She saw him dash to the bedroom and take a quick glance around the room as if scanning it to confirm everything was in order. He then called out her and her brother to come and sit with him on the bed. Both children cozily sat down with crossed legs on the bed, excited and confused as to what was coming up. Usually when he called them both like this, they were either in big trouble or he had a surprise for them. Little did they know that this time it was a bit of both, mostly the latter, but their ten and eight year old hearts and minds did not have the capacity to fathom the gravity of this slow surprise as it would unfold in the future.
He lovingly gazed at both of them, patted their heads, and said in his calm yet coaxing tone, “You both should know what I love you a lot, and some day when we will all look back to this night, we will appreciate our family more. You have to promise me that you will not fight with each other. You will not bother your mother or be a nuisance to her in anyway but you will take care of her, and each other. You will write to me regularly and tell me what is going on in your lives. You will concentrate on your studies and not waste time. Then when I come back I will bring lots of gifts, what ever you want for both of you. You will take care of your grandfather, and your aunt. I only want to hear good things about the both of you whenever someone mentions you. And when the older people leave for the airport tonight, you will quietly go to bed like every night and not stay up late.”
He then gestured both of them to hug him and they did. They made jokes about what gifts they want and how they would try to get along. Eventually it was bed time and they were cuddled into bed while every body else stayed awake. The little girl heard noises of the elder people talking, laughing, crying in the lounge. And then there was silence as everyone left for the airport. She was too sleepy to get up and see what time they left. It was as if she was hearing them in her dreams, distant but near enough, so real but vanishing as she reached out her hand to reach them.
Eight years later he was finally returning to his family. He had not seen them by face all this time, just kept in touch through letters mostly, and phone calls. The internet was new at that time and video chats were a rare luxury yet they had just gotten access to this too just so they could erase the distances created by five thousand miles, twelve seas, and possibly eons of emotional emptiness. He had not even seen his youngest son’s face till then, only seen his pictures, as he was born six months after he left.
As he walked out the international arrival portal he heard excited voices crying Dad and he had no trouble finding his family. Or so he thought. As he hugged his then eighteen year old daughter, sixteen year old son, and the youngest, eight year old son, his eyes misted and he said, “Before walking out this door I felt as young as I had left eight years ago. Now I suddenly feel years older with you before my eyes.” His wife stood watching the father and children hug as tears of joy streamed down her cheeks. Her eight year old spouse-less strife was a story of its own.
But little did he know that even though he felt so much more older seeing his children in person after so long, they had grown up that very night he had left eight years ago. That little girl just jumped from ten to eighteen. She never had a normal childhood because she never lived in a normal family where children expect fathers to be home at five, and both parents attend all family and social events together. Where fathers bully anyone who looks at their daughter or wives with misleading intentions. Where husbands manage all manly duties by being physically present. Where men handle out of control extended family matters. Where rogue male family members and strangers don’t mess with the wife or kids because of fear of the man of the house being present.
An empty space lived in her heart in place of a hero as she did not have a live example of one. She had to draft her own version of a father figure which unintentionally led her to look up to fake heroes instead of the real blood figure. There is a saying that means if someone is not visible to the eye then they are as good as not being present. She knew it was true as years later she looked back at her ten and eighteen year old self and tried to connect the dots as to what turbulence a father’s physical absence caused her. She eventually came to terms with the fact that he sacrificed too along with all of them, probably the most because they were four living together, her mother and brothers and herself, but her father was all alone in a strange land.
But then again the primary reason for his absence, and that too for eight years straight, was securing a future for his children, and making ends meet for the while. For years she kept arguing with herself if this was the only primary responsibility of a father-just to provide material comfort? What about building children’s personalities? Spending time with them? What about the emotional needs of a family? Is it better to be less educated but more emotionally stable? Poorer in wealth than poorer in psychological well being? It would take a life time or maybe more to make sense of it all.
Nothing normal comes out when little girls grow up in one night. They cannot be normal even if they want to. Their perspectives about the world and people around them, the way they micro analyze feelings and intentions, the way they place mistrust and trust blindly, the way they are forced to be responsible and mature before their times, leads to young women who are older than their bodies, more sensitive than regular girls, and more distant in vision than “normal” daughters.
Tonight she is sitting in the hospital by his side recalling all fateful nights of life. The night she grew up ten years, to the night he returned, to the one he had to go back, and to the one they reunited to live together as a family too. But most vividly she will remember this night when his memory is falling apart in crumbles in front of her and he is struggling to hold onto each one of his precious memories as if trying to lock them up safely in a box hidden from the world. But he can’t. And she can’t help him. She helplessly watches him slowly travel to a time and space away from this physical world leaving her again just like he had left years ago. She had a father then, but she didn’t either. And from this night onwards too she will have a father, but she won’t either.
The esoteric daughter of an ephemeral father then cannot be and yet not be.