The Things Dad Used to Say

Michelle A. Chikaonda
Jan 29 · 11 min read

My father passed away on the evening of October 29, 2018, after a nearly two-year course of treatment for metastatic colorectal cancer. We brought him home from southern California, where he was being treated, to Malawi, where we are from, on November 18, 2018; he was buried at his home village, just behind the house he built for his parents, on November 19, 2018. While he served in many capacities in Malawi since our family’s return at Malawi’s democratic transition in 1994, he was in his most essential sense a statesman and dedicated son of the nation, and was accordantly given full military honors by the government for his funeral and burial. Here is one of the more comprehensive articles describing his life and legacy, published a couple of days after his passing:

http://www.times.mw/an-ode-for-mathews-chikaonda/

As his eldest child, I was asked to deliver the eulogy on behalf of his children. Below are my prepared remarks, primarily for my American friends who (for obvious reasons of geography) were not present at the funeral, but also because this is really the first time I’ve written extensively about my father, and to that end these are things I just wanted to share with a wider world. There is a much longer first draft that I am considering turning into a longform essay, and the eulogy below is in fact not the final version that was spoken; additional edits, changes and deletions were made the night before the burial, and so the actual spoken version is on a series of half-crumpled notebook leaves inside the small black cross-body bag I brought with me to the funeral and haven’t worn since. One day when I feel ready to watch the video footage from the funeral I will transcribe what I actually said; for now, though, here is the tribute that was folded into my pocket when we went to the airport to meet him that day, the afternoon that he landed in Malawi for the very last time.

***

Growing up, on the day my siblings and I left for school, my father would call us into the dining room for what we came to call “The Work Hard in School” talk. Dad would call us into the dining room, sometimes at breakfast and sometimes at lunch, and would tell us how important it was that we succeed in our studies, sometimes using stories and parables to explain to us why that would eventually matter to our lives.

One such morning some years back, Dad did something he hadn’t done in that talk before — he gave us each two handouts. I looked down after getting my copies, and saw that they were spreadsheets, labeled “A” and “B.”

“You see this?” Dad asked, holding up the two sheets, A in his left hand and B in his right. We nodded.

“This is Spreadsheet A. It is a list of my obligations and investments, as well as estimates of when I can expect those to be cleared.” We nodded again.

“And this is Spreadsheet B. You will notice that you three have been added on as line items, to give a more accurate picture of when I can actually expect my debts to be wiped off.”

I looked at Spreadsheet B; indeed, the three of us were listed as line items in the first row, “Mimi,” “Baba,” and “Nane.” In the columns were listed the year and the amount of school fees he was paying for each child, with projections going forward until the last of us, Alinane, graduated university.

“You understand?” he continued. “If I wasn’t paying school fees, I could have cleared my debts a few years from now. I could have even taken your mother to the Seychelles. She’s always wanted to go.” He put down Spreadsheet A, and used his now-free hand to point with emphasis at Spreadsheet B. “But I can’t. Because I’m paying for your schooling.” He looked at each of us in turn. “Now, I’m happy to do this, guys. This is what a father does. But it’s not easy. So you, in turn, have to work just as hard, to justify that investment. I do my part, and you do yours. Otherwise I should just end this now, and take your mother on that vacation. We’re clear here?” The three of us nodded again. “Okay. You can go finish packing now.”

*

I tell that story for a couple of reasons. One, to reassure some of you in attendance that you weren’t alone in having your budgets so scrutinized. You have friends up here. But I also think that story says a lot about who my father was.

Like his consistency — we had the same talk, in the same format, at the same time and on the same day each time we left for school, for nearly fifteen years. Even at times when it seemed there wasn’t much to that talk, when we would just discuss news stories and what these meant for Malawi and ourselves as Malawians — to him, the fact of having sat down in that way to have that discussion, each term we left for school, was what was most critical. It was never just about the talk. It was about habit, yes, discipline, yes, but wrapped up in all that, the simple fact that our last impression before leaving for school would be of the solid, grounding values of the family and the community we came from.

