“Because of the accident, the Old Man had now lost his job at the Water Department, and we had no place to live. For a while, we bounced around from relative to relative, but eventually they would put us out because they had their own troubles. Then we found a run-down house in a rough section of town, and we stayed there for several years. That was a terrible time. The Old Man had so little money, he would have to borrow from relatives just for food. This made him more ashamed, I think, and his temper got worse. Despite all our troubles, he would never admit to Roy or myself that anything was wrong. I think that’s what hurt the most-the way he still put on airs about how we were the children of Dr. Obama. We would have empty cupboards, and he would make donations to charities just to keep up appearances! I would argue with him sometimes, but he would just say that I was a foolish young girl and didn’t understand.
“It was worse between him and Roy. They would have terrific fights. Finally Roy just left. He just stopped coming home and started living with different people. So I was left alone with the Old Man. Sometimes I would stay up half the night, waiting to hear him come through the door, worrying that something terrible had happened. Then he would stagger in drunk and come into my room and wake me because he wanted company or something to eat. He would talk about how unhappy he was and how he had been betrayed. I would be so sleepy, I wouldn’t understand anything he was saying. Secretly, I began to wish that he would just stay out one night and never come back.
“The only thing that saved me was Kenya High School. It was a girls’ school that had once been reserved for the British. Very strict, and still very racist-it was only when I was there, after most of the white students had left, that they allowed African teachers to lecture. But despite these things, I became active there. It was a boarding school, so during the school term I would stay there instead of with the Old Man.
The school gave me some sense of order, you see. Something to hold on to.
“One year, the Old Man couldn’t even pay my school fees, and I was sent home. I was so ashamed, I cried all night. I didn’t know what I would do. But I was lucky. One of the headmistresses heard about my situation and gave me a scholarship that let me stay on. It’s sad to say, but as much as I cared for the Old Man, and worried about him, I was glad not to have to live with him. I just left him to himself and never looked back.
“In my last two years in high school, the Old Man’s situation improved. Kenyatta died, and somehow the Old Man was able to work again in government. He got a job with the Ministry of Finance and started to have money again, and influence. But I think he never got over the bitterness of what had happened to him, seeing his other age-mates who had been more politically astute rise ahead of him. And it was too late to pick up the pieces of his family. For a long time he lived alone in a hotel room, even when he could afford again to buy a house. He would have different women for short spells-Europeans, Africans-but nothing ever lasted. I almost never saw him, and when I did, he didn’t know how to behave with me. We were like strangers, but you know, he still wanted to pretend that he was a model father and could tell me how to behave. I remember when I got my scholarship to study in Germany, I was afraid to tell him. I thought he might say I was too young to go and interfere with my student visa, which had to be approved by the government. So I just left without saying good-bye.
“It was only in Germany that I began to let go of some of the anger I felt towards him. With distance, I could see what he had gone through, how even he had never really understood himself. Only at the end, after making such a mess of his life, do I think he was maybe beginning to change. The last time I saw him, he was on a business trip, representing Kenya at an international conference in Europe. I was apprehensive, because we hadn’t spoken for so long. But when he arrived in Germany he seemed really relaxed, almost peaceful. We had a really good time. You know, even when he was being completely unreasonable he could be so charming! He took me with him to London, and we stayed in a fancy hotel, and he introduced me to all his friends at a British club. He was pulling out chairs for me and making a great fuss, telling all his friends how proud he was of me. On the flight back from London, I noticed a little glass tumbler his whiskey was being served in, and I said I was going to filch it, and he said, ‘There’s no need for such things.’ He called the stewardess and asked her to bring me a whole set of the glasses, as if he owned the plane. When the stewardess handed them to me, I felt like a little girl again. Like his princess.
“On the last day of his visit, he took me to lunch, and we talked about the future. He asked me if I needed money and insisted that I take something. He told me that once I returned to Kenya, he would find me a proper husband. It was touching, you know, what he was trying to do…as if he could make up for all the lost time. By then, he had just fathered another son, George, with a young woman he was living with. So I told him, ‘Roy and myself, we’re already adults. We have our own ways, our own memories, and what has happened between all of us is hard to undo. But with George, the baby, he is a clean slate. You have a chance to really do right by him.’ And he just nodded, as if…as if…”
For some time, Auma had been staring at our father’s photograph, soft-focused in the dim light. Now she stood up and went to the window, her back turned to me. She was clutching herself, her hands inching over her hunched shoulders. She began to shake violently, and I came up behind her and put my arms around her as she wept, the sorrow washing through her in slow, deep waves. “Do you see, Barack?” she said between sobs. “I was just starting to know him. It was just getting to the point where…where he might have explained himself. Sometimes I think he might have really turned the corner, found some inner peace.
