"Why are you crying father?" asked the boy
"I am crying because I am afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"I am afraid of what I do not know. There is no one to answer my questions anymore. Your grandfather is dead."
The boy looked at me strangely and, in my grief, I felt amusement. He was confused as to why a grown man like me would cry because an old man had died. The child's knowledge of his grandfather was limited to the image of an old man rooted to a chair on the verandah. The boy only knew the man who pretended to be a laughter vending machine. He would not laugh unless a coin was placed in his ear. The length of the laugh would depend on the value of the coin. My mind groped at the awe I felt at how easily he had answered my questions and given me a sense of stability when I was growing up and how that feeling had stayed with me. I always saw my father as I had known him in his prime. When he was teaching me how to swim in a river, the current was stronger than he thought, and we were both in danger of drowning. I saw fear on my father's face, yet all his efforts were to push me out of the stream even though the water was carrying him away. I was a kid then and I thought him the greatest man on earth. My feeling for him soured when I became a teenager and in my arrogant ignorance tried testing his authority. He had taught me the meaning of wrath.
Looking at my son I wondered when his regard for me would turn to resentment.
"You haven’t hung up the phone."
I placed the phone on its cradle.
He said, "How can you fear what you don’t know?"
"Ahmad," I said. "You like flying kites, right?"
"Do you fly your kite in every wind?"
"No, I reel it in when it gets rough."
"But doesn’t a strong wind mean it would fly higher?"
"It would probably get torn. That’s why it’s attached to a string, so I can control it."
"What happens if you let go of the string?"
"The kite falls."
Like most parents, I believed my child was smart for his age. But I began thinking my analogy would be a bit too complicated when the child said; "are you saying that you are like a kite and grandfather was your string?"
"Yes," I said. "That is what I am saying."
"But I have to hold up the string. Who has holding grandfather?"
"The kite doesn’t know about that. It doesn’t care."
My son was silent as he tried to think up new questions or maybe fit what I had said to his understanding of the world. I had not been sure of what my father thought of me. He had terrified as well as inspired me. Whenever I did something wrong, even as an adult; I was concerned about how to keep it hidden from my dad. I had also felt great joy when he was pleased with me. The news of his death wasn't unexpected because he was quite old. What I did not expect is this feeling of helplessness. Strange how little we know ourselves.
Now you don’t have to be scared of him anymore. I felt shame clogging my throat at the thought.
Cliché or not, I regretted all the misunderstandings between us. I wished I had done less to cause him worry. I did not believe men cared for children until I had my own son. My thinking was that to a man, a child is usually just a byproduct of sex. The depth of my feeling at the birth of my son shocked me. I had felt jealousy when the child cried for his mother and not for me when he fell and skinned his knee. When I got a kid, I realized that a child is a hope so fervent that it gives dreams substance beneath the sun.
Don’t get sentimental please, I told myself.
Some people say they want to have children because they want to leave a legacy on earth. I scoff at the idea because it sounds stupid. What good does a legacy do to a man when he is under the ground? Besides; considering what a terrible place the world is, it seemed selfish for a person to be born just to feed another's vanity. Yet I had gone ahead and had a son. I often felt like apologizing to him but what is the point? I could not have asked his permission to give birth to him.
My wife came into the parlor and asked; "who was that on the phone?" and then feeling that something was wrong said "what's happened, is someone dead?"
"Yes," I replied. "Abba is dead."
She put her hand up to her mouth tears filled her ears.
I wondered; "is she really grieved or is this just for my benefit?" and then; "I hope she does not wail or sob." She did not. Just wept silently and gracefully. The sight was so beautiful that I thought, "More people ought to die so she can cry more often. It’s a sight worth seeing."
"I am sorry," she said. As if the death was her fault.
The phone began ringing again. My son moved to pick it.
"Leave it. Don’t answer it."
"Why not?" she asked.
"It’s probably someone calling to offer condolences. I am in no mood to hear stock phrases or maudlin stories about the last time the person saw him."
"That’s rude," she said.
"That’s the least of my worries now." I said in an irritated voice.
I wanted to savor my sadness in its purity before ritual took over and my sorrow, held up to public view; congealed into something cold and useless.
The phone stopped ringing. I took it off the hook.
My son took a tissue and wiped his mother's cheeks. She smiled at him; I envied their closeness. If he were a boat, she would be the river and I would just be the wind. Sometimes there and sometimes not. Sometimes with him and sometimes against him. The boy came and sat beside me. He was unsure of what to do. He still had that frankness of children, before they learn to cringe. Or strut. He put his hand on my arm.
"Sometimes the string snaps dad and the kite soars away. Out of sight."
I smiled at him and said; "it’s now my turn to be a string."