As per his routine at the time, Pops grabbed his coat off the hook on the back of the front door and started to head out just before the sun logged off for the day. He’d be gone for hours, returning later with his demeanor rejuvenated by whatever peace he encountered on the way. On that day, I begged to go with him, saying, “May I please…” the way he had taught me to. A smile spread across his face as he wrapped a coat around me, taking care to zip it up all the way to the top. It was an all too familiar day around this time of the year. The scent of rain clung onto and stuffed the air. The sun nested behind patches of dark clouds that spread across the sky like the limp thatches of grass that dotted our make-shift football pitches. The drops of rain were as portions of new life and all of nature was alive again: the birds’ melodies were louder, a lot more harmonious. Trees greener and thicker. Different plants blooming and blossoming. Nature reinvigorated. It seemed to rub off on Pops too, the vibrance that went round. He walked just slightly ahead of me, taking care to maintain a pace that I could keep up with. His hands locked behind his back, his eyes fixated ahead, only looking to the sides every now and then. He looked more at peace than I had ever seen him. In trying to mimic it all - the coordinated gait, the steady gaze, the hand behind the back, the occasional glance to the sides – I tripped over a rock (perhaps it over my own feet. I cannot recall) and grazed my knee. I wailed, tears gushing from my eyes. Pops got down to a knee, wiped the tears off of my cheeks, and with a stern look in his eyes, he said to me, “Son, men do not cry. Men are strong. They do not cry.” I did not stop. I looked him in the eyes and kept at it. As though a hardened core had melted away, his eyes softened, and he did not once tell me to stop crying again. He instead took me in his arms and patted my back all the way back to the house. At home, he sat me on the bed and rolled up one of my trouser-legs.
“Does it hurt?” he asked as he cleaned the wound.
“Good. Now you know to watch out for rocks. Will you trip over a rock again?”
I shook my head.
“You will. You will trip over another one. But that’s okay. Will you cry over it again?”
I did not answer. Perhaps because I did not understand. Perhaps because I did not know what to say.
“That’s okay too. It’s okay to cry, son,” he said.
I was 4.
Every Sunday afternoon, Pops sat alone in front of the television, donning a red shirt that had a number and his name printed on the back of it. He watched what at the time I thought was just people kicking a ball about. He gasped, threw his arms in the air, exclaimed, and cheered in sync with whatever was going on. I never quite understood it before, but it made him happy. And I was happy when he was happy. That day, Pops had me sit next to him and said, “Son, let me introduce you to football.” I sat there, cheered, put my hands to my face, threw my head back and jumped in unison with him. Soon, this would become our thing, our routine, our place of bonding. On Sunday afternoons, the world dissipated. It was just me and Pops, and our love for football existing in a little world we created for ourselves; a bubble in which the troubles of the real world mattered very little. Conversations turned to who-is-better-than-who debates, birthday presents to football jerseys and footballs. Football was the first thing Pops passed onto me. I was 6.
I was 10 when grandma died. It was the first time my father did not have a solution, when he did not know what to do, when he too was lost. For days, wails and random breaks into solemn funeral songs filled the house. I was convinced we would soon be mopping tears off the floor. But Pops just sat there and did nothing. I watched for tears to roll down his face, for him to wail and shout, for him to speak, but none came. He sat on the sofa reserved for the men of the bereaved family, a hand over his mouth, staring into the distance as though it was there where the answers he sought lay. His gaze was blank and distant. He was there but he wasn’t. It was as though grief were too strange a feeling, too strong an emotion that he did not know how to let it manifest, that he just existed through it. People would in intervals walk up to him and mumble words that I could not make out, others placing an arm on his shoulder as they spoke. And he just nodded the same way each time, like a puppet, saying nothing back.
In the weeks that followed, Pops looked out of place in the world. It was as though he did not know how to navigate it without his mother, and I wondered if that was what losing Ma’ would be like. He shrank under the weight of his grief. He seemed smaller. He said very little to anyone. He often walked into rooms and immediately walked out as if it was not where he had intended to go. He stared into empty spaces too long. Objects fell out of his hands, and he’d be unaware. He looked frail and worn out, uncertain and afraid. My father looked afraid. There was a darkness to his eyes, a melancholy that grew more obvious by the day. He existed, but I often wondered if he was truly alive. Grief had broken the man I had once thought was invisible. It was the first time my father looked human. And Ma’ let him, made it okay for him to be that. And then one day, as if by magic, Pops was Pops again. The darkness in his eyes was still there, but a spark had grown around it.
