“The animal is coming into the yard and destroying my plants,” my father says to me on the telephone at night. “I am going to set a trap for it.” His voice is shaking and slurred. He tires easily now, and when he does, his voice is the first thing to go. By evening, my mother says, she cannot understand him anymore. But I have a two-year-old baby boy, and I have gotten used to deciphering words from half-formed sounds.
My father will not say what kind of animal it is or how long it has been there. He has always been leery of revealing what he thinks is too much. The names of his eleven siblings, for example, or his first language, or what our home in Uganda was like. Anything about sex or relationships. When I was younger, I found this withholding painful. But now, older, I understand this was his attempt to protect me.
We speak to my father twice a day, my baby boy and I, usually in the morning and at night. My baby boy likes to call and tell his Baba good morning and last night’s dreams; Baba likes to say goodnight and talk about baby boy’s day. The daylight hours are no good for talking for either of them. They both spend different parts of it sleeping and miss each other’s phone calls. Lately, baby boy is sleeping less, and my father is sleeping more. He has a diagnosis, my father. He is dying.
• • •
My father used to be a farmer. “Subsistence farmer,” he would clarify if anyone got overly excited about this history. His type of farming was the kind where you grew what you ate and were lucky if you had anything left over to sell at the market for luxuries like sugar and salt. The kind where you woke in the pre-dawn dark to work the land, where you had to walk long miles to fetch water from the well and carry it back to the kitchen or the fields. It was hard, and it was work, and he did it every day—sunup to sundown during summers, before and after school during the academic year.
My father was the first person in his family to finish second grade. He put himself through college and earned his doctorate. He became a virologist, first with his own lab, then his own company. People who have known my father say he is the smartest person they have met. This is the stuff of family legend.
• • •
Baby boy and I have a morning routine. I wake and watch him sleeping. A few minutes afterwards, he wakes and smiles at me. “Boob time!” he yells excitedly. He drinks his milk and smiles at me some more.
“Good morning, my love,” I say. “Did you sleep well?”
“Slept well,” he says, and hugs me. There are kisses and more smiles.
“What are you thankful for today?” I ask him.
“Nana and Baba,” he always says. Sometimes he adds the names of his aunts. The park. Trains or dinosaurs.
“Who do you want to talk to?” I ask him.
“Nana and Baba!” he says.
We call his Nana. She is always rushing to work and has just enough time to say, “I love you,” before needing to go. My mother has never been a morning person. She likes to stay up all night and sleep late. My father is the exact opposite.
“Call Baba,” my son says.
We call Baba. He has been up for hours. “The trap did not work,” he says. “I don’t know how I am going to get this house ready for sale. The animal has been in the front yard this time and is destroying the lavender I planted. The animal is destroying my yard.”
• • •
My father leaves me a voicemail. It is confused and rambling. He forgets what he is saying. He forgets words. He apologizes. He says goodbye.
I listen to his message while baby boy is tugging at my shirt. “Where Nana go?” baby boy is asking me. It is Friday. We are on our way to visit my parents, as we do most weekends.
“Nana is at the train station, waiting for us,” I tell him.
“Where Baba go?” he asks.
“Baba is at his house, waiting for us.”
“What noise does a house make?” he asks me.
“I don’t know. What noise does a house make?” I ask him.
“Ding dong ding dong,” he sings the notes of his Baba’s doorbell. He presses his face to the window of the train as it pulls into the station, looking for my mother. Then he sees her. The train doors open, and he is running out of the train and into his Nana’s arms. She swings him round and holds him tight. They are laughing and smiling and singing. My mother has many songs for my baby boy, some in English, some in her language.
As I fix baby boy’s car seat into Nana’s car, my baby boy is telling Nana about all the many sights he saw on his train ride—a fire truck, a police car, a little girl. A school bus. Stories spent, he settles into his car seat. I buckle him.
“All ready?” Nana asks.
“Ready,” he says. “Let’s go to Baba’s house.”
• • •
My mother and father have been divorced for twenty years now, and they only began talking again nine years ago, after my mother’s heart attack. When we are visiting for the weekend, Nana goes home in the evening then comes back to Baba’s house around lunchtime the next day. The mornings are for grandfather and grandson. Baby boy wakes early and stands at the bottom of the stairs, excited. “Baba!” he shouts. “Baba! Come play with me.”
