He was larger than life – booming laugh, sharp wit, deep voice, sinfully handsome face, his long beautiful fingers absently playing with his smoking pipe and tobacco tin box. Eyes followed him around the room, the party moved to his rhythm, women turned into teenage girls, men into adoring young pups seeking patronage. Growing up, I watched my father cast his spell on thousands of people at our extravagant parties, musical gatherings and literary events. I was in awe of his performance.
Today, as my Facebook feed fills up with Father’s Day tributes, I wonder what this day would be like for us if he were alive. Would we do brunch together? Would we go for a walk and discuss the books we were reading, the politics that was on our minds? Would I ask for his advice on a difficult relationship or whether to buy a house? Would he ask me for advice on whether to sell his impractical gas guzzler in favor of a Tesla? Would we talk about life and death and all that’s in between?
Or perhaps we would not see each other at all. Perhaps we would pretend the other did not exist.
I can’t say.
My father died shortly after I turned twelve.
I cried for weeks, confused by the grief that was pouring out of me. I felt guilty because I had prayed for that very phone call that told us he had ceased to exist. I felt gutted even though I had gotten exactly what I had prayed for.
I recall the same inner conflict clenching at me as a kid every time someone told me I was just like my dad. I wanted to be just like him. He was powerful. He was in control. He was admired. He was invincible. At the same time, I loathed the idea of even being related to him. He was unpredictable. He was unfair. He was violent. He hated women. And he had the sinister discipline to only reveal this dimension of his personality to the people closest to him, the people that were bound to him through blood and dependency, the people that couldn’t escape.
In my early twenties, I figured I’d processed all that there was in this complex relationship. I had concluded that my dad was not a good person and therefore not a part of my mind or my heart. So imagine my surprise when I heard myself raging at a friend’s father who felt “bad” about me not having one and offering to be a “father figure” to me. I told him I was not in the market for substitutes and walked out of their home. How dare this motherfucker suggest he could replace my dad. Wait, what? Where is this anger coming from? Why get so prickly about an innocent offer of kindness, especially given how much I disliked my own father?
Because he’s my father. Un-substitutable. Irreplaceable. Irreplaceably mine.
A man of many faces, many moods, a brilliant yet unhinged intellect, deeply flawed, infinitely sensitive, and entirely worthy of my love. Over the decades, I have learned accounts of his quiet generosity, supporting family, friends and strangers with his wealth. I have heard how he was an inspiring professor. I have read his letters to my mother when they were in love.
Who was my father? Was any facet more true than the other? I don’t know and I can’t know. The trouble with posthumous relationships is that the conversation is entirely a monologue. No one ever answers back. Unlike the movies, there isn’t a tidy conclusion, so one must be fabricated. So here’s where I choose to let this conclude.
Mohammad Akmal set many lives on a higher path, much like my own. And he left deep scars. His truth lies in his complexity. His capacity to be whoever he wanted to be lives within me. We have chosen very different lives. We manifest in the world very differently. But his song hums in my blood and I know that I am my father’s daughter.