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You know about my father and me. We didn’t get along. We didn’t talk much. We didn’t do much together. None of that “dad and son” stuff. We might not even have liked each other much. There was bad blood. Lots of it. And still I learned so much from the man. Even when he didn’t mean it and I did…

We had many arguments. Many, many arguments. Almost always about politics. He was on the side of Apartheid and I was on the other side fighting what and who he stood for. He was a bigot and I was always happy to point it out to him. And I was just as stubborn as him. I refused to budge. I refused to try and understand. I refused to give him one single little bit of ground. I refused to give him or what he stood for the benefit of doubt for even a split second. He was wrong and so was everything he stood for. No movement on bigotry. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch. I was right about Apartheid being wrong. Why should I move even an inch for any form of bigotry? I still won’t. I refuse to compromise just because it might make people feel better. Or because it would be the nice thing to do. I won’t. Not with bigots.

And I do expect people to point out my own bigotry. Trust me, I have a thick skin and I am a big boy – I can handle it. It’s the only way I can ever answer The Question…

Anyway, back to me and my father…

Back when we still spoke we had almost daily fights about Apartheid and the fight against Apartheid. He called those who fought the Apartheid government terrorists – Nelson Mandela to Breyten Breytenbach and everyone from the ANC to COSATU. Yes, we fought like hell. It eventually tore us apart completely. There was a moment when I just gave up. And there was a time that I realized he just taught me the biggest lesson of all. He didn’t know it but it has driven me since…

It was just one of those days again. We were arguing like hell. I can’t even remember what triggered this one. The ANC was already unbanned. It could have been him calling Nelson Mandela racist names again. Or him bitching about anyone who was black and who didn’t agree with his warped view of the world. Actually, you didn’t have to be black to be hated by him. Even Reverand Beyers Naudé was a terrorist in his eyes.  But we were off on our usual little boat ride down the rough river of arguing.

My poor mother was just sitting there half in shock as always. Every now and again trying to calm us down. But she knew it was a losing battle. I was never going to keep quiet. Not anymore. And it gave me a chance to fight him on every issues that I ever thought he was wrong about – from Apartheid to my mother. So once I started I would never let go. And he egged me on by pushing one button after the other. We were predictable…

He was on about the Apartheid National Party giving him a job and me an education. He was shouting at me that the ANC and Nelson Mandela will always be terrorists. I was throwing it back in his face that he must live with the fact that we have won. That it is over. You lost your right to bigotry and murder. No more. We won, you lost. And, to rub it in, that if Nelson Mandela is a terrorist then so is his own son.

It shut him for a little bit. He stared at me for a moment. I could see he was ready to explode. He was about to say something. And then it came. The question. I popped the question without even thinking…

“Tell me dad, what did you do?” (“Sê my pa, what het jy gedoen?”)

It shut him up. He had a puzzled look in his face. Not sure what I meant. That’s when I hit him with the meaning of my question…

“What have you ever done to make this country a better place? Where were you when they were murdering people? Where were you when all the killings were taking place? What did you do to stop all the madness? What did you do to end all the hate and bigotry dad? Where is the love and the peace and the freedom dad? Tell me dad, what have you ever done to make this world a better place? For me. For my sisters and mother. And for the kids we will one day have? Tell me dad, what did you do with your life?”

I only stopped when I saw his face change. I can’t even describe to you what he looked like. That expressions…

It was as if the life was sucked out of him. Like an animal in complete fear of his life and knowing that this is the end. That he has no more to offer. That everything is empty. That all that was left was this shell of a man standing in front of me. The look of a man knowing that everything he has ever done is meaningless and worthless in the eyes of his son. The look in his eyes was of a man knowing his life and what he stood for meant nothing to his son. Nothing. Like him. His life. Meaningless. All in a single expression.

it is difficult… I can’t really describe to you what he looked like…

But I will never forget it. That look in his eyes. It was something that made me shut up. I knew there was nothing more to say. I knew he was not my father anymore. He was… He was… Nothing…

Because his expression also told me something else. It betrayed him. It told me the answer…

Nothing…

I looked at him for a little while and said it one more time softly – almost a whisper, “Tell me dad, what have you ever done?”

His expression also betrayed something else…

It wasn’t just the question that cut him up. It wasn’t just his lack of answers that drained is soul. No. It was also my expression that sucked the life out of him. The expression of someone that felt nothing anymore. The look of someone who knew his father no more. The face of someone who knew a common love no more. The questions from someone who believed in his own blood no more. The end of the blood running through our veins. He knew that my own questions and eyes told him that we were no more…

That was what he saw… And what he heard…

And then I turned around and walked away. Leaving him there to… I don’t know… I just left him there without thinking about what I wanted from him. I didn’t want anything anymore. I didn’t need anything anymore. I got what I wanted…

I will never forget his face. I still see that expression. Daily. It drives me. That single question and that single expression drives me daily. Each and every single day. Because I never want to be asked that question. Never.

Maybe I am over sensitive to what is going on around me. Maybe I love my wife and kids a little more than what I would have if I didn’t know about that question. Maybe I get angry about bigotry and injustice and inequality more than I would have if I didn’t know about that expression. And maybe I see the beauty around me a bit clearer thanks to the face I saw that day. I don’t know. But I know this…

I never want any of my kids to ever ask me that question…

And I never want them to look at me the way I looked at my dad that day…

dont-ask

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Note: I should have added that I did make peace with my dad shortly before he died. I do understand where he came from even though I never agreed with his politics or the way he treated some people. But we did make some form of peace. Do I wish our relationship was different? I am not sure because I would not be who I am without him being who he was. I am at peace with how it all turned out – it could have been better but it could have been worse. I focus on the here and now. The question I asked him doesn’t drive me a in conscious way where I think of them daily. It is only when I think and reflect on what I do that I recognise some of the events that played a key role – and this was one of those key events.