We hear laughter, then my father’s voice calling to his grandson that he is in the kitchen. And baby boy is off, running the speed he runs when he knows Grandma or Grandpa is at the other end.
“What is Baba doing?” my baby boy asks when my father has picked him up for a hug.
“I am making muffins for you,” my father says. My baby boy loves Baba’s blueberry muffins. He calls them “babacakes” and eats them two at a time, one in each hand.
“I help Baba, too,” baby boy says. He turns to look at me. “Mommy, hug please.”
I pick up baby boy and hug him close, smelling his wonderful baby scent, then hold him so he can reach the counter. He helps Baba spoon in the last ingredients—the bag of blueberries, the secret zest of lemon. My father gives baby boy the wooden spoon and folds his hand around it, stirring. My baby boy laughs delightedly. “I’m helping,” he says. “I’m helping Baba.”
“Yes, you are,” my father says.
“You help very well,” I tell him.
“All done stirring. Time for scooping,” Baba says.
“I help, too,” my baby boy says, taking Baba’s spoon. My father’s hands shake, but only I notice. Baby boy thinks Baba is just copying his own messy scooping of muffin dough into tin. “Baba spilled, too!” he laughs. “Look, Mommy. Baba spilled, too.”
My father used to run a lab, then his own pharmaceutical company. It was all very exact—the beakers, the petri dishes. There was no room for error. He used to run his kitchen the same way. I understand his intensity a little bit; his genius at science was what earned him his student visa and got him out of Uganda after Idi Amin began massacring my father’s colleagues and fellow students, when my father got word his name was next on the list.
It was after he moved from actual science to management that he began to cook. I liked to think the cooking was a form of therapy—a way of connecting with the language of science, his first love. In his hands, measuring cups replaced beakers; flour replaced chemicals. But still, everything had to be perfect. I did not realize I could enjoy cooking until I moved away, went to college, and no longer heard his voice in my head telling me everything I was doing was wrong.
But it is different now, with baby boy. Now, there is the possibility of fun.
• • •
My father is tired from cooking. It has worn him out. He says he is going to lie down. But baby boy calls, “Baba, Baba,” and follows him. Baby boy follows his Baba up the stairs, through Baba’s bedroom, and onto his bed. “Where Baba go?” baby boy asks. “Play with me.” Baby boy lies next to his Baba and tries to fasten Baba’s shirt buttons. It is one of his favorite games. He tires of this eventually and plays with Baba’s face. He touches his Baba’s eyes, his nose, his mouth, naming them. My father, trying not to smile, trying not to move, keeps his eyes closed. His first grandson. All he has prayed for these past fifteen years since my oldest sister turned twenty-five.
The doorbell rings, but my father does not hear it. He has fallen deep asleep. Baby boy and I slip down and answer it.
It is my oldest sister. “He needs to sell this house” are the first words that come out of her mouth after “Hello. How are you?” She hugs baby boy, playing peekaboo with him. “This house is too big,” she continues. “Dad is killing himself trying to maintain it.”
She is not wrong, I think. The house is two stories. Our father does not have the strength to clean it. It takes him half an hour to take the garbage out to the street for collection; mowing the lawn takes two days, starting and stopping to rest. But he has refused hospice, refused at-home care and my mother’s offers to hire a cleaning service. My father’s independence is his life. We worry, but we do not know how to let him let us help him.
“He’s packing,” I tell my sister. “He is planning to sell it and move.”
“He’s been packing and planning to move for a year,” she says. She kisses baby boy; he kisses her back. “He’s emptied his retirement. Now that he is too sick to work, he can’t afford the mortgage he took out to do the remodel. The bank is going to foreclose. He has no more time.”
“Hug, Mama,” baby boy says, and he reaches to me. I take him from my sister’s arms and hug him tight.
“Dad’s always been slow,” I remind my sister, and we laugh, remembering our childhood and how long it took our father to make the simplest decision—his hours spent in the store weighing the pros and cons of a single set of china. But then, unlike my too impulsive self, he never regretted his decisions once he made them. They were sound.
