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Poem and Eulogy for my Father

At my father’s memorial ceremony my sisters and brothers-in-law read a poem written by my mother, and I read a poem written by me, and a eulogy mostly “written” by me but actually “composed” by family council in one very long meeting the night before his memorial.

The poem is not really a Ghazal in the strict sense of the form, but as so many anglophones have done before, I neglected the rhyme-scheme, use of refrain, and many other things. As Erin Thomas explains in this essay/collection of Ghazal, such irreverent use of imported forms is all too common among anglophone writers, but I think it works better than it would had I tried to force a rhyme scheme upon it. Whle Ghazal apparently are not necessarily characteristically lamentatory in nature — I find no evidence online that this is the case — the notion of couplets that are intuitively, rather than explicitly, linked to one another, served well for what I needed to write for my father.

The eulogy is in the extended section, for anyone interested. Some of the more opaque references in the poem are partially explained by things in the eulogy, like “kwenda-kwenda”, which means, “Go! Go!” (I always thought it meant, “quick-quick!” and the implications seems to have been this all the same, at least how my father used it); the Kiswahili form is mentioned in passing in this dissertation, and my mother says the Chichewa/Chitumbuka forms of the word in wide use in Malawi when they lived there meant the same — “Move, move!”

Ghazal For My Father

(to Gordon K. Sellar, 1939-2006)

Blizzards snow-blinding that first night, and her hand;
Lions’ twilight drinking ripples still lakewaters.

The dimness of sleep dispelled in the cold morning car—
Eyeing the arc of a ball’s approach, poised for the kick;

Where are you going, kwenda-kwenda, boots-and-saddle?
This snakeskin husk underfoot was never wise, old snake.

Turtledoves above in branches, soft-throated, remembered;
Your children call out both the syllables of what you were called.

Discarded dictionary spills words; baby grasps thick fingers,
A leopard turns, smiles, and the long grass whispers tonight.

G.A. Sellar,
Feb 8, 2006

delivered Feb 9th 2006

Gordon Kinlay Sellar
(September 12th 1939 – February 4th 2006)

Welcome today, and thank you for coming here to be with us. That you are here reminds us of all of the lives upon which my father left his indelible, gentle mark, and of all the lives that left their mark upon his. Thank you so very much for the time you shared with him, whether you were listening to one of his stories, working with him, talking to him out and around town, or whatever. And thank you for coming to be with us and to help us give voice to his memory.

That is what we are here today to do, today. Although there are many tears here, we have not come here to weep. Although we are in pain now, this is not a place or time dedicated to suffering. The reason we are here, what we are here to do, is to speak memory, to recognize the sacredness and preciousness of a man who walked alongside so many of us – sometimes carrying us in his arms, sometimes leaning on us for support – and to celebrate everything that he was, and everything that for each of us he will always remain.

Each of us knew him and cared for him in a different way, and none of us knows the totality of his mysteries, moments half-forgotten and memories he cherished but perhaps never spoke of to us. I do not know the true and total story of my father’s life, and I do not believe I could ever write it properly. Although he was a wonderful storyteller, and recounted so many events from his life to us over the years, those tales changed from telling to telling. I can sift through memories, collect them each by each, organize them one by one, and I can tell some of those stories to you. But I cannot tell you anything that, knowing my father, you did not already know. If you knew him, you knew his decency of spirit, his kindness, gentleness, patience, the openness of his heart and mind, his generosity, his quirkiness and silliness, and how astonishingly he loved. Nothing I say tells more than you already know.

There are millions of moments, each of them precious, which cannot be said; each of them is lost like raindrops into the ocean, still existing but irretrievable. But there are many more that can be half-said, spoken into life. These memories matter.

There is a moment sometime in his childhood when he was called names by other boys, because he played with the native children in his homeland of Nyasaland differently than the other white children did, with respect and kindness and dignity.

There is another moment, from long before anyone in this room ever met him, which I saw in a photo once, of him tending goal during a game of field hockey. I can see him in my mind, limbs all extended, moving through the air, the only thing in his world at that moment the ball he is fighting to reach. He played on the national rugby team in Malawi as a young man, and held a national javelin record as well. He loved sport with all his heart, and played with the same passion and wholeheartedness that he did everything else with. This moment, for me, blends with many other memories of kicking a ball around, of him watching my baby sister play soccer, of his powerful and energetic cheering. A love of life is a love of the body, and sport was one of the ways my father expressed this.

