My father passed away 7 years ago today. He was 81 years of age. I was not there with him when he died. He didn’t even know if I was alive.
Readers here may know that I was out of contact with family for more than a decade and that, after 27 years in Australia, I made a bitter-sweet journey home to Mersin, Turkey, for my sister’s wedding last April/May. Finally, I got to visit my father’s grave too.
My plan was that, after we drive from the airport in Adana to home in Mersin, we would have lunch, freshen up and go pay my respects to my father the first thing on that very day. My sister’s henna night (pre-wedding celebration) was two days away on Sunday, 24 April. There were too many visitors and too much was happening, and the visit to the cemetery did not happen.
Instead, hours before the henna celebrations were to begin, my elder brother Kadri said let’s go visit Dad. The cemetery was 20 minutes drive away in the north of Mersin. I demurred; there was not enough time. My brother insisted and, against my best wishes, we left home for Guneykent necropolis.
At the first sight of my father’s grave, my heart sank. Memories flooded forth. Guilt and shame took over for not being there for him in his old age. Grief finally caught up and tears began to roll down from the corners of my eyes the moment I touched his headstone. I kissed and placed my forehead on his headstone with respect and in reverence.
My father was born in a village 20 kms to the west of Mardin in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast in 1928, although his birth certificate shows him 4 years younger. He was the eldest of four brothers and three sisters. My farmer grandfather died early and left all the burden of raising the family on my father’s teenage shoulders. He worked the field alone with a single plough and a draft animal until his siblings grew up to help him.
Following his 2-year compulsory military service, during which he learned Turkish, literacy and numeracy (he loved crosswords), he returned to the village and got married. His first son died as a toddler. Soon after, he divorced and moved to the big city of Diyarbakir. There, a friend of his introduced him to his wife’s 17 year-old sister, and my 35 year-old father got for himself my mother for a young bride. His life turned around for the even better as he also landed a job as a security guard in a state-owned company. He worked there until his retirement.
He fathered 4 boys and 3 girls with my mother. One girl died in infancy, the rest survived him. I am number 4 with a brother and a sister younger than me. As children grew up and life got tougher especially after retirement, he consulted the whole family and decided that it was best for us to move from Diyarbakir to Mersin. It was a fortuitous decision, and just in time as the war was about to break up in Kurdistan. Mersin became our new home as well as his burial site.
In the cemetery, my brother Kadri handed me a plastic cask we brought from home and I carried three rounds of water from a nearby tap to his grave. I watered the flowers planted on his grave. By his tombstone, the family had planted an olive tree because my father loved olives. I watered the parched soil beneath the small tree too. “Now let’s go home,” my brother said. I wished to stay on longer than 10 minutes. But guests were going to pour in home for the night’s celebration, so he drove off without me.
Cemeteries can be eerily silent. Sometimes, birds chirp and fly by low. Wind ruffles the leaves on the trees. Occasionally, a person or a family walk by, with their voices and the sound of pebbles under their feet, crisp in the air, could be heard from afar. There, for an hour in the late afternoon sun, I was alone with my father in quiet remembrance of our times.
One of my favourite memories was from when I was 6 or 7 years of age. I was with him in a tea house far from home near some woodlands that families would go for picnic. I was sipping on a fizzy drink and slowly dying of boredom before we took off for home. The way back was mostly country side. It took one hour’s walk to see suburbia again. Half-way through, the road split: one was a quiet way back home, the other was a little more busy with occasional vehicles passing by. My father asked which one we should take, I chose the one that had cars.
A short time later we came across a party of 15-20 people, mostly women and children, riding on and walking by a horse carriage. They were my mother, sister, neighbours and their children heading to the woodlands for picnic. They were all immersed in a merry atmosphere, happy and laughing as though going to a fair. My father spoke with them for a few minutes and just as we were to part he asked me if I wanted to go with them. I was a kid, how could I say no to this party having insane fun. My father lifted me up and placed me on the horse cart.
