The Road Not Taken: Notes From My Father's Unfinished Book

01/07/2015 8:20 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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"Have you changed after your father's death and do you still miss him?"

Perfectly innocuously intended, yet the question left me bewildered, compelling me to revisit memories that we knowingly circumvent on a daily basis. I was sitting with a friend at a quaint little cafe, tucked away in Port Meadows some years ago; the picturesque surroundings made for the naturally bold inspiration, to talk about the 'elephants in the room' that were otherwise dextrously ignored.

Ramadan has always been a particularly poignant time for us as a family, as we lost my father on the 15th of the month, a little over six years ago. The cause, for the most part, remains undiscovered, as he was waiting to start a presentation and simply fell asleep on the sofa, never to wake up again. I made Sehri for him that morning, not realising that it would be the last time I would see him. I was visiting Karachi during my university holidays and my sister was 8.5 months pregnant, in a country thousands of miles away, about to bring into the world, the first grandchild of our family.

"I missed driving our toy cars whilst he tirelessly refuelled them at an imaginary petrol pump."

Yes, I missed him sorely. I missed the sound of the kettle boiling at midnight, as he was having his eighth cup of tea. I missed being able to tip toe into his bedroom at dawn and snap my fingers until he opened his eyes and instantly start to read Enid Blyton with me. I missed seeing the exam papers he had corrected in scarlet felt-tip pen, strewn all over the dining table, with his oversized signature. I missed hearing him quote The Bard, aptly fit to suit any occasion. I missed driving our toy cars whilst he tirelessly refuelled them at an imaginary petrol pump. But most of all, I missed waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the light shine through the drawing room door, reassuring me that he was awake in the middle of the night with his face buried in books, enabling me to go back to sleep.

A distant relative said at his funeral, "It's too soon to say, but time is the only healer." Her words made me realise how meaningless our condolences sound at other people's loss. Yes, losing a dear one impacts us in inconceivable ways. Till several months later, I would look at people in the park who were laughing and wonder 'what makes them so happy?' I would want to sit in crowded areas at restaurants to avoid silences that seemed deafening. However, as the months passed, the soreness of my father's loss transformed into a kaleidoscope of sublime memories and that is precisely how we wanted to remember him. I think it also gave us perspective that he was fortunate enough to go peacefully.

I was asked by a gentleman during a job interview once about 'father-daughter relationship'. At that point I thought it was quite an unusual question, but I went on to say, "My father taught us that the difference between fear and respect is that one is forced whilst the other is earned. He showed us how one can bring up children through the latter, an impracticable thought to many. That is why, during the 25 years that I shared with him, there was not a single moment that he raised his voice. The day I heard my sister say to him as she landed at Karachi airport after her first trip to America, 'Abbu, I didn't eat any chewing gum,' I realised that my father's efforts hadn't been in vain. This delicate parental pedagogy of his remains etched in my mind." When I met the gentleman a few days later, he said that he had gone home that day and for the first time baked cakes with his 5-year-old daughter.

"When winter comes can spring be far behind?"

My father wanted to write a book titled The Road Not Taken, inspired by Robert Frost's poem. He inculcated in us the appreciation that money cannot guarantee happiness. He had very little of it, but enjoyed higher spirits than most. He steadfastly believed that pursuing ones dreams by choosing the 'road less travelled', was more important than chasing pecuniary triumph and would eventually make 'all the difference' - a thought the jury still remains out on. And at moments, we suffered for it, yes we did. I think by my mother more than us, because financial upheaval has an ugly way of scarring the best of situations. When my brother and I were forced to open an excel sheet and make a household budget, the same night he died, just to shepherd our finances and stretch each dollar, it felt like we were looking for a needle in the haystack. We admitted silently that he had been an idealist, of sorts.

When I got married, followed by my brother, my father's absence loomed larger. The finality that he would not meet my husband or sister-in-law or his grandchildren, was profoundly painful.

"He inculcated in us the appreciation that money cannot guarantee happiness. He had very little of it, but enjoyed higher spirits than most."

Hence, do I still miss my father and have I changed after his death is a redundant question. The grief we had felt then, compounded by the shock, seemed more palpable, almost as if our melancholy could be bottled without a sell-by date. For days, it felt like we could hear the silence walking in a deserted valley. I felt sadness anew when the question was put before me now. The difference this time was that I missed him less for the matchless moments we had created but more for the ones that we hadn't.

When dropping us to school, my father used to recite a verse from a poem by A. E. Housman:

'When first my way to fair I took, few pence in purse had I,

And long I used to stand and look, at things I could not buy.

Now times are altered: if I care to buy a thing, I can;

The pence are here and here's the fair, but where's the lost young man?'

The innuendo it symbolised crystallised in our minds with painful irony after his death. My brother got promoted 48 hours later, a signal to rekindle our faith. My niece was born 12 days after, also making us feel that a life has been granted to us for one that was taken away.

My brother gifted me a hand-written letter the night I got married, thanking me for being the brother he never had. That was the day I realised how much our lives had catalysed, forcing us to leapfrog into 'growing up' after losing my father. Some people stood by; others fell along the wayside. During that involuntary process, the biggest difference I felt was that the doors for prayers seemed to close in, as your parents depart for the Promised Land.

"Yes, I have changed," I finally responded. "And as he taught us, that is the only constant. My soul works more unconditionally, my ego is quieter and my days seem much more real."

I had a dream a few months ago where I saw my father in a place that I hadn't ever seen or imagined could be on earth, its beauty was that raw and ethereal, reiterating to me how when the earth claims our limbs that is when we truly dance.

And for some inexplicable reason, my father's word kept echoing in my head, "When winter comes can spring be far behind?"

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