“Come see,” I tell her, going to the window. “He just put new grass in the yard, getting it ready for sale. But the animal has torn it up.”
“The animal came back,” baby boy tells my sister seriously.
Beside me, my sister peers through the window and sees the trap our father has made for the animal in his backyard. My older sister has always been curious and brave. She opens the door to inspect the trap, and baby boy and I follow her outside. It is a rectangular wire cage with a tripwire door, about two feet long by one foot wide. Inside, my father has placed sautéed shrimp and roasted potatoes on white china.
“I don’t know if the animal will eat that,” my sister says.
“I think,” I say, “that whatever it is, it will eat anything.”
• • •
When my father was a boy back home in Uganda, they had chickens for laying eggs, sometimes a goat for milk. But not much more. When the women were pregnant, my father tells me now, sometimes, craving iron, they would eat the dirt.
If his family wanted meat, my father—sometimes his brothers, as well—would have to hunt. My father learned to be silent and swift. He could read the tiniest change in his surroundings to discover what had been there, what path the animal had taken. He could wait, patiently watching for hours. And then he would pounce.
My father is sleeping all day now. Some days, when he has the energy, he works on packing up his house for his move. He does not know where he is moving. He does not want to move. He does not want to talk with us about where he is going to live. He thinks if he does not talk about it, the problem will not exist. I see, very clearly, where certain parts of my inability to deal with real life have come from.
“Baba, did the animal come back?” is the first question my baby boy asks when we call Baba to say goodnight. “Baba, did you catch the animal?”
“The animal came but got away. The trap is jammed,” my father says. “The food is gone.”
The animal, it appears, has outsmarted the trap—and, by extension, my father.
• • •
When the British came to Uganda, they brought guns, education, and Jesus. As Emperor Tewodros II said, “I know their game. First traders and missionaries, then ambassadors, then the cannon. It’s better to get straight to the cannon.”
The British built tiny schools for the Ugandan children and elaborate manor houses for themselves. They mined the oil, coltan, and diamonds, stripping the country bare. They sent the men of my father’s village to fight their wars in Europe—first World War I, then II. They did not send the dead bodies back home. These were their marks of their civilization.
After the British left—abruptly, the country in chaos—came the dictators, who had learned from the British. Obote. Amin. Obote again.
“You should be thankful for us; you are savages, and we are saving you,” the British had said.
I imagine my father: a tiny, Afroed boy just a few years older than my son, standing in the headmaster’s office and listening to the man’s speeches on the savage, subhuman Africans. My father would look at the European food, the shining hardwood floors, the china and silver and mahogany, and think that someday, somehow, he would be the best; he would have a house like this, too, and he would show them.
My father’s house is only a thing, but to him, it is everything.
• • •
My father falls down and cannot get up. Hours later, a neighbor sees him lying in the street and helps him up the stairs to his house.
He had tried to go for a walk to the grocery store, my father. He needed some ingredients to cook one of his favorite meals. He will not register for Meals on Wheels—the food, he says, will be inedible. He will not register for Access-A-Ride; he says he is not that sick yet. He lacks the patience to wait for the bus, which is always fifteen minutes to half an hour late.
After his fall, my father refuses the hospital, too. When we come to visit him a few days later, his eyes are still bloody and swelled shut, his nose broken. He is still limping. “Baba hurt,” baby boy says. He is scared.
My father says he is fine. Fine.
How I wish I could believe him.
• • •
When I was a child, I hated my father’s house. It had not yet been remodeled by remortgage into the two-story, four-bathroom, five-bedroom, marble-and-rosewood art object it is now. It was a one-story cottage on the top of a very steep hill. It had one tiny living room and a tiny kitchen. It had one bathroom and two bedrooms for eight people. My brother, three sisters, aunt, and I shared a room, three to each set of bunk beds. There was no room for anything of your own, no room to breathe. Only my parents, fighting. Back in Uganda, my father would say, they lived twelve people to one room, with no bathroom and no beds. I had no cause for dissatisfaction.
How I hated walking the two miles from school up that hill, my back twisting under the weight of my backpack and violin. How I hated the constant stares in class and the constant following of salesclerks and security guards through stores because we were the first and only black family in town.
