A DAUGHTER’S LAMENT
Nelson Mandela’s daughter, Makaziwe, has been unflinchingly honest about the cost of having a father who was known to millions and revered by nations. I’ve appreciated every moment of her honesty, and have identified with much of it.. She admitted feeling angry when she was younger — angry that her father could never be just her father. She didn’t get to play kid’s games with him, go on walks with him. He was a larger than life figure, but absent from her life. Even when his long years of imprisonment ended, she still felt a distance between them, an awkwardness. She spoke about how engaging he could be in public, how connected and present, yet with his own children he was less sure, less engaged. It took her many years to come to peace with this harsh trade-off: a man who is destined to change the world doesn’t usually know what to do in the smaller world of a child, even his own child.
My father was always a bit shy in private, but I cherished the long horseback rides we took together when I was a child, the summer afternoons when he taught me to body surf in the ocean. I always wanted more of him, but was content with those times. Once he entered politics, I knew he was lost to me. An entire state needed him, then an entire country; his attention was on big sweeping issues, not the dramas of an adolescent daughter. I felt angry, slighted. Later I figured out that if I rebelled publicly I’d at least get his attention.
Makaziwe spoke about getting closer to her father in the latter years of his life as he grew tired and his health began to fade. As time wore on him and memories rose from the mists. I found the same thing with my father. He was of course being stolen away by a different force then — Alzheimer’s — but being with him had a gentle quality that I hadn’t know before. The hours were softer, longer, less structured. He talked about ice-skating and growing up on the river that ran through his town. When I miss him now, I miss those hours, as strange as that sounds. People who haven’t been around Alzheimer’s think it’s constantly sad. It isn’t. When I was writing my newest novel The Blue Hour, I found myself wishing I had written it many years earlier. It’s a ghost story, and my father believed in ghosts. We might have had some great conversations about my make-believe town of Clearoak, and why the ghost roaming the town is so angry.
If you grew up with parents who came to your ball games, your school plays, who coached your Little League team on weekends and drove you to sleepovers at friends’ houses, you should know that some people look at those experiences not as ordinary, but as rare shiny gems in a land that was always foreign to them. It’s natural, I think, to take ordinary moments for granted. But its also important to realize that ordinary moments are what stitch up a life. They form the seams of a relationship. Without them, you’re left with a longing that never entirely goes away. Makaziwe spoke sadly about simply wanting to go on a walk with her father. She finally could when he was in his nineties. I walked with my father as well — slowly, carefully, holding his arm, our history trailing behind us.