When dad died I wanted to touch people. A few minutes after I got the news, I was thirsty, very thirsty, so I started drinking water and more water. Hours later, I wanted to hug people and just get lost in their warm, strong arms. Not just friends but strangers too. But mostly, particular friends. Dad left this world on May 1st, which in fact was a good day for him to go, having labored all his life and decided to go on Labor Day made sense. May 1st is a public holiday in Uganda and many other countries around the world, so before the death reality sank in, I chuckled to think that dad had chosen a perfect day, full of spring sunshine and publicly acknowledged as the day when all who labor rest. The most sensible thing I did was to find the quickest and affordable ticket to Uganda. I got one on Air Brussels, thinking it wouldn’t be fast enough, wondering how I was going to spend time on the plane before arrival. I told myself that dad was sleeping, not really dead, no, not really, and I was going to arrive in time to wake him up. I smiled envisioning how this was going to turn out.
I boarded Air Brussels at 9.30am. One minute I was aware of what was taking me home, another minute I was in total denial. I was only going home like I had done before during holidays. I would meet my family, embrace everyone, talk with my nieces and nephews and everything would be just fine. From Denver to Dulles International Washington Airport all was well, even cheerful. During the two hours transit at Dulles, I received a text from Nancy, one of my sisters, that broke me. It said: “Dad has arrived.” Dad had died in Kampala city on Sunday morning where he had gone for check up at the Heart Institute in Mulago hospital. A service was held in his honor at St. Francis Chapel in Makerere on Monday, May 2nd. Our family friends and relatives in Kampala attended the service. On Tuesday his body was transported to Kabale, our home, where dad would be laid to rest. Nancy’s text meant that dad had arrived in Kabale. I don’t know why that particular text affected me so deeply. I appreciated it and felt its power, then responded that I, too, would be arriving home Tuesday night. Then I cried.
On the plane to Brussels, I had a middle seat and all my would-be neighbors were absent. What a stroke of luck. I raised the arm rests and made a bed for myself. It was the longest bed I never had before on a plane. I stretched out completely and slept. I don’t know how sleep snatched me but I was probably tired from all the crying and exhaustion, I slept deeply and woke up in time for dinner! Then slept again. I opened my eyes thirty minutes before arriving in Brussels. I mused at this gift of sleep. I would never have imagined that I could sleep well on the plane given the state I was in earlier. It was a mercy.
I had two and a half hours in transit before connecting to Uganda. During those hours, I told myself again that dad was asleep. I would arrive home at night via Kigali, which was closer to my hometown than Kampala, put my arms around him and speak softly to him, tell him it was okay to wake up. I would do what my siblings hadn’t been able to do. I would summon him with the force of my will and imagination. I would pray. I would do what Jesus did for Lazarus, raise him up from the dead. I would say, dad, you can do it. You sure can rise. I see you want to. Please, Rise. Cough. Do anything to make us get you out of that box you’re now in. Please, dad, you can pull it off, it is okay. We can do it together. It will be our miracle. Our resurrection. Dad, I know you can hear me. I rehearsed this a couple of times until I fell asleep again on the plane from Brussels to Kigali.
Arriving home, May 3rd
My two sisters picked me up from the Kabale-Katuna border and we drove home. During the car ride we talked, laughed, and the avalanche I had expected didn’t happen. We talked as if dad was truly sleeping, not gone from us. When I arrived home, I hugged my brothers, my mother, and the people who were keeping vigil with us. Then I was led to the sitting room where dad was. This was the big moment. Our moment. One of my brothers slid back the shutter to let me see dad’s face. I was armed with my prayer, will, and imagination. We were all going to witness a resurrection. What happened was unexpected. Dad looked extremely handsome, peaceful and in his own world. I could not believe it. We had an agreement, surely. I had it in me to bring him back. But when I beheld his peaceful face and could not remember the last time I had seen him like that, I had doubt for the first time. I doubted if he would want to come back. If I could really bring him back. In that moment, I realized it was not up to me to bring him back. He looked so peaceful! So rested! How could I interrupt that?
