Today, 23 years ago, my father died. I was 12 years old and still at Leeurikskool.
I had had lunch and was falling asleep during the mandatory hour of rest we always had before being marched into the school hall to do the day’s homework. One of the laundry ladies had come into my room to call me to the principal’s office. I remember being startled, disoriented and instantly anxious – what had I done now? I remember her crisp, white uniform, like a nurse’s. I remember the hushed, tense atmosphere but not which one of the tannies she’d been or what she’d said. I remember that she didn’t tell me what was going on. I remember thinking – bizarrely – that perhaps there was something wrong with the principal and that they needed me for some reason.
I stood in the pose referred to as “at ease” in the military, in the principal’s office and he took a few moments’ pause before saying, “I have some news.” Another pause. “Your daddy died this morning.” An expectant look from him. A rush of mixed emotions from me; Disbelief. Certainty. Fear. Relief? As if, from hundreds of kilometres away, my father had been a looming presence even in his absence from my life. A constant source of anxiety. And now the thread, always taut, always pulling me upright, confining my movement to the pre-approved set of acceptable actions, had snapped.
Recognition dawned as this realisation brought me back to where I was standing in the little prefabricated office of the principal, that he was looking for the appropriate reaction from me. And there was the approval clear on his face as the expected tears finally emerged. I thought it fortunate that tears were the only expression required of me and more so that tears look more or less the same whatever the emotion behind them.
Years would pass before I would feel loss over my father. And more than twice as many more years before I would begin to examine the dynamics of my relationship with him, such as it was, and recognise its many facets, the forces at play and catch the odd glimpse of love.