As we sat in the tent, and listened to the rain and thunder, I could see your face lit up in the flashes of lightning. We were sitting through a truly dreadful storm, and the rain was flowing through the tent like a small river, making sleep impossible. Periodically you would use the pillow like a big sponge, and wring it out through the flap of the tent. It was impossibly late- maybe even midnight, and I was about 7 years old.
So to pass the time until we could either sleep or leave, we talked. The kind of man to man talk that small boys feed upon, that they need like oxygen and water if they are going to become real men themselves.
“Dad, are you afraid of the storm?”
“No, I’m not scared of this. It’s only nature, and it just seems louder than usual because we are not in a house. But it’s just loud and wet, not scary.”
“Are you scared of sharks? Or maybe…tidal waves?”
“I don’t think you need to be scared of things in nature. You need to respect them, yes. But to be scared. No. This is not the way it goes.”
“Were you ever scared of things not in nature?”
“I was scared when my Oma died – you great grandmother. Your Oma’s mother. I was scared, because when I was little, she helped so much to look after me, and her dying meant that I would never see her again. When I lived in Africa, I saved my money, and sent for my Oma to come and see Africa, and stay with me. And when she was dying, in her bed years later, she said to me…’I remember the elephants. The elephants standing by the mountain, Kilimanjaro. I remember how strange and new it all was to me, and that you had brought me to see them, and you knew what to do. And I knew that you were a man, that you were no longer a boy, and that I could leave you in the world, and you would be safe.’ She said that to me, and a few days later she died.”
You paused here, and rummaged for a cigarette. Outside the rain, lightning and thunder continued, unabated.
“She wasn’t afraid, because when I brought her to see the elephants, she knew that she could leave us behind, and that we could be alright. That’s the only thing to be afraid of. Leaving people before they are ready.”
I remember you saying that so clearly. I remember that phrase, ‘I remember the elephants,’ and how when you said it your Oma’s voice inhabited yours. It was as though her spirit inhabited yours, and I connected with her, across the gulf of over one hundred years.
Do I still believe that? No..and yes. I can’t reconcile the mystical idea that her spirit flew through time and space to meet a great grandson she would never see. You taught me that Dad – for better or for worse. But I also know that the act of transmission of stories, culture and lore is exactly that. The only way we can connect to our endless past is on the spiritual level.
Now that you are gone, I wonder if I was ready. You held on, until your family came to se you as you lay dying of lung cancer. You looked at us, heard us, and knew that your daughter had completed her Ph.D., and that burden of worry was lifted. You saw that your wife still cared for you deeply, and fulfilled pledge ‘in sickness and in health.’ And you saw that I had shaken off the shackles of my first disastrous marriage, and had had three wonderful children, who knew love and comfort you had never received from a father figure. You knew we were going to be okay.
But missing you so much, makes me sometimes wonder if I could ever have been ready for this storm.