Still I talked to him. I called him out. I cried quietly. And he still looked peaceful. I said, dad, I am here. I have come for you. And he remained peaceful. Unperturbed. I was defeated. In that moment of defeat I changed tactics. I told him I was there to officially send him off to where he already was: green pastures with cows which he loved, heaven filled with trees. There would be avocados, mangoes, oranges, jack fruit, passion fruits, kind people and God. I told him it was all right. He could continue resting and I would find peace too.
That night there was no sleeping and I was grateful I had done all my sleeping on the plane. I talked with Mabel, one of my sisters until morning. She said many things but here’s what I retained:
Two weeks before dad died, he carried his favorite clothes, a suit, tie, shirt, and shoes and gave them to Mabel in Kampala saying: This suit will attend a function some day. Mabel didn’t think much of it. She was like, well, dad has friends in Kampala and often there are weddings and baptism parties so he’s right, there’s going to be a function at some point and it will be good if there’s a suit handy. He also dropped other hints, mentioning his favorite hymns, what he wished would be sang at his funeral, and Mabel diligently wrote down the songs. He also emphasized how and where he was to be buried when his time came. He spoke of his time as if it was in the far future. On May 1st when his time came, the first thing the funeral services people asked for was clothes to bury him in. And Mabel was like, shoot, he left me with his suit. Next question was: do you have songs, the order of service? Mabel was like, oh dear, we do. And from then on all the hints and epiphanies fell into place. How he had said he would not make it to my graduation. And I had thought he’d meant because of his ill health at the time he wouldn’t be able to travel. How he had said when his time came, we should not mourn him like the bereaved because he was not leaving us as orphans. He was leaving us very okay, in very good hands and doing very well on the paths we all had individually chosen. We were to celebrate his 75 years of life and imagine that he was not gone from us but us gone to school, for instance, and he would be with us on visitation day. That made me realize how dad never missed anyone’s visitation day. No matter how busy he was, he always showed up. He also told my sister that if ever we were in a quandary wondering what decision to make, we should ask, what would dad say, and we would hear his voice. This last part is freaking true. I’ve already experimented with it and I do hear what he would say. Which means he is very much with us.
What moved me most was realizing that in preparing himself, dad went ahead to prepare us too so that his parting would not be very devastating. That’s the kind of person he was. Always concerned and caring about us. I started praying that he would find the same consideration where he was, comfort, concern, care, love, and joy. His face confirmed to me that he had already found these attributes, that he was already in love, with love.
Send off, May 4th
Speeches, tributes, and so many flowers. I counted 19 wreaths and then stopped counting. What was the point? The point was, had anyone of us given my dad a flower in his life? On the verge of tears, then saved by a memory. Dad in hospital at Mulago holding a bouquet of flowers. One of my brothers had sent me a picture and that very day had put dad on Skype so I could see how he was and talk with him. Redemption! He had flowers in life. He was going amidst flowers. At a critical moment when he was being lowered into the grave, I looked up and saw the avocado tree with fruits. I whispered to my sisters: Do you see how many avocados dad will be eating? We all laughed. Comic relief, and it pleased me from then on to acknowledge that dad had chosen a beautiful spot. Apparently, he had told my siblings that we could plant more trees around him but I felt the need to tell him quietly to not be greedy, he got a whole avocado tree to himself. Next tree could be a neem to keep the mosquitoes away but not another fruit tree.
Return to Denver, May 15th
A few days after my return to Denver there was an email from the University International house seeking volunteers to go plant trees at Montbello Central park. The pull to volunteer was irresistible and I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was going to engage in this activity in memory of my father. True I love trees but not in the way dad loved them. On 21 May, we gathered at the I-House and took a bus to the park. We ended up mulching the trees that were already grown but it was still satisfying touching the soil, spreading the mulch, seeing the trees nourished and cared for. At the end of the activity we took a group picture and I made sure that I got a copy. In the evening I was going to read from my dissertation and I chose to start with a section of my grandmother who gave birth to my wonderful father because I knew dad would have liked it. This infusion of dad is more apparent now than ever in my life and work.