Then we headed in opposite directions. I surveyed the joyful crowd around me. Every kid I played with was there. There was going to be food in the outdoors, and ball games. Yet, for some reason I could not share in their merriment. I looked back at my father and realised why: I had abandoned him.
There, in the distance, was a man walking away in the open country. He was all alone and he kept getting smaller and smaller as we moved away. I looked back and forth to the crowd and to the man as I faced the earliest moral dilemma in my memory. That lonely little dot far away was not just any man; he was my father.
I jumped off the cart and ran towards him. “Baba! Baba!” I called after him ignoring the crowd calling after me. “Baba! Baba!” He heard me and looked back. The joy on his face as he saw me running towards him was one that I will never forget. Between a crowd going for fun and a lonely man in the middle of nowhere, I had chosen to go with him. “Why did you come back,” he asked anyway. “Baba,” I said and held his hand to never leave it until we reached home.
Who knows perhaps my father wished some peace and quiet for himself that afternoon. My boredom set in again and I began to regret my decision. I was alone with my father at home and no neighbour kids I could play with outside. He knew that, and he did not cease smiling all day and tried to keep me happy and engaged without much luck. I died of jealousy when the merry crowd returned from picnic.
It is moments like this that makes one their parents’ favourite child, as I should shamelessly admit to being my parents’ favourite until I flew away from home years later. And now I was back, 27 years on, sitting by his grave remembering him. He once asked on the phone for how long I would be away in Australia. I promised him that it would be “no more than 10 years.” The sadness in his voice said it all: “Son, do I have a warranty from god that I will last that long.”
Now I was alone by his marble grave and wiping away dirt and dust on the stone. Not happy with that effort I got up and carried more and more water to thoroughly wash his grave. I took my handkerchief from around my neck and with it tried to wipe the marble shiny and spotless. It was the nearest thing to the ritualistic bathing of the dead body that I have come to doing, yet not near enough to cleanse the sins of this son.
My eldest brother Behcet came to pick me up. He didn’t say a word but It was time that we got ready for the henna night celebrations. I had a rosary with wooden beads with me. My father always had a rosary. I put mine on his tombstone, took several pictures and placed the rosary on the body of his grave near the headstone. My brother and I exchanged no words until we arrived back to his shop 20 minutes away; it was as though our father never existed.
My father was self-educated, rustic, and often traditional. He was a practicing Muslim, although he was secular. He never drank a drop of alcohol all his life. He did not have any vice except the occasional tobacco. My mother probably had more to complain about him than any one else did in his life. He was the patriarch of a large extended family, he was well-known in the neighbourhood, and he was admired for his honesty and integrity by all and sundry. I am told that his passing drew huge crowds in commiseration.
The day before I left Mersin, I paid a farewell visit to my father’s tomb. This time I was alone and spent another hour watering and washing his grave. I noticed that the rosary I had left there 4 weeks earlier had disappeared. A couple of young kids aged 11 or 12 turned up to offer the Muslim prayer al-Fatiha after the dead. I gave them 5 Turkish liras in baksheesh and asked about the missing rosary. “Allah strike me dead if I have taken it,” they both swore. No drama. Fortunately, I had brought another rosary with black stone beads exactly like the one my father used to have. This time I buried the rosary under two inches of soil.
It is said that man don’t come in to his own until his father dies. That is a bit of an exaggeration for in my opinion a man comes, must come, in to his own when he becomes a father himself. Those of us who have not yet achieved that sacred rank, we are the ones who must continue to live in our fathers’ shadow until they are gone. Sadly, my father’s shadow rarely fell on me since I left home as a teenager; that is why I feel like half-the-man that he was, now that he is gone.
My father died on 6 December 2009, surrounded by the rest of his loving family. He was a good virtuous family man. I bow before the memory of that good man. Rest in peace, Baba.