A Family Legacy
By M.W. Kimani (Kenya)
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He had been missing for four days. In that time we had gone to the police station and checked to see if they were holding him, then we’d been to the hospital to check if any unidentified accident victim had been brought in, and finally to the morgue where we’d pored through the unidentified bodies. We’d come up empty.
Finally, on the fifth day, the police had fished him out of a ditch running through a seedy section of Kariokor. The area generally stank due to poor sewage drainage, so it had taken some time for the residents to notice the additional foul odor. They had found him, face down, in the filthy and slow moving water, and called the police.
A mandatory autopsy told us, my mother and I, what we already suspected— that his alcohol levels were off the charts, he had probably fallen into the drain and lost consciousness, and then, unable to get back up on his feet, he had drowned…in three inches of water.
His body was badly decomposed, and the local morgue, not having good refrigeration, urged us to bury him as quickly as possible.
We had even less money than time, and though they had been as thick as thieves in life, his many drinking buddies seemed to steer clear of him in death.
It was no surprise either that though they had, together, spent thousands in drinking sprees, in death they could only raise a paltry amount to help meet his funeral costs. So I went ahead and bought a cheap coffin, and together, my mother and I, went to a second hand store and found a suit that fitted him reasonably well. That is how we buried my father.
Father worked at the museum when I was growing up. He was an anthropologist; one of only three in the country at the time, he liked to remind me. My mother was an English language elementary school teacher. Between them, I had grown up with books about bones, and fossils, and journal articles, right next to Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Father was well read, a bookish man. He was my role model, my inspiration. If mother was the reason I loved reading, father was the reason I stayed in school. I wanted to grow up to be just like him.
It didn’t all fall apart at once. No, the decay came slowly, incrementally; nibbling away at the man, chewing away little bits and pieces of him until right toward the end he became an embarrassment, a pathetic liar that secreted bottles of increasingly cheaper liquor in cupboards, under chairs, and underneath the mattresses. These, in turn, we tried to flush out and throw away, but he had a seeming endless supply from illegal brewers in ever seedier neighborhoods.
He was not alone in this. Oh no, not by any stretch of imagination. No, alcohol abuse I must say is something akin to a family tradition. Its reek pervaded his entire family; we had buried his sister when I was but 12 years old, and then his two brothers, one when I was 17, and the other when I turned 21. At his sister’s funeral, he had been sober, but when we had buried his last brother father had hardly followed the proceedings, for so roaring drunk was he.
My father had always known where to find a drink. It had always been so, as long as I can remember. When I was a child it was a joke between my parents, one that I think, in those days, still elicited laughter. He would come home in the evening and tell my mother “why don’t we go out and grab some food and a drink? I know just the right place…”
And that is how it was, at least at first. Just a meal and a drink. It would come to evolve into slightly more than just a drink, two, then three… then I stopped being invited to go out with them, I guess because he had become difficult when it came time to leave, and mother didn’t want me to see them fighting over it. Nevertheless, I knew of it. I knew because, more and more, mother came home alone, and left father having his drink. Later on it was just mother and I at home, father out alone, drinking, then away for a weekend drinking, and by the time he died we had gotten used to three or four nights with him away on a drinking spree.
Despite all this, father carried himself as if he had never changed, as if he was the same quiet, intelligent bookish man, not this person that was slowly unraveling and disintegrating. He still kept his big and hefty books about him, to lend him an air of the intellectual, even though we all knew he had lost his ability to apply himself at work and more often than not had arrived too drunk to do anything other than fall asleep on his desk… That is, if he made it to work at all. The museum had been very kind to offer him an early retirement rather than fire him. They had done it in honor of the man he had once been.
Since then his library had aged, the books had frayed; but it was from time and neglect, not the repeated and avid reading in which he had once engaged. No, there was not any more the intelligent man I had known as a child, that man had been murdered by the addiction.
In the very last two years, I had battled heavily with guilt and shame often staying away from home for stretches of time, only to find myself pulled back, often by my mother’s pleading call. It was cruel to leave her alone with him, I agreed. I knew she suffered just as I did; probably more than I, for she had once loved and been in love with this man, and with him had produced me. And so I would obediently come back home and keep her company till I couldn’t do it anymore, then I would go away again.
Whenever I went back home, he would greet me as he had always done when I was a child. “Hello my little princess,” he would say airily and then make to hug me. But the words that had once warmed my heart now came out slurred and slow, and when he stood to hug me, he staggered, and when he held me, he slopped into my hands. It is this that made me feel sick, made me want to flee.
It was because she too could not bear these things that my mother would call me and ask me to come back home and keep her company. So during these visits we discussed the latest progressions in his disease, the ends of his fingers that were slowly darkening, the puff on his face from the chemicals in the illegal brews, the yellowed tint from jaundice…
By then father was rarely sober, and in the few moments that he was, he looked at us, mother and I, through the glaze of a certain shame, an embarrassment, an awareness of what he had become. It was precisely this that he could not bear. It was precisely this yawning gap between what he could be, what he had once been, and what had become of him that I think was probably too painful for him to countenance. So he would flee again into the alcoholic haze, where reality could not reach through, where facts could remain suspended in the air, and where he could once more live the fantasy that everything was okay.
Despite our numerous efforts to bring it up, he would not hear of any talk about alcoholism. Father said he drank socially because he enjoyed it. He would demand, angrily, petulantly, how he could have been so successful in his career if he was not in control of his faculties. He would accuse my mother of turning his daughter against him.
I learned something then to which I owe my life, to which I owe my own salvation. The difference between a heavy drinker and an alcoholic is that the alcoholic acknowledges the individual drinks but never the pattern, he owns up to having a couple of drinks on a certain date, or a certain occasion, but refuses to notice that he did so yesterday, and the day before , and the one before that. I realized then that my mother called me home not just to help her go through my father’s slow suicide, but to communicate to me through him, my own gradual but definitive slide into the family’s tradition.
So when I got home from the funeral, I poured myself a drink as I have always done each evening… and morning… and noon too… and read the bold words written on the card my mother had slipped into my hands as we left the funeral: Alcoholics Anonymous: The First Step is …