When he died, I felt so…so cheated. As cheated as you must have felt.”
Outside, a car screeched around a corner; a solitary man crossed under the yellow circle of a streetlight. As if by force of will, Auma’s body suddenly straightened, her breath steadied, and she wiped her eyes with her shirtsleeve. “Ah, look at what you’ve made your sister do,” she said, and let out a fragile laugh. She turned to me. “You know, the Old Man used to talk about you so much! He would show off your picture to everybody and tell us how well you were doing in school. I guess your mum and him used to exchange letters. I think those letters really comforted him. During the really bad times, when everybody seemed to have turned against him, he would bring her letters into my room and start reading them out loud. He would wake me up and make me listen, and when he was finished, he would shake the letter in his hand and say how kind your mum had been. ‘You see!’ he would say. ‘At least there are people who truly care for me.’ He’d say this to himself over and over again….”
While Auma brushed her teeth, I prepared the convertible sofa for her. Soon she was curled up under a blanket, sound asleep. But I remained awake, propped up in a chair with the desk light on, looking at the stillness of her face, listening to the rhythm of her breathing, trying to make some sense out of all that she’d said. I felt as if my world had been turned on its head; as if I had woken up to find a blue sun in the yellow sky, or heard animals speaking like men. All my life, I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I had later tried to take as my own. The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader-my father had been all those things. All those things and more, because except for that one brief visit in Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image, because I hadn’t seen what perhaps most men see at some point in their lives: their father’s body shrinking, their father’s best hopes dashed, their father’s face lined with grief and regret.
Yes, I’d seen weakness in other men-Gramps and his disappointments, Lolo and his compromise. But these men had become object lessons for me, men I might love but never emulate, white men and brown men whose fates didn’t speak to my own. It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela. And if later I saw that the black men I knew-Frank or Ray or Will or Rafiq-fell short of such lofty standards; if I had learned to respect these men for the struggles they went through, recognizing them as my own-my father’s voice had nevertheless remained untainted, inspiring, rebuking, granting or withholding approval.
You do not work hard enough, Barry. You must help in your people’s struggle. Wake up, black man!
Now, as I sat in the glow of a single light bulb, rocking slightly on a hard-backed chair, that image had suddenly vanished. Replaced by…what? A bitter drunk? An abusive husband? A defeated, lonely bureaucrat? To think that all my life I had been wrestling with nothing more than a ghost! For a moment I felt giddy; if Auma hadn’t been in the room, I would have probably laughed out loud. The king is overthrown, I thought. The emerald curtain is pulled aside. The rabble of my head is free to run riot; I can do what I damn well please. For what man, if not my own father, has the power to tell me otherwise? Whatever I do, it seems, I won’t do much worse than he did.
The night wore on; I tried to regain my balance, sensing that there was little satisfaction to be had from my newfound liberation. What stood in the way of my succumbing to the same defeat that had brought down the Old Man? Who might protect me from doubt or warn me against all the traps that seem laid in a black man’s soul? The fantasy of my father had at least kept me from despair. Now he was dead, truly. He could no longer tell me how to live.
All he could tell me, perhaps, was what had happened to him. It occurred to me that for all the new information, I still didn’t know the man my father had been. What had happened to all his vigor, his promise? What had shaped his ambitions? I imagined once again the first and only time we’d met, the man I now knew must have been as apprehensive as I was, the man who had returned to Hawaii to sift through his past and perhaps try and reclaim that best part of him, the part that had been misplaced. He hadn’t been able to tell me his true feelings then, any more than I had been able to express my ten-year-old desires. We had been frozen by the sight of the other, unable to escape the suspicion that under examination our true selves would be found wanting. Now, fifteen years later, I looked into Auma’s sleeping face and saw the price we had paid for that silence.
Ten days later, Auma and I sat in the hard plastic seats of an airport terminal, looking out at the planes through the high wall of glass. I asked her what she was thinking about, and she smiled softly.
“I was thinking about Alego,” she said. “Home Square-our grandfather’s land, where Granny still lives. It’s the most beautiful place, Barack. When I’m in Germany, and it’s cold outside, and I’m feeling lonely, sometimes I close my eyes and imagine I’m there. Sitting in the compound, surrounded by big trees that our grandfather planted. Granny is talking, telling me something funny, and I can hear the cow swishing its tall behind us, and the chickens pecking at the edges of the field, and the smell of the fire from the cooking hut.
And under the mango tree, near the cornfields, is the place where the Old Man is buried….”
Her flight was starting to board. We remained seated, and Auma closed her eyes, squeezing my hand. “We need to go home,” she said. “We need to go home, Barack, and see him there.”