Now, with a baby of my own, I understand why my father chose to live there. Safety, green spaces. Excellent schools. Beauty, solitude, and at least some few other people who, although not black, were still people of color. My father did not count on the racism from the white folk who had codified property deeds to make it illegal to sell homes in the town to black families. He did not count on the racism from the non-black people of color, who internalized the colorism hierarchy in America and said they were the model minority and we were far, far less than them. He did not count on what our not knowing other black people would do to our self-esteem as black children, and then black adults. He did not count on what the union of racism and sexism would do to his black daughters. He did not count on getting sick and being told he could count the days until he would be dying.
But how I wish, now, that I could find a way for him to spend his last days in his house.
• • •
On the day Idi Amin’s soldiers stormed my parents’ school and went after all the students, my parents were spared. My father, a young professor and student, should have been there; my mother, a nurse at the nearby hospital, who always joined my father on campus for lunch, should have been there, as well. They were elsewhere, praying. They said, afterward, that God had saved them.
This was not the first violence at a school. It would not be the last. And there would still be more and more people disappeared from the villages in the middle of the night by Amin’s death squads, never to be heard from again.
My father, an intellectual, a Christian, was a target—one of those “Westernized Ugandans” whom Amin had vowed to exterminate along with the British and the Asians. My father got word, somehow, that his name was coming up on one of Amin’s lists. He, my mother, and my oldest sister, then a baby, escaped over the border at night—first to Kenya, then England, then to America, where their Midwestern neighbors threw rocks through my parents’ windows, mouths screaming, “We don’t want those niggers here.”
These stories, of course, were told to me in pieces by my aunt, exhausted by my endless questions as I grew up. My parents did not speak of their past, no matter how many times I asked. Back then, I grew frustrated and upset with them; I wanted to know their history so I could understand my family, understand myself.
I realize, now, that what my parents had is called post-traumatic stress disorder.
• • •
My father has called too late. Baby boy is asleep. It is odd, speaking without baby boy’s narration. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves back to the discord of when he was only father, not grandfather, and I was only daughter, not mother. We stick to innocuous topics. We are too much alike; our relationship has always been uneasy when we share the depths of convictions the other cannot abide. In graduate school, when I was dating a woman, he did not speak to me for years. And yet I found out, afterwards, he had kept me on his health insurance plan the whole time. The tiny contradictions of love, full of grace. I like to think we would not be so hard on each other now. But we do not have to chance it; baby boy is our safety, the lifeline that holds us together.
“Did the animal come back?” I ask him.
“Yes, it destroyed the grass.”
“How are you?” I ask him.
“I am tired,” he says. “I slept all day.”
“What else did you do today?”
“I listened to a teaching I gave at the university.”
“How did you sound?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer.
“Did you like it?” I try again.
He doesn’t answer that one, either.
I can feel him thinking about the difference between the man he was then and the man he is now. The difference of a life, a future. I have too many questions, my mother says. It is exhausting. I have always wanted to know, and he has never wanted to tell me. But now, my desire is more than just wanting to know our family history for my own sake; I want to know so I can tell my son. And since my son’s father’s violence separated him from our lives, my father’s life is even more important.
“Good night,” he says.
“Sleep well,” I tell him, echoing what baby boy always says. “We will see you in three days.”
• • •
“I found your trunk from when you were a girl,” my father says when we arrive. “Do you want me to keep it or toss it?”
“Keep it, of course,” I say. “I want to remember who I was.”
His packing has unearthed other things I have not seen since my childhood. My sister’s old makeup. Old place settings. Old candlesticks. The jewelry my aunt made when she tried to start a jewelry-making business for one year. Photo albums. Memories, sudden and sharp, the hardest part of packing.
My aunt, my father’s sister, is visiting from Minnesota. Out of his eleven siblings, she is the only one living in the States. My aunt doesn’t say it, but I know she is here because the doctors have begun to count the time my father has left. I will ask her to help me persuade him to let the hospice help him or, at the very least, to wear the emergency alert bracelet again.
With his sister here, my father is doing better. He sounds stronger. He manages to come for a short walk around the block with us—baby boy, Nana, and auntie. I am thankful; a little walk with Nana and Baba is one of baby boy’s favorite things to do. Baby boy is so happy he is skipping. He is picking up pinecones and giving them to his Nana. He is holding Baba’s hand and laughing. He is picking lavender from the side of the road and putting it in Baba’s pocket. But my father is getting tired. He is shuffling back to his house to take a nap.