I remember him many times speaking of how much he loved fishing, camping, and going about in the African bush. His stories brought that part of his experiences to vivid life for us as children. There was the time he sat up in a tree with a rifle waiting for a buckshot, pain-maddened lion to come by. There was the time he took a shortcut through the bush, unarmed, and met a leopard. And there was that time he and his friends were rudely awakened to discover they’d pitched their tents on a hippo run. These were the kinds of stories we grew up hearing.

He always, always did things in his own way, and laughter was always a big part of that. When he took ballroom dancing with my mother, the rules of the lessons seemed to matter much less than how much fun it was to move around with her on the dance floor. When the teacher pointed out that the steps weren’t really “right€?, my father smiled and said, “Nah, it’s good.â€? My sister Marie was driven mad by the vast rolls of film he wasted making funny faces every time she pointed the lens his way, and in the last few days my mother has already uncovered three hidden stashes of his chocolate treats in different crannies around the house. He never missed one of our recitals or concerts, but it’s hard to remember a time he didn’t fall asleep, or, as he called it, listen “with his eyes closed.â€?

He took all kinds of shortcuts. When driving somewhere, his shortcuts were usually along the longer scenic route. When he spoke, he chopped words in half and it was up to us to figure out what the abbreviations meant. He liked to eat “kee-babsâ€?, especially if they had some “vegâ€?. He’d just take some Vit C. and go out to check if the grill had any “propeâ€? left, and if not, he’d put the tank in the boot of the car and, boots’n’saddle, he’d fetch some, kwenda-kwenda.

There is a little boy in this room who my father would have wished to run, to jump, to laugh during all this time. If you look into Nathaniel’s eyes, do not let tears cloud your vision, because then you will not share with my father what he saw in those eyes. In those eyes I see so much of my father, energy and the funny faces he pulled, and his downright silly antics. He loved to play and laugh. In some of the faces Dad made, you can see the little boy he’d been so long ago. Nathaniel became the light of his life, and with news that my sister Annie carried what he called “precious cargoâ€?, another grandchild for him to love, his spirit was lifted to the greatest heights. A fierce light shone within him, a desire to see that child, hold that child, and give it his love.

Only two months ago today, before he passed away, he finally saw Africa again, and thereby fulfilled a lifelong wish of his. He returned home speaking of the morning song of the turtledove, something that stayed with him vividly. Seeing the bush, looking upon lions and rhinos again, gave him such deep joy.

Love is something that is learned. A lot of what I know about love, the kind of love that animates a person to live for others, the kind of love I aspire to live myself, I learned from my father. As my sister said to me, everything he did, he did out of love for our mother. I believe the reason he survived his cancer, his illnesses, the reason he lived as he did, was out of his deepest love, which was for his wife, Ghislaine.

Let it never be said that my father was a sensible man. Look at the woman he chose to love for the whole of his life, to marry and dedicate himself to, to live with as completely as he did. Sure, she speaks great English now, but when he fell in love with her, she could speak no English, and they found themselves conversing in ch’Tumbuka and ch’Chaewa . When I tell people this, they marvel at how they could communicate at all – but of course they found a way. Maybe nobody else (except, sometimes, us kids) understood them, but they communicated so well together because they were patient, because they wanted to, but also I think because they were bound together by something more important than anything translatable or sayable.

The details of the story of their first date have changed many times over the years, but the most definitive version runs like this. At the start of the rainy season in Malawi, he asked her to join him on a drive through the bush into the north part of the country. But of course, the roads were muddy and the jeep got stuck – he was probably taking one of his shortcuts. In any case, he decided to go and get help from nearby villagers, and left my mother in a makeshift tent with a radio on, as he told her, to prevent the lions from coming too close. He believed that he’d blown his chances with her, but for some reason – I suspect due to his persistence – she gave him another chance, and she was blessed for doing so.

My father did not expect to pass away as he did. Rather, he often said that he would be with us until he was 81. The very last thing he and my mother said to one another, they said in unison: “Let us live each moment from the inside out.â€? The heart, the unspeakable essence of a person that transcends words and expectations and needs, is the core of a man, a woman, a child. What is deep within us animates us in body, in thought, and in emotion, and if we live from the inside out, we let the light that burns within illuminate all things, burn away all irrelevancies, and guide us in the changing twilights and nights of this world. To live from the inside out is to live together, and my father now wishes us to continue this, to pass this secret on, to say it quietly to one another by our simplest actions, as he tried to do every day. If you want to honor him, do this. Aspire to this.

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