By Philomène Luyindula Lasoen
My first love letters were the drawings I made my dad on the loose white pages he invariably gave me as I walked into his office. I would sit quietly and contented while he worked.
When I was 7, I could write of course, but it didn’t occur to me to write to a person I could see all the time and on whose lap I could sit. At the time, I still thought that if I could call a person more than five times a day just because I liked saying their name or getting their attention, it meant that I could then tell them everything and anything. It was just a few months later that I realised I was mistaken.
I am not sure when exactly I stopped speaking the many things I meant to say but by the time I was eight, books were my safe world and the characters were people whose lives made more sense than the children and adults in my life. And I didn’t need to use my voice with them, I could watch them, be part of their world and enjoy the fact that they had no expectations of me.
I went from drawing some cockatiel-like birds to marabouts and flamingos. The detail in my pictures got neater and prettier but my knowledge of birds didn’t grow. It wasn’t nurtured in my family, and I had very little self-motivation as a child. I find that I am quite the same as an adult. I respond to love and nurturing, I thrive on it, I do wild things with it but by myself, alone, I struggle to trust that I have the brain power or stamina to follow through with the fluttering of my heart.
My drawings of birds turned into little gifts of love, attention, jokes, and active listening. I suppose my love language changed. But I still wanted to give pictures. I started writing love letters to my dad again when I moved to South Africa. In those letters I would share my true feelings about some things. Not all. At first, it was about the geography.
Shortly after I moved here, my older sister left to join her husband. I wrote to my dad that I was at the bottom of the world. Being so much south seemed that the unspoken things transformed themselves into a metric measure, they materialised into the distance between the south-east of France and my dwellings in Durban. They spelt the words: never to be bridged again.
What I shared was tales about my first real friend who loved me despite my then broken English. I spoke of her family background and was fascinated by the little I learnt about experiences of South African Indians under Apartheid. I told my father about her father’s trade and the fancy tea parties for 2 that Karen and I would have at a 5-star hotel whenever we got enough cash for cake on plates that cost a fortune. I initially wrote in detail. It was the beginning of my adult life in a foreign country. Over months and years, it didn’t seem as if I could share much anymore but there are names of friends that eventually became real people with faces to him.
It was a long time before we saw each other again. I used to travel to my mom in Congo when taking a holiday. I wrote short notes to my mom and always worried that I didn’t know how to show her love. She is far more complex than my dad and I have always liked things simple and direct, dependable, and predictable. I thought that these 4 words described my relationship with my dad well. In the past fifteen years or so I have learnt that they apply more to the one I have with my mother.
I have gone through phases when I could not say a thing to my dad. I usually indicated when this was the case with a message like this: I can’t talk but I love you. I will let you know when I can speak to you.
Long facsimile letters eventually turned into emails and short SMS with the assurance of my love but with boundaries to protect my sometimes very fragile state of mind.
I wish that in the last year of my dad’s life, I wrote him long letters again. Or that maybe I drew something for him. I wish I knew if he felt my love in spite of my long silences.
And all the time I communicated with him the least, I inked more words, typed characters aplenty, doodled in the margins of books holding some of my poems. I befriended writing for the sake of writing – the compulsion – the thing that feeds my soul. I refer to writing as my true language. And I think that writing has very often been the connector, the path through which I can reach others. It has also been the wall behind which I can hide because saying ‘I love you’ helps me bargain for time; once the message is sent, I can hold myself for a little while longer. And I suppose I did that then… I do it now.
I am jealous of people who are braver than me with their actual voice. I envy those who manage to share the painful things, the criticism, the sorrow, and the requests. Yes, let’s not forget the requests as these help make love specific, it turns love into something that can be given and received by each person in her way. I know this, I have learned it, trained in it but the courage it calls for is not yet in me.
So, I am the writer of long and short words, stories, letters, … I am a person who started by loving my dad first, more than anyone else and I hope that he knew that on the day he died.
May you find ways to write love to the people you hold dear. And may your words be met with a response that fits your needs. May all the things that your heart yearns for find an echo with people, with nature, with beauty.
PS: Today is my father’s birthday. I had an Irish coffee in memory of him. I took a picture of the drink for the family. And for myself, I spent time recalling my childhood joy at being in his presence.
Philomène Luyindula Lasoen is the author of The Widening of the Womb and Other Stories. She is a Congolese woman, raised in DRC (then Zaïre, by her Belgian/