Thursday, June 15, 2017

My Journey with Capone

Some call him President, some others call him Gisage, and many know him as Capone. His real name is Alphonse Barikage. He is a great and brilliant guy. 

When he comes to our Basketball court on Wednesdays evening, we all know that the fun is just about to begin. He has some old school basketball moves that remind me of Kareem Abdul Jabaar’s sky hook (I have the footage to prove it, but I won’t share it here…)

What I didn’t know was that Capone is a great writer. He just published a piece in one of Toronto’s big newspapers, and it is a real work of art. As we are about to celebrate Fathers’ day, I thought that the timing of the article is just perfect

Here it is. Ladies and Gentlemen, here comes Alphonse Barikage, a.k.a Capone

A walk down memory lane

When I reach for my son's hand, I feel my father's palm in mine, Alphonse Barikage writes

How would I be remembered?

The question on how I will be remembered after I die has not been one that I have spent much time pondering. That was, until a few years ago, when my then 8-year-old son – yes you heard it right – raised the topic with me.

It was a beautiful spring day. For the first time that year, the sun was full out. Marcus and I decided to walk to the local library to borrow some books. Children were playing soccer and others, shooting hoops on the street.

Cars were driving slowly, honking occasionally to get the children's attention and have them clear the way. Neighbours were trading jokes and pleasantries across the street from their porch. You could tell that everyone was happy that winter was finally over.

Marcus and I had been walking for about 10 minutes in silence, taking in the cacophonous sounds from the street and the fresh smell emanating from a soil that has just emerged from a long winter.

Marcus interrupted our silence.

"Papa, have you noticed that every time we go for a walk, you are always holding my hand"
"Really?" I said. It was probably something I was doing instinctively, almost like breathing, in a protective gesture.

"I do it to keep you safe, Marcus," I continued. "There are many cars and too many distracted drivers. I don't want you to run into traffic."

At that point, images from my childhood in Burundi, where I was born, started rolling in my head. It was not just one, but several images rolling out, almost like a slide show. In each of those memories, I was walking hand in hand with my dad.

In the most vivid image, my dad was walking me to school for the first time. I was five years old. It was early in the morning and we had taken a shortcut, away from the main road. We were on narrow path, surrounded by tall grass. The grass, once all green, had turned dry after three months of a harsh dry season.

That morning, I had woken up early from the excitement. As we got closer to the school, my excitement started turning into anxiety. The fear of the unknown was settling in. Then, something magical happened. Every time I squeezed my dad's hand, the anxiety would ease. I still remembered it as if it were yesterday.

I also remember us walking to my first appointment at the dentist. Similarly, my anxiety eased after holding my dad's hand. There are several other moments such as this one in my early life.

My dad died suddenly when I was 15. A heart attack took him at the relatively young age of 60. He was speaking to my younger sister when disaster struck. A teacher, he was helping her prepare for an upcoming exam.

Only a few pictures of him remain. In one photo, he is standing, with the horizon as a background, holding my oldest brother's hand. I can see my brother's small hand disappearing into my dad's large palm.

This is the picture of my dad that I like the most.
I went back to Marcus and said: "Marcus, do you know that my dad also used to hold my hand when we went for a walk?"

"Cool!" Marcus said "Do you also think your grandpa used to hold your dad's hand when they went for a walk?" he asked.

I had no idea, but that image of my dad and his dad walking up or down a hill, hand in hand, somewhere in Rwanda, the country where my dad was born 95 years ago, made sense to me.
"Probably," I finally replied.

"Awesome! When I grow up and go for a walk with my son, I will hold their hand just like you and my grandpa did. So this way, holding my son's hand will always remind me of you, long after you are gone." Marcus smiled.

I smiled back.

"And, what would you do, if you have a daughter?" I asked.
"A boy or a girl, it doesn't matter. I will hold their hand to remember you," Marcus replied.
I again smiled and squeezed Marcus's hand as we continued our trip to the library.

Had my dad been holding my hand because he wanted to remember his dad, and was I offering my son my hand to remember him, as Marcus suggested? It had never occurred to me. But now I could see how this could be possible.

We reached the library, where our conversation veered into less weighty topics.
From that day on, when I visit a park and I see a father playing soccer or baseball with their child, I cannot stop myself from wondering whether the father is just playing or whether something much deeper is at play.

Is the father trying to relive a joyous moment from their own childhood? Is the father trying also to keep their departed father's memory alive?

Not too long ago, I took Marcus to skate at a local skating rink. As I was tightening his skate's laces, I wondered whether I was starting a new intergenerational tradition. Will Marcus also remember me when tightening the laces of his child's skates?

Alphonse Barikage

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