"Letting go of my Father"

By: Lisane Mariam

The last time I saw my father, he was in the middle of a heated argument with my mother as to whether he should bid his children goodbye. I was nine, it was a few years after the revolution in Addis, and in the middle of a particularly gruesome evening when the gunfire in our neighborhood seemed particularly close.

Above the commotion, I could hear my parents' voices rising until I could make out some of the words.

"Endayt lidjochihin satisim tihaydaleh?" I could hear my mother pleading with incredulity.

"Gizay yelem…, " he muttered, snapping shut a small suitcase. And through the slim opening of my bedroom door, I saw him leave.

Those were the last words I heard my father utter - words that haunted me from adolescence well into womanhood - before he fled from the Derg, dismissing saying goodbye to his children.

My father was one of the many western educated intellectuals who were heavily involved in the Ethiopian student movement in the US. He came back home after graduate school, and although he settled into a very middle class existence, he still harbored, even celebrated, the residues of radical western philosophy.

He met and married my mother in Addis, had three kids, but went on back to the States for some post graduate work. After the fall of the Emperor, he came home, not so much back to my mother and his kids, but to change Ethiopian politics, participate in 'democracy', and spread the good word of Marxist doctrine.

There was a time when my father's politics did not break my heart. I have fond memories of him barging into the principal's office at ICS and giving the anxious principal a blistering history lesson after discovering that one of our geography books still referred to Africa as "the Dark Continent". He was a hero to the subversives, my father was; a shameless hippie schooled perfectly at Harvard and Berkley to wreak terror on mainstream politics. He was the perfect cookie cutter counter-culturalist feared and disdained by the Establishment.

My father, contradictorily, could be an extraordinarily kind soul. He was constantly taking in ye sefer sewoCH, feeding and clothing them, and sending them off with a few birrs in their pockets and promises that the country was well on its way to Nirvana. Ask anyone around our neighborhood and there would not be a child, a mother, or an out-of-work father he had not touched in some way.

It never ceased to astound me, therefore, that a person who was so passionate about the welfare of the country in general, could be so careless about his own family. We came second and sometimes third and fourth to my father's personal higher cause. He was in hiding from the government half of the time, and the other half he spent furiously reading one book or another. I don't doubt my father could recite page and passage from Das Capital, but I might be able to convincingly argue he could not remember any of his children's birthdays.

In third grade, I wrote a two paragraph essay on "What I Admire Most About My Father", for which I earned an "A" from a very grade-conscious English class teacher. I remember staring at my A for a long time, before I proudly put my essay on top of the pile of paperwork on my father's desk.

I found my essay several days later, with brown coffee stain rings and obscure notes scribbled all over my scrawny eight-year-old writing, in his wastebasket. I rescued my essay, dusted it off and put it in my secret dresser where it remained until I found it while packing to leave for the States.

By the time my father left on that chilling night, he had perfected the art of breaking his children's hearts. He'd keep making promises he had no intention of keeping and he'd lash out at us for demanding so much out of him. His indifference made my two older brothers and myself into notorious over achievers, which never got our father's attention even in passing. To him, his fatherly responsibilities ended at providing us with the clothes on our backs, a house, a private school education and a doting mother.

My father ended up back in the States and slipped into oblivion. For a long time, I blamed the Ethiopian revolution for taking my father away from me. It was the mythical 'they' who made him creep out of the house that night without saying goodbye to us.

Years later, I realized what no one wants to discover about his or her parent. My father was a selfish man. Yes, he was kind, and of course he wanted to be an agent of change. But at his core, he was selfish and cowardly. Like most so-called liberal thinkers, he found it easier to solve the problem of the world than to see the pain in his family's eyes. I wonder if that accusation makes me selfish and uncompromising. But I guess I learned from the best.

Occasionally, we would hear from him in the form of a post card. My mother would make us write him long letters, but eventually even she gave up.

Over the years, I made half-hearted efforts to forget my father. When I came to the States after graduating high school, I made it a point not to go to Harvard. Instead, from the relative safety of a nearby New England college, I wondered what my father had been like in college. It used to be easy in Ethiopia to say that your father was "wuch ager," but explaining his absence from my life in the US was a little trickier. Fortunately, I went to school with so many scions of dysfunction that I soon discovered a non-committal, "My father and I aren't close," sufficed as an explanation.

I never really thought about him until a few months before my wedding. The prospect of not walking down the aisle with my father began to seriously gnaw at me. If only he could walk me down the aisle, I tried to rationalize, all past wounds would heal, and I could start afresh.

Finally, on a cold winter night, I went to see my father for the first time in over twenty years. I felt surprisingly numb, but another part of me was bouncing wildly with anxiety, all the while I was bracing to be disappointed again. I wanted to meet him at his house because I knew he would stand me up at a restaurant.

Driving through the thick wooded lot of my father's house, a million thoughts flashed through my mind, the most prominent being the image of that tattered school paper he had tossed out. I thought that maybe, I should be angry with him, but the prevailing feeling in me was one of numbness.

Before I left, my fiancé had voiced his reservation about this venture of mine. He had objected to the notion that we Ethiopians uphold the notion that blood is always thicker than water. But, as an Ethiopian himself, my future husband understood why I wanted a traditional Ethiopian wedding why I would want my father at the sinibit. It sounded shallow and graceless even to me. What is it in our culture that makes us want to pretend all is well, even when everyone knows it is a very thin veneer? We are more comfortable with the appearance of normalcy than in the actual concept. And in the end, I was just a little girl in need of her daddy.

My father had aged gracefully. He sported a salt-and-pepper head of hair; his chin still had the deep scar I remember as a child. His eyes were a little gaunt, and sad, but his sharp features still made him a handsome man. His posh apartment was tastefully decorated, obviously by a woman of distinct taste. And if the original Chagal displayed prominently on his foyer wall was any evidence at all, he had gotten over his "adhari" hang up in a major way.

We talked for over an hour about nothing in particular. At times I felt connected to my dad, but most of the time I felt as though I were talking to a stranger, albeit a pleasant one. I realized I didn't hate my father. In fact, I felt sorry for him that he had missed out on so much: watching his three kids graduate with honors; being at his oldest son's wedding; the birth of his first grandchild; celebrating his mother's 100th birthday party and the family reunion in Addis. But mostly, I felt sorry that all we had left for him was indifference.

So many times we crave normalcy. Perhaps because of the chaos of our history as immigrants, where family disenfranchisement has led to wounds deep and jarring, we prefer to really believe in mythical family bonding. We hang on to dreams that are not true. But we know they are not true. It's only taboo if you say it out loud. But perhaps if that myth is the only concept, no matter how vague, that provides us comfort and a semblance of normalcy, then I guess we better hang on to it. It might not be so terrible. For me, it does not dilute the fact that my father opted out of our lives. It doesn't matter how well I hide from it, the terrible truth was that my father didn't want me. It doesn't make him a monster. It just doesn't make him my father.

We are all seduced by sitcoms and movies about what the ideal family should be/is. As I talked with my father, normal for me was the web of people who picked me up when I fell: my husband, my mother, my brothers, my aunts and uncles and my friends who loved me when I probably did not deserve to be loved. The guidance councelor who talked to me all night; my non-Ethiopian network of people who held my hand and lent me their shoulders; the cleaning woman at the office who shared with me the joy of the first pictures of my twin nephews... I have been lucky to realize that blood is not always thicker than water.

I invited my father to my wedding, and he enthusiastically accepted. He never showed up, nor did he send word. Exactly at that moment, though, it stopped hurting.

My oldest brother gave me away.