door, we could hear the applause from the cabin. Then the door opened and the senior purser brought him into the cockpit to occupy the jump seat between and slightly behind the pilots’. We showed him how to do up his seat belts, which was different to that of passengers, as I did the taxi and take off briefings.
My father later said to me that he had never seen that side of me, so serious, so professional.
I can’t recall the briefing but it must have been a standard one including maintaining a sterile cockpit till 3000 metres.
I kept looking at my dad out of the corner of my eye, maybe for approval, as we taxied out, headed for the runway and stopped short of it. With take off clearance given and the plane turned onto the runway, I advanced the thrust levers slightly, waiting for the engines to stabilise. Once that was done, I applied take off power and released the brakes becoming airborne in less than a minute.
Half an hour later, we were letting down into Accra , with my dad back to his cabin seat.
We spent a superb two days in the then tranquil Dakar, before returning, during which we talked like we had never before, about life, his upbringing, values and how retirement had a negative impact on him. Time, he told me, had made him reassess his priorities in life. All the little and large, significant emotional and physical events, made him see people around him in a different light. He wished, with hindsight, he could have done many things differently. This was very deep and made me see another side of the man, who was my dad. I had learnt from him how reduce the number of times to say sorry. This, he said, could be done by weighing up what we had to say, before putting it into speech. In other words, engage brain before mouth.
Ten years later, I was living in yet another continent, no longer flying or involved with aviation.
Having completed an education in and of the mind, I now worked in healthcare. Dad had been diagnosed with Vascular Dementia some years earlier and as this was my forte, researched caring techniques, as there is no cure for this insidious disease. His physical health was failing too and my family had informed me that I should come visit him, for what could be the last time.
Flying six hours southwards as a passenger looking out of the windows but not seeing anything, I was immersed in my thoughts.
My brother picked me up at the airport and drove me straight to the family house.
He said ‘As you know, we hired a live in carer for him over a year ago. He keeps calling out for his mother and other names we don’t know. He also accuses people of stealing from him and then we find the items some days later. Have to tell you, Kid, he has lost a lot of weight’
I nodded, being familiar clinically with dementia.
At the house, I looked around the cul de sac that held so many memories, with the lagoon a scant 200 metres away. After introducing me to the carer, my brother left, as I went through the house to the large garden, with four park style benches and the lagoon lapping quietly onto the walls of the enclosure.
A man sat on one of the benches, who surely could not be my dad, who was a huge man. However, it was him, emaciated, shrunken and bent over, with the collar of his shirt looking so big around his now skeletal neck. One aspect of dementia is forgetting to eat, often causing weight loss.
‘Good afternoon, sir’ I said to him and he looked up at me with unrecognising eyes.
‘Hello’ he answered ‘I know you. You are the man who works in the public works department office, on the ground floor from me’.
I nodded, knowing that he had not been in an office in almost twenty five years but I was not going to upset him by saying otherwise.
I sat next to him, studying his face and figure. For the first time ever in my life, my dad seemed smaller than I was. He drooled out of the corner of his mouth, which I wiped it off with my hand. He kept his gaze on me and recognition seemed to come and then stopped.
He said ‘I know that I know you but I don’t know where from’ sounding frustrated. This dementia with it’s Alzheimers, Vascular and other forms also has a genetic pre disposition link sadly and I have made sure I don’t think about that side of it…yet.
Maybe it was from the frustration, but he started to cry, as I did as well, gathering him into my arms, as I would a child. Was I crying for him? On reflection, no. I cried for me. For my loss.
Father, grandfather, brother, cousin, relative, accountant, lay preacher and many more, some of these things he still was, others, buried in the relic of the mind.
Giving the carer four days off, I began washing, feeding, wiping, driving him to places he once knew, all over town in a vain attempt to trigger some memories. I also tried other cognitive therapies including smell and pictures to induce some semblance of the past, before accepting the certainty of the future.
Back abroad, two months later, the expected call came that he had passed on and I walked about bereaved, in a rainstorm for hours in tears.
I still have that receipt from well over three decades ago and the memories of a man, whom for all his faults, shaped who I am now.
Thank you Dad.