My Dad was an emerging local celebrity, so the news of his heart attack, spread much like a viral video does in today’s social media generation. The word of mouth was a powerful tool within the Bangladeshi community. Who make it their business to know everybody’s business. We associated his stint at the hospital with a bulk shopping spree. The mixture of Bengali hospitality, a politician and the universal social protocol of bringing food/drinks to the ill was a toxic mix. Much of that summer we didn’t buy drinks for our house, we had an abundance of it. Taken by well wishers to visit him at the hospital, which my Dad promptly dished back home to us. It was mainly film wrapped Lucozade- because glucose was good for people who were ill and a rich orange cordial drink called Three Top. Still to this day, I find it hard to convince anyone that this drink existed. I can’t have made it up in my imagination.
As Summer slowly died out and Autumn crept in, the talks in our household changed like the season. It became dire and brown much like the leaves scattered across the pavement and dreaded words like ‘operation’ started making its ugly way into our conversations. We relied on our Dad to tell us where his fate lay. As ever, the attention seeking, self- centric person that I got know about him in my later years. He told my crying Mum how they planned to cut open his bare chest and dissect his left leg to transfer a vein to his heart. Even today, I don’t get the science behind it or why our parent’s generation were so irrational to what they spoke about in front of their children. Like the time a doctor came and measured his height in front of us, he told us they were measuring him for a coffin. They were going to operated him inside, just in case of the very real chance he dies during surgery. They will shut the lid and bury him as there would be no point in doing anything else. It was the type of stories my Dad was famous for, sometimes I think he found it hard to distinguish his tales from the real world. What was an eight year old to do with such absurd information, more importantly why would a husband and father openly talk about their death in front of his distressed wife and young children? My older brother carried on from where my Dad left off. He told me it was the most complicated operation ever carried out in medical history- whatever that meant. Exaggerated and melodramatic stories were just the first of many I got used to from my Dad throughout my life and to a lesser extent my brother.
His Triple Heart Bypass took place a year after, I don’t remember that day but I remember the day he went to the hospital for it. Me and my brothers seated on the window ledge of our house, peering outside watching the cars pass and pedestrians crossing. While my Dad, the ever dapper guy that he was, donning his black suit and tie whilst neatly packing his clothes inside his small duffel bag and briefcase (yes he packed his clothes in his briefcase). The heavy heart and tears came as soon as his friend arrived to pick him up. My Mum did the honours of opening the floodgates, my older brother followed and my heart couldn’t cope and so I too joined. The idea of him going to the hospital by his own admission rather by an ambulance was hard to bear. The patriarch of our family was leaving and he was not going to come back for a while. He smiled and tried to comfort us all assuring us he will come back. He touched my head as he did my brothers, if he had tears too? He did a great job hiding it. With everything that was going through his mind, with the impeding operation, he had to show a strong face or everything falls apart.
After the operation, I recall the red webbed scars covered by strips of bandage running down from his chest to the top of his slightly protruded stomach. Every night, he would sit down on his chair with my Mum watching guard. Cleaning his wounds like a wounded, battle hardened soldier who returned from war with cotton wool dipped in a bowl of lukewarm water. He used to have a big mole in the centre of his chest, it was no longer there. My biggest fear was that his stitches would come loose, his chest burst open and his organs flush out.
Two months later, against doctor’s orders and my Mum’s, he travelled to Bangladesh. The military government over there bowed down to public pressure and declared Marshall Law over calling the first General Election in nearly a decade. It was a homing beacon summoning him home, to campaign for the Awami League – his political party. The party that ignited his political career, whose founder father -Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the unilateral influence and hero to my Dad his entire life. Growing up, his pictures were lambasted all over our living room wall, so much so, one would have been forgiven to think he was a close family member. Sheikh Mujib was given the honorary lifelong title of Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) by his nation. Thanks to declaring and leading a brutal seven month Civil War with Pakistan in 1971, to liberate East Pakistan and finding the Republic of Bangladesh. Whose brutal assassination by a covert defecting military team in 1975, broke my Dad’s heart and gave heed to his self imposed exile from his motherland.
You would think a man like my Dad would have had his life activities cut short by such a big change in his life. But his soul hadn’t reached its pinnacle, so his body had no choice but stumble along with it. His heart attack or the operation didn’t knock him off his pedestal, his best years still laid ahead of him.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he never had the heart attack, how much further would his life had lead him and where would my life be as a consequence. We would never have been housed to a ground floor maisonette away from my beloved 3rd floor council estate home. The estate where I learned to ride a bike, play marbles, swap stickers, get stung by stinging nettles, make slingshots with coat hangers, play football with the milk crates, climb walls, graze my knees and skinned my elbows and when we were forced to move- experience my first heartbreak. He could have carried on being a Councillor longer than the two terms he served and possibly challenge his old comrade John Biggs, for the all mighty Executive Mayors position. I picture a more idealistic childhood, instead of gushing memories of him being swoon to hospitals, suffering cardiac arrests or us reviving him in his sleep when he stopped breathing, which became normal practice by the time I reached my teenage years.
An alternate reality where he played with us outside in the park, ran with us, kicked a football, threw us over his shoulders or raised us on top of his head. What would it have been like to not miss those three months of school, thanks to his illness? Back in the days when social services didn’t get involved for prolonged absences. I could have been a better a reader and learned how to swim.
We siblings would have seen him as a strong force of nature rather than the weak physical person that rapidly manifested in front of us over the years. As a result, the iron rule fathers were expected to bring to a family, eroded from him. Maybe it was that absence of an alpha male presence, armed with a firm hand, was what led to my elder brother, the greatest genius that world had never known, thrown into a dark path. The talent and bright spark of our family, whose presence forever shadowed my life. The prodigal child moulded and destined to take his rightful place on the mantle of our family throne and lead us to frontiers not yet conquered. The boy wonder, wise beyond his years took a U Turn and fell victim to a plague that ended up defying and driving into the dark abyss a lost generation of Bangladeshi boys in Tower Hamlets. In doing so giving up his rightful succession to the family throne leaving a vacuum for me to fill. Why I spent all my time right up to my Dad’s death, fighting battles with him, to take a role that he wasn’t ready to relinquish or was ever meant for me to take in the first place. Taking a position I never asked for or moulded into, making sacrifices the world will never know. Goofy the 2nd in line for the throne, somehow found himself in the world of a Mascot and the circus that came with it.