Having said all this, I’m still struggling with acceptance. One moment I am okay with him gone, another I’m like, no, dad, I need to speak with you. I’m calling right now, then realizing that he won’t answer the phone in the way I expect him to. I can’t bring myself to delete his mobile number. I sing his favorite hymns in the shower, I look at his pictures in my album, and I dream about him that he’s in perfect health and we’re walking together holding hands and talking like we used to. When I graduated on June 3rd, all was pleasant, my friends were with me, yet two days later, I found myself wishing that dad should have been on earth with me. I had had this thought earlier but had pushed it away from my mind, telling myself that of course he was with me, he even had an advantageous position now more than ever, he was watching everything from the eagle’s eye. Slowly but surely, I missed him and missed all the people I had loved before and were now gone from me and I wanted to hug them and touch them and not stop touching them.
My prayer was: God let this moment pass, let it pass, pass, pass, passsssssssssssssssssssssss! At some point I thought I would have no more tears but no, tears are mysterious, however much you shed there’s still more. That too surprised me. So I started thinking, what would it be like to actually collect tears in bottles or jars. How many could I fill? So I wrote in my journal: when it comes to tears, there’s never enough. And by the way, I’m not the only one who had the Jesus-Lazarus thought. My older brother mentioned in his tribute how he had been praying and secretly hoping for a resurrection because with God all things are possible.
One of my dear friends says things aren’t as terrible as they seem to be at first and she’s right. I also think that things may be as terrible as they truly are but we get better at handling them so they look less terrible because of our adjusted lenses and that portrays less terrible results.
The passing of my father made me reflect on all the things that had passed through my life, what I was grateful for and what I was sorrowful about. Again, more tears. So I wrote: May has really been a month of weeping. And I wanted June to belong to laughter. To be filled with laughter. Merriment. Joy. Happiness. I didn’t think it was too early to wish so. I just wanted joy above all. Feel my chest expanding than contracting. But you know emotions aren’t divided and compartmentalized like that. Still, I was concerned that I had dived deep into the dark and needed to find light. Friends and family were constantly sending me light and love but I wasn’t being grateful when I was sad. Whether that sadness was justified or not. Secondly, it occurred to me that the days I would spend feeling sad would mean they weren’t worth existing. I wasn’t seeing how precious having and being in each day was. So I started thinking of expanding into things I could never put a price on because they were very precious, like the day, like life, laughter, love, dad… I gave myself an exercise. Before going to bed every night, I would record my three moments of joy. My first response was: I don’t have joy right now. How do I write down three moments of joy when I can’t even find one? The second response was: How could I even think of such a thing? I realized this was a part of the mind that wanted to keep me in misery. Surely in a 12-hour cycle I could find three moments of joy regardless of the condition of my father and other loved ones.
For instance, I could imagine even on that toughest day how worse I would have felt had I not been able to fly home immediately the moment I received the news. Had dad belonged to a different faith, Islam, let’s say, he could have been buried as soon as he’d breathed his last and I would have lost the chance of seeing his beautiful, restful face. That wouldn’t have gone well with my soul. I so wanted to see him and I’m glad I did. He could have gone before I defended my dissertation and how would I have found the mental fortitude to carry on with studies? The list grew out of the depths of despair to moments of appreciation. Now I waver between: how do I have joy to I do have some joy. I can make joy. I can share joy. I can increase joy. There is joy. Some days I easily find three moments of joy. Other days I take long to and that’s okay. But more than ever before, I’m sure that joy and a grateful heart lighten whatever burdens are placed on us. To all who mourn, we will be vulnerable and break down, but we will also find strength. I still want to touch people. I have this craving to touch people, which tells me I have perhaps found grief’s gift to me in the most unexpected gesture.