by IfeOluwa Nihinlola
Part VI of VIII: Things we said by the bedside
For weeks after I became well, my father wouldn’t tell anyone who did not absolutely need to know that I had been ill, and even when he told them, remained vague about the nature of the illness. He went about his duties as if nothing was wrong, but simultaneously paid maximum attention to the needs of his son. That was his own way of doing things: maintaining an even keel, even in the worst storm. This does not mean he is always stoic and emotionless. I learnt a long time ago that he has mastered that art of revealing himself to only those who absolutely have to know.
On one of my worst nights, he folded his almost 6ft frame on the second bed in the hospital room and slept with a blanket wrapped around him. Nobody who knows him can properly resolve that image of him in their head. He would have repeated that act on a night he travelled to Jebba and back on an assignment. My friend who stayed with me on some nights refused vehemently, and he finally agreed and left the room, fatigue amplifying the growing jowls that marked his old age. He was back in the room at daybreak.
Of all the members of my family who revolved around my bedside, he was consistent in entering the room with a smile. You will be all right, he’d say. Through coughing fits, delirious nights and feverish evenings, through sluggish recovery, lost time and flagging hope, he remained calm in his belief that it would all turn out well.
I am from a family of stoic, introverted people. We often choose silence and calm over words, and would rather hide our pain than make other people feel what we feel. We like to think that if you prick us we won’t bleed. My father is a prime example of all we are.
One afternoon, after I’d left the ICU for the private ward, and was on my way to recovery, two of my uncles, one of their wives, my aunt, and my grandma were in the room. They began to share stories from their childhood, about the things they failed at, their struggle, and my father. It was a rare moment of emotional storytelling. They shook their heads, clarified details for one another, and when their youngest brother began his own stories, they all burst into laughter. Their brother, my father, was deified in all these stories. The thing about having a superhero for a parent is that everything seems possible, and nothing is possible at once. I laughed with them, and then started to cough, so they all had to restrain the laughter. I wish they had continued.
The first time I saw my dad cry publicly in the open was at his fiftieth birthday, as It’s not an Easy Road was being sung. Since then, I’ve seen more of glimpses of vulnerability from the ever-stoic one. Whether he showed me these because he now considers his children grown enough to see him as not superhuman, or I’m just more attuned to noticing life beyond the highlights is a question I cannot answer as I write this essay. But now, as I grow, fall sick, and depend on others, I’m learning the goodness of vulnerability, the relief of tears, and the comforting wisdom that strength is not synonymous with bravado. Sometimes you get weak, human; it is fine to let people see that side of you. It is just fine.