“He is very tired,” my aunt tells me, watching him walk away. She says they walked to the grocery store earlier, to get food for our visit. They had to stop frequently on the way back. She thought they weren’t going to make it.
“You didn’t have to,” I tell her. “Mom and I bring the food.”
My mother nods in agreement.
“I know,” my aunt says, “but he wanted to have something to offer you. You are his daughter, his grandson. He is the elder. It is a matter of pride.”
My father wakes after we return. He says he feels better. My mother drives my aunt to the post office to mail some souvenirs to friends in Minnesota, and my father decides to cut the pineapple my mother brought for my baby boy. My father’s fingers are swollen. He cuts himself when cutting the pineapple. Carefully, as if still in his lab, he disinfects the wound and winds a strip of bandage around it to staunch the bleeding.
“Can you finish cutting the pineapple?” he asks me as he leans against the sink.
I am down the hallway, busy chasing after baby boy, and can barely hear my father calling. “Mom took auntie to the post office, and I am watching baby boy,” I call back, unthinking. “We don’t need to eat the pineapple. It’s OK.”
But later, I realize he must have been much sicker than he let on to bring himself to ask for my help. He never asks for anything for himself. He is very restrained, the picture of African politeness. He is very independent; to ask for help, he has always felt, is a sign of failure.
• • •
Days after our most recent visit, I call my father. “Did you catch the animal?” baby boy asks.
“Did it come back?” baby boy asks.
“How is packing?” I ask.
“I was unable to do it today. I was too sick.”
Like asking for help, admitting he is unable is not something my father does. For him to say this, he must be even worse than I have imagined. I worry. But my baby boy and I are hours away, still too close to those frantic months we spent in a domestic violence shelter after we fled from my son’s father. I feel helpless. I am a bad daughter. A good daughter would have a good career and a partner with a good career. A good daughter would be able to help her father in this time when he needs her. Instead, my father worries about me more than himself.
“I don’t know why none of you children have been able to achieve anything close to what I did,” he says softly. “I don’t know what I did wrong.”
I think of how he sees us—my siblings and me, all of us single, three over thirty, one turning forty—as he wonders aloud if he should have left Uganda, if we would have been better off if we had stayed. If he should have taken us back to Uganda. If he should still go back and die there. He says we, his children, cannot go back and live there. He says we are strangers to the culture. We will not survive.
Who made us strangers to our home? I want to ask him when he says these things. I tried for so long to have you show us. But I do not say anything. It is too late; I understand that what is important is kindness.
It was not their choice to come. There was a dictator. There was genocide. He thought he was giving us a future. They could not speak of the past, of anything about Uganda. They could not tell us who we are, where we came from. They were refugees; they were traumatized.
They did the best they could at the time.
“The wrong animal entered the trap,” my father is saying.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“It was a possum caught in the trap. Possums don’t dig like this. Only raccoons do.”
“What did you do with it?”
“I let it go,” he says.
How I wish this disease would realize it caught the wrong man and let my father go, unscathed, to run free again and be with us. Just a little while longer.
• • •
My father has finished packing. He has chosen a realtor. He has listed his house. We stand and watch her pound the brown stake of the FOR SALE sign into his green lawn. He is distraught. The buyers are looking for different amenities than those he values. They will not care for his mahogany floors, custom fixtures, and marble countertops. He will not make back the money he put into his house. Maybe he will make enough money to pay off the second mortgage, have enough left over to find something much smaller and have something to live on.
“I am sorry,” he tells us, “that you will not have much of an inheritance, if at all.”
I try to tell him this does not matter. He is alive. He is here, with us. For another day, my baby boy can wake up and hug him.
But my father still thinks this sudden reversal of health and fortune makes him, his whole life, a failure. In his culture, he is supposed to take care of his family, even from the grave. That is what it means for him, for his tribe, to be a man.
“You are here. You are alive,” I tell him. “That is everything.”
If we can hold on to this one good truth, we will find a way through all else.
* Illustration by Anna Hall