To Tango with the Dead King


When I first met him, he had just made second lieutenant after training as an officer in Lanet. It was September 1995, I was about a month shy of 6 and I had just watched my first Denzel Washington movie. I didn’t know he was Denzel back then so I just called him ‘ule Rambo mweusi’ (Black Rambo). A few years ago, I learnt that the movie is called ‘Crimson Tide.’

My mama had pointed him out to me from a group of cadets and said, “There he is. That is your father.”

He looked exactly like Denzel in “Crimson Tide” only a shade darker and I could get why mama dug him so much. She always had a thing for a man in uniform. There he stood a soldier, an officer, a king… my father.

I have never been as proud of him as I was when I first met him. Had someone bent over and whispered in my ear that, “Your father is God” I would have believed them without second thought and shot them if they even tried to take the statement back. There he stood… a god.

Smash cut to 21 years later and I am a month shy of 27. I am waiting to watch the latest Denzel Washington movie “the Magnificent Seven”. Of course I know now that he is Denzel and that he is a wee bit overrated (here is me ducking blows from all corners) but I totally dig his movies (Truce?).

My mama points him out to me and says, “There he is. There lies your father.”

He looks nothing like Denzel. Now he just looks like a dead emaciated figure in a cushioned box. There is no resemblance between him and the man he was 21 years ago. There he lays, a dead man, a decaying man, a lost spirit… my father.

I have not been proud of him for a long time now. Were a crazy man to whisper in my ear that, “Your father is God” I would shoot him for being such a blasphemous demon. There he lays… a man furthest in resemblance from a god.

He and I have not spoken since September 2008 when we had our last fight. I was just a month shy of 19 and this was the biggest fight of them all because it turned physical. I had, against my better judgment but upon endless requests from mama, paid him a visit in Thika Barracks where he was based so that he could advise me on the best course to pursue at the university with my high school grades.

He wanted me to pursue a B.Sc something or another and I just wanted to be a lawyer. A fete nobody had achieved in the family before. With my grades, I would be taking a risk applying for university to pursue an LL.B degree, but the heart wants what the heart wants. And my dad couldn’t understand why I had gone to see him if I had already made my mind up. And I told him that mama wouldn’t stop asking.

And he said something insulting about me being a bit of a wuss because of being raised by a woman and was doing things just because a woman had asked.

And I said something about making the choice to want to be a lawyer on my own and that he was only feeling bad because a woman had raised me into a promising young man without his help.

And a young girl knocked on his door, walked into his living room and said to him, “Hi baby (then turned to me) who is this?”

It is always something when you meet a woman who kept your father away from your mother.

And we had a big fight about it during which I yelled something about how I wished he would just die slowly of AIDS. And he slapped me. And I grabbed a glass jar and smashed his head with it. And I ran out and I never looked back.
Fast forward 6 years to September 2014. I was just a month shy of 25. Funny how the most significant moments between me and my father tended to happen in September. Mama called to say that dad was in the hospital suffering from one thing or another. And I asked, “Will he make it?”

“I don’t know. Do you think you could go see him?”

I don’t remember asking her what hospital he was admitted in. I just replied with a flat, “No. That is not a great idea.”

And she got furious and said, “Fine. You’ll come to his funeral when he dies.” And she hang up.

And that is exactly what I have done. September 2016. When your mama says to attend your father’s funeral, you do.

But I am only there in body. My mind is elsewhere. Focusing on the curves of the girl I left back in Nairobi. Groin throbbing for thirst of her touch. I can’t believe I left her for this.

But I thank God for putting him out of his misery. Now he doesn’t have to cope with the reality of his upcountry muchatha wife and his stubborn son who won’t say one word to him to save his own fucking life.

The funeral is done and mama requests me to spend the night at home as opposed to leaving right away with the visitors. I guess the strain between dad and I stretched to the relationship between me and mama. Maybe she saw too much of him in me, or maybe I saw too much of him in her. Or maybe she knew that I blamed her for sticking it out with him even if she knew that he was such a grunting pig.

Mama and I don’t converse much. Maybe we are each too engrossed in our respective thoughts. Maybe she blames herself for the fucked up relationship between her man and her son.

When night falls she retires early and I find myself seated under the moon on the grounds where dad and I used to play when I was in my preteens.

September 1996: it is 8am. Dad has just woken up with a big urge to prune a few branches of the trees on these grounds and he takes me along for the ride. And as he climbs down one tree, his testicles are hurt by a stamp and he yelps in pain and makes funny faces. And I think he is just joking around so I laugh till tears trickle down my young face. And as soon as he recovers, he chases me around making bear noises and when he catches up with me, he tickles me so much that I ran out of tears. I have never laughed so hard in my life.

September 1998: I have asthma. And I have run out of my inhaler. It is at night and I can’t stop wheezing. Mom is freaking out and dad is trying to get her to relax and trying to focus on me at the same time. He is all over place…fixing hot chocolate for her, reading to me and getting me to lie down in the most comfortable positions. He is a hero to both of us and he doesn’t appear to be under pressure. Then at around 0200h, I can’t breathe and I pass out. When I come to, dad is administering CPR and saying, “Come back! Come back!” Years later, mama told me that she had given me up for dead that night and that weren’t it for him, I would have died at the age of 8 with one month shy of 9. She also told me that he stole a neighbor’s car to drive me to the hospital six kilometers away.

September 1999: We are watching Patrick Swayze’s “Dirty Dancing” from 1987 and I am a bit intrigued by all the dancing. And he pauses it and offers to teach me how to tango because ostensibly it is a great way to distinguish yourself from the rest of the dancers in a club. I don’t know what a club is and I never dance outside the confines of church. And I am reluctant to be his student and he looks me in the eye (I must have picked that habit from him) and says, “Don’t you want to tango with the king?”

September 2000: 10am. I am 10 going on 11. We are building a chicken coop dad and I behind our house. He is teaching me how to use a hammer. I hit my thumb so hard with it that I fart with pain. And he laughs so hard at me that I remember when I laughed at him for crashing his balls on a stamp.

September 2002: I have just come across his stash of ‘playboy’ magazines which I smuggle from their room to mine along with a tiny book by a writer called David G. Maillu. “Unfit for Human Consumption” is its name and it is oozing sex. Dad walks into my room and find me enjoying his book and magazines and he says, “You are not supposed to read any of these for a few more years… but since you have already started…” I guess were it not for him, I wouldn’t be as good a writer as I am today.

September 2014: Dad is lying on a hospital bed breathing via the aid of machines… shitting and pissing through machines and he has lost all the weight that a human being can lose. I never told anyone but I visited him in the hospital. He was asleep or I wouldn’t have stood so close to him. I had a hard time syncing the emaciated figure in front of me with the soldier I once knew. The scarecrow lying in bed now appeared to be a far cry from the king who showed me how to tango – not that he was really good at it – who gave me the biggest laugh of my life…. A tear trickled down my face and I quickly wiped it away before I could lose my pride and cry for a man who was now nothing more than a promiscuous stranger who did not treat my mother right.

September 2016: All the memories come crashing back together… of a soldier… of an officer… of a king…of a god… of my father… of a stranger… I am confused. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, whether to stand or sit, whether to scream so stay mum… whether to love or hate… so I just sway around under the moon as I tango with the dead king. Tomorrow when I wake up, maybe he’ll have gone back to being the stranger but tonight, I honor the king who taught me how to tango.



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