I believe that there is something special about experiencing fatherhood for the first time. As his first child, I had the privilege of witnessing the thrills and panics of my father’s many firsts. Like the day he travelled the 180km journey from home to my high school because he was unsure whether I had mistakenly left my shoes at home.

It was another winter’s Sunday afternoon, and the last of daylight had banished the sky a shade of crimson. I had my head tilted back onto the passenger seat headrest of Papa’s car, basking in the sun’s warmth as we drove back to school. Hlengiwe Mhlaba’s “uJesu uyalalela” vibrato hummed in the background. I would occasionally steal a glimpse of fingers tapping rhythmically on the steering wheel, cotton sleeves rolled up strong furry arms, with him whistling in harmony to the song. I probably take my vocal talent from my father. However, I am not sure if it was the right tune to rein in my anxiety, as I could feel my heart thump harder with every repetition of “aphendule”. Y
You see, my experience as a boarding scholar was not the most pleasant. I was a sensitive and socially anxious child, so I struggled to fit into my new normal. The peculiar Sunday afternoon melancholy of an end to the week’s break – a representation of the loss of freedom – did not do much help. Nonetheless, I tried to savour this last moment as much as possible because later, the memory would offer the proper comfort for homesickness.

Papa’s most remarkable feature is that he is alive to his own anxieties. He will drop the gun and admit his reluctance with candidness. This admirable relationship with his anxiety helped me accept how fragile we all are, and by so doing, to be merciful and gentle with myself.

The next day after school, I was baffled to hear that Papa was waiting for me outside our hostel. He had travelled the journey again because he thought I had forgotten my other pair of shoes. I was floored. It reminded me of my primary school days when he would insist on attending every award ceremony – regardless of his schedule.

My father is indeed the archetype of reliability. Growing into adulthood has made me realise that, in many ways, I will always be a little girl. A little girl always in need of my father’s reassurance, always with misguided yearnings for affection, and always with irrational fears. I am fortunate that when the temptation of being a sloth creeps in, Papa’s rebuking bark rings in my head to remind me to work hard. My favourite childhood memory is his arms picking me up from the couch to my bed after I had (often intentionally) fallen asleep watching the TV; this memory serves as a reminder to be kind to myself when the going gets tough.


This was one of the highly commended entries in the My Father essay writing competition. Click here to read other excellent essays from the competition.