The day I came home with my hair cut low on the sides and longer on the top like the boys in school had theirs, Ma’ had me stand in the kitchen doorway and stared at me long enough to make me twiddle my thumbs. Every so often, she would walk up to me and turn my head one way, then the other, as though expecting the hair to grow back the next time she looked. “Your father will deal with you,” she snorted after a long while and waved me away. Two hesitant taps on my door preceded Pops’ walking into my room later that evening. He sat silently on the edge of my bed for a while, his face turned away from me. “Son,” he started, “even though we teach you that you get to choose what type of person you want to end up being, most of what you pan out to be is determined by who you choose to be inspired by, by those under whose influence you choose to reside. I am far from a perfect man. But I am a trying man. And I know that if you follow my path, you too will at least be a trying man to begin with. You can then work it out from there. But I cannot control your influences outside of that. You must make those choices. And I can only hope and trust that I have taught you well enough to choose the right ones. Your hair? Hair is not a big issue. But it is a start. It is the first sign of it all. You saw it. And you wanted it for yourself. From here onwards, please be careful whose influence you take after. Please.” Without once darting his eyes my way, he stood up and left. I was 13.
During the holidays, every brown envelope was cause for alarm. My heart slammed against my ribs, my breathing quickened and shallowed, my limbs weakened at the sight of one of those. Pops never did open the envelope himself. He always entrusted me to do so, waiting for my reaction before he said anything.
“Are you proud of yourself?” he’d always ask.
“Yes, I am,” I’d reply, my grin touching my ears.
But that day, I was glossy-eyed when I tore the brown envelope open. A “2”, bigger than any other “2” I had ever seen sat next to “class position”. I tried to keep the flood gates closed, aware of Pops piercing gaze.
“May I see that?” he said, taking the single sheet of paper from my hand. “These are great. Why do you not seem happy about them?”
“I’m not proud of myself, Pops.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I was second. I’m always first. I was second this time,” I blurted out through the cracks in my voice.
“I see,” he replied. He got up and walked into his room. He reappeared minutes later, another sheet of paper in his hands.
“What does it say here?” he asked, pointing to the paper in his hand, an old one from the term before, on the spot that read “best six”
“7 points,” I replied.
“What does it say there?” now pointing to the paper in my hand.
“You did better for yourself now than you did a term ago. Perhaps someone else did better for themselves too. You aren’t in competition with anyone else but yourself, son. What matters is your being better than you were yourself yesterday, not someone else. I am not raising you to compare yourself with other kids. I am raising you to pit yourself against the person you were yesterday and see if you are better off now. You did great. I am proud of you. You should be too.”
“Pops?” I said as he got up to leave.
“Am I still a man if I cry?”
“You are allowed to decide for yourself what kind of man you want to be, son. It doesn’t make you any less masculine. If it hurts, then be the man who cries,” he said softly. I was 16.
I had said my goodbyes to everyone else, and Pops was the last in line. He stared at me for a while, as though to fully take in my features one last time, as though he were afraid that he would not remember me if he did not stare long enough. He took me into his embrace, holding on longer than usual, his grip tightening by the second. A wetness stung my shoulder on the side where he had rested his face.
“I’ll be alright,” I said after a while. “I’ll be just fine.” “I know you will. I… I know you will. You are a man now. You’ll be just fine.”
“Yes, I will be. You have to hold yourself together for her. She will breakdown otherwise.”
“I love you, Pops.”
“I love you too, son,” he replied between silent sobs. I looked at him one last time, and for the first time, I saw my father’s age. The bags under his eyes were now permanent and they seemed heavy. His shoulders hunched forward, and his neck arched under the weight of his head. He had been a fair looking man, a face with well distributed features, but it was now bony, as though skin and bone were disproportionate. He looked skinny, light, as though the wind could carry him away were they to blow strong enough. His eyes were there, present, but distant, far away and lost. And for the first time, I was afraid to leave him. It was as though his was more than a “I will see you later” goodbye, as though there was more to it.
“Pops, are you okay?”
He lifted a hand and wiped a tear from my cheek. And suddenly, I was three again, him carrying me in his arms.
“I’m okay, son. I’m alright,” he smiled. “Go on. You’ll be late.”
I got on a plane and left. I was 17.
There were no good winter days in Ankara. Each day brought to the table its own blizzards in varying degrees, and it culminated in constant chaos to which I had grown accustomed. In the winter, stress was my life. And anything other than that was not real; happiness, joy, peace, calm were not real. They were but a break from reality. And I was used to it all. But that day felt different. Most days did not “feel”. They just “were”. That day felt as though it would be a horrible day. The air knew it. Nature knew it. My heart knew it. My stomach churned from the moment I opened my eyes and kept at it until a pit sat in my tummy, waiting to be filled by terrible news. Snow tumbled from the heavens as though it were being purposely cast down. And it gathered in piles and heaps all around until it painted everything the purest white. My heart slammed against my chest and refused to heed my pleas to calm down. It leapt into my throat when my phone rang, and “Pops” flashed across the screen.
“Hello,” I said.
I heard sniffs and soft sobs.
“Hello. Pops?” I said again.
“You have to come home,” a voice I could not make out said through sobs and sniffs.
More sniffs and sobs.
“Where’s Pops?” I repeated.
“He has been ill for a long time. They tried everything, but they could not save him. You must come home. Your mother needs you.”
I was 20.
I wrote this backwards. I lost my dad when I was 3. I remember nothing about him. But every now and then, my imagination has me convinced he had been there through all the important points in my life, the points that define me.
Have you lost a parent? What was that like for you? Do you still imagine them being around? Tell your story.