STRIVING TO FILL OUR FATHER'S SHOES: A TRIBUTE TO DR. ABDULRAHMAN SHAMAKI
We had an amazing Dad. Sure, all kids think so about their fathers, but as we got older we realized that in our dad’s case, it wasn’t the usual childish thought. He was a brilliant doctor and a wonderful gentleman who was blessed with a brain that loved, soaked up & retained knowledge with amazing clarity, was as generous as a breached dam, had a great sense of humor, an astounding sense of love & concern for his family and an innate ability to cheer and inspire. He really was amazing. Which is why a few days after his death when a friend of his while commiserating with the family said he “was confident we would fill our father’s shoes with ease”, I let out an almost audible gasp. If not for the circumstances under which the statement was made, I am sure he would have inquired as to the quizzical look I had on my face in response to his statement. “Did this man really know my father?” I thought to myself. If he knew the uphill task I was up against, he would probably have chosen his words carefully.
My earliest and most prominent memory of my father was how he valued and respected everyone regardless of age or social standing. I recall how he would scold us for being rude to his driver or batman (soldier assigned to a commissioned army officer as a personal servant) and make us apologize for our behavior. Daddy didn’t tolerate such behavior from us or anyone. An insult to the honor of anyone working under him was considered an insult to his honor as well. He treated all who worked with him as family. When his driver came to work in the morning, he would insist he have breakfast before they set out for the day. While at work, he made sure his driver had whatever he was having for lunch. During Christmas, Daddy made sure his staff got a bonus for Christmas, regardless of what their religious beliefs were. It was the same during both the Eid el Fitr and Eid el Kabir celebrations; everyone got a brand new fabric and had a stake in the slaughtered ram.
Before the existence of Google and Wikipedia, we could count on Daddy to provide us with accurate historical data of concepts, events, inventions and people. He would reel out information with so much clarity you would think he witnessed some of history’s momentous events. He had an astounding memory and an astute knowledge of…almost everything. The shelves of his book cases were packed with books of various disciplines and areas of knowledge, some of which we felt he had no business reading about at the time. I mean, what on earth was a medical doctor doing with a book on quantum physics or engineering? My cousin Abba, who happens to be a history buff, would come to the house early on Saturday mornings just to sit and discuss the history of the Greek, Ottoman and Roman empires with Daddy. Daddy would speak for hours reeling out dates, people, places and events while Abba sat and listened with a mesmerized expression on his face.
If the old saying “like a kid in a candy store” is used to describe an adult, Daddy would best fit this description. Whenever he was in a bookshop he literally lost his mind. His favorite bookstore was the Glendora Bookstore in Falomo, Ikoyi, Lagos. While he was there he would shop till his wallet was empty. He was crazy about books. On several occasions he would return home with plastic bags filled with books. He would lie in bed and spread them all around him, leafing through each one to read the preface or prologue with a satisfied smile on his face. Sometimes so many books were strewn all over his bed the only space available was just enough for him to lie in. At the time I thought it was an obsessive and weird thing to do. Now I know better, having inherited the same obsession. Damage his laptop, he wouldn’t mind. Fiddle with and distort the settings of his satellite radio, he wouldn’t care so much. Fold a page in his book, toss it carelessly on a chair or spill some juice on it, and the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown would be a puff of smoke compared to his fury.
Whether it was his inspiration or my persistence, I can’t say for sure, but at an age where my mates had their heads buried in Enid Blyton books, Daddy introduced me to Frederick Forsythe, John Le Carre, Sidney Sheldon and Robert Ludlum. He would give me a notepad, tell me to write down all the words, the meanings of which eluded me and look them up later in a dictionary as well as learn how to use them in a sentence. Perhaps it was by accident or by design; he nurtured my interest and talent for writing. When we came home for the holidays and we sat around doing nothing while complaining we were bored, Daddy would say “how can you be bored in a house full of books?” He would assign books to each of us, ask us to read them and “extract the major themes the author was referring to.” Once he gave me a really boring novel, the theme(s) of which I couldn’t extract. I hid the book under my bed and decided to somehow wriggle my way out of reading it. That was one of the most stressful weeks of my life. I managed to extract one important lesson from that experience; it is futile to avoid bumping into your father when you live in the same house.
Daddy loved his job and his concern for his patients was genuine. He had the habit of calling some of his more recalcitrant patients to make sure they were taking their medication as prescribed. I still have vivid memories of how he would scold them telling them to take their medication and cut down on their sugar consumption. This always made us laugh. A doctor who takes six cubes of sugar in a small teacup and ate chocolates like it was going out of fashion admonishing his patients to cut down on same. That was just hilarious.
Daddy and I had a special relationship. I wasn’t just his son, I was also his confidante. He sought and valued my opinion way before I was anywhere near adulthood. From minor innocuous decisions like “do you think this tie is compatible with this shirt?” to major decisions like “is this in your opinion a worthwhile investment?” He never felt ashamed of telling people he valued my judgment. It is usual for older individuals to view teenagers as immature and incapable of understanding how things work, therefore regarding their judgment and opinions irrelevant. The fact that Daddy felt confident in my ability to make informed decisions was one of the best feelings I have ever had and for this my gratitude to him is without limits.
We learnt more about equity, fairness and justice from him than we could have learned sitting in a classroom. Whenever we misbehaved or failed to do as well as expected in school, before he levied any punishment or sanctions, he would ask if we had any objections or anything to say in our defense. Of course, this did not prevent the punishment from taking effect but it did provide a semblance of fair hearing and transparency.
Most kids have an unshakeable belief that parents are infallible and can do no wrong. Daddy enabled us acquire a good understanding of human nature by tossing that childish belief out of our heads. He always encouraged us to speak up when we felt he had done something wrong. He used to say “your mother and I are human. We can make mistakes just like you and everyone else. When we do wrong, bring it to our attention.” To be honest though, in my quest to speak up about wrongdoing there were times I was a bit forceful and almost tipped the balance of the father and son scale. Thank God for his calm and understanding demeanor, we always found a way of sorting out our differences.
Daddy had an innate ability to inspire. His approach was not to remind you of your failures but to remind you of what you were capable of achieving. While in school I was a bit average in terms of performance. I didn’t do badly but when you come from a family made up mostly of overachievers, being average is considered more or less an underachievement. Daddy always told me he was proud of me and he had no doubt I was destined for great things. That simple action of inspiring me and telling me how proud he was did a lot more in aiding me to do better than scolding me would have. That was our Daddy; he always saw the good in people.
The most devastating thing about death in my opinion is the fact that it takes away your loved one and leaves you with memories of the times you spent together. It also deprives you of all the things you could have done or what the person could have witnessed had they lived. There are a lot of things I wanted to tell Daddy as well as things I wanted him to witness; my graduation from school, being called to the bar, receiving a verbal thrashing from a judge at my first court appearance, getting married, playing with his granddaughters and ruining their teeth with chocolates. Alas, it was not to be.
Daddy, you’ve been gone ten years but it still feels like yesterday. We still live up to the standards you instilled in us. Filling your shoes is no easy task but we shall spend the rest of our lives trying to do so. We miss you.