And family was the value he held closest — indeed, that was the root inside of everything he did. These talks, then, were a way he had of passing on that commitment to family, of making us aware of the sacred duty that is the work and dedication involved in taking care of one’s wife, children, and relatives. To him, that was just what a father in a family unit does. That father tries his utmost best for his children, supports and guides their growth and gives whatever security he can in this world.

*

He gave us that security in his presence in many different ways. When we were kids, he regularly took us out for ice cream at Dairy Queen after dinner. “We’re going out gallivanting,” he would declare to Mom with a sly smile, while the three of us excitedly ran out to the car, looking forward to yet another sunset adventure alone with Dad across town. In retrospect I think he was just getting us out of the way so she could take care of things around the house without us kids messing things up immediately afterward. On Saturdays, after church, Dad would drive us all to the other side of St. John’s for long walks in Bowring Park, a sprawling park on the other side of St. John’s with what seemed like miles of trails, and a playground that was twice as big as our neighborhood playground in the East End. I found out later that these walks were at least as much about spending time together as a family on the Sabbath as they were about running us out so we’d crash before 8PM.

On Sundays, sometimes Dad would make eggs for breakfast instead of our usual cereal or oatmeal; he would gather us kids around the stove to watch him fill a pan with scrambled eggs, fry the batter completely flat, and then flip the egg pancake high in the air and over, in one smooth, perfect swing. “Awesome!” we would all exclaim; because there’s making eggs, and then there’s making eggs. And he let us wear his shoes to play dress-up — we used to call them “Bungie Shoes,” I think because that’s what we imagined big shoes on tiny feet should be called. We’d stomp around the house in pairs of his shoes, usually the polished church ones; later, understanding how well he took care of his shoes, I now can’t believe he let us do that. I love my young nieces and nephews very much, certainly — but I’m not sure I would let them do that.

There were things he was always insistent upon doing for us, well into our adulthoods — like cutting up fruit for us, mangoes and papayas and pears, making sure that all the spoiled parts were sliced away, so we only ate the tastiest parts. For special occasions, he made oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies; he kept the recipe as a James Bond-level secret, because they were that good. You didn’t want to be the slow one in the house when Dad had made those cookies — we even had friends who would come over to our house not to visit, but because somehow they’d heard Dad had made cookies.

He taught us so many things — how to ride a bike; how to drive a car; how to properly launder dress shirts. “You dry it to 80 percent,” he explained one morning, holding up the collar of the shirt he was working on, “and then iron it to dry to 100 percent. Otherwise you’ll over-dry the shirt.” In that same conversation he also went on to tell us how fortunate we were to have electric irons where managing the heat settings was so easy; back in his day, he explained, he’d had to use the real-deal iron to iron his father’s shirts, the kind of iron that had to be filled with hot coals and then waved carefully back and forth in order to cool down. All those years I’d wondered why I could never quite get the wrinkles out of my shirts despite nearly burning holes in them with the iron, something I really had no excuse for with all the electricity I had access to. I should have just asked Dad first. So many things were easier if you just talked to Dad about it first.

*

For all of us three, some of our most intimate talks with Dad were in the middle of the night, when we all seemed to be up for some reason. Sometimes Dad would find one of us in the kitchen, making tea or a late night snack. He’d greet you — “Oh, hi, Mimi,” as though he hadn’t been expecting you there, yet it was the same place he found you two nights ago. Then after getting his own tea mug ready he start the conversation, as the water was boiling. “You know, Mimi,” he’d begin. Or, “So, Nane,” and “It’s funny, Baba, how…” and that’s it, the talk would begin.

Looking back, though, these were less discussions than they were lessons. He was a professor, after all. Often, he would teach us about the mortal sin in valuing the self over the society one is a member of — “Who is I?” he would ask. He already had the answer. “I is nothing without the we that defines it. There is no such thing as I.” I Am Because We Are, after all. You are only who you are because of the community of people who shape your existence. Even in the middle of the night, Dad didn’t believe in wasted time, and he found that time best spent with us, with the we that defined his I.

*

A few years ago at dinner with family friends, Dad told us the story of how the fish eagle, a common bird at Lake Malawi, raises its family. “The fish eagle is a fascinating bird,” he began, seemingly out of nowhere. “It really is. It raises its young, it finds food for them and it feeds them, sometimes even before it feeds itself. The whole time, though, it is also gradually teaching them how to fend for themselves.”

Me, Matthew and Alinane just looked at each other. We knew better than to say anything.

“And then one day,” he continued, “the fish eagle just kicks its young out of the nest.” He did a single sharp wave, what I might call a Get out motion. “Literally kicks them out! And the fledglings had better have learned to fly by then, because otherwise they’re in a lot of trouble.” He turned back to his dinner plate while my siblings and I gave each other lighthearted stares. “Like I said guys — a really fascinating bird.”

A man like my father, a man who knows that the clock on life never stops, who works and teaches and raises children like he’s running out of time — a man like that knows that the day will come when his children will be kicked out of the nest whether he likes it or not, which is perhaps another way of saying that my father saw his central role in life as preparing us for the day when he was no longer there. And now that day has come.

*

In what we now know were the last years of his life, but still a little time before he received his diagnosis, Dad began telling the three of us that he just wanted us to be happy, and successful on our own terms. “You’re the ones who are going to be living your lives,” he would say, “and living with the consequences of your decisions. Not me.” It might have been his way of telling us that he was done with debating us about what it was we wanted to do with our lives and why. But I think it also was him saying that success as a parent might not just be merely seeing familiar markers of success on the outside, but in knowing that one’s children really are happy and at peace with how their lives turned out, and that you as a parent helped them get there.

Later on in his time in California, he began to cede his fruit-cutting responsibilities to us. It was at least partly because he was so tired, but I think it was also a quiet way of saying that it was time for us to grow into his shoes, or at least for him to not have to parent us quite so hard anymore. Dad began to make a point of telling us, after each visit to Loma Linda, that he truly enjoyed our company, that for him being with us was not just about parental support anymore, but simply about appreciating the time spent together. And perhaps that is what it finally means to successfully raise a child to adulthood — that, though they are always your children, they become real people, whose choices you respect and whose companionship you find pleasure in. To reach a point where the kids, in all senses of this, have left the spreadsheets, and are simply good humans, that were once so tiny that you could “carry her in one hand like a football,” as Dad said about my sister shortly after she was born, but are now as tall in the world as you, cutting their own fruit, and cutting yours, too.

The real goal of a well-led life, Dad said regularly, is to be on good terms with God, however one conceives of Him, and with the society one is a part of. Looking at everyone who has come here with us to both mourn his passing and celebrate his truly monumental life, I think it is an absolute truth that he left on good terms with his world, and, I firmly believe too, on good terms with God. I know I do not yet comprehend the extent to which I will continue to miss his presence. I still wake up in the middle of the night, right on schedule at 3:00am, perhaps expecting to talk to him at the same hour that we used to. Sometimes, in that dark hour of the night, I listen to saved voice messages from him, just to hear his voice again at the time of night I have learned to expect to hear it. Other times, I get up and make a cup of tea, and sit in my room with it until I fall asleep again, thinking about all the things we might have talked about that night.

But his commitments and obligations with all of us have been met, and, in all honesty, were met a long time ago. We are as ready to be without him as he could make us. So there is nothing left to settle, really, except perhaps in the ongoing matter of wishing, in every breath, for the impossibility that is ever more time. We pray for God’s blessing for him, and for us all as we learn to live in a world without the enormity of his presence, his passion, his dedication and his love. Sleep well, Dad. We love you. We will love you always, and we look forward to talking with you once more, when all of our times come to see you and be with you again.

***

Michelle A. Chikaonda

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Philadelphia born, world raised. Find me at www.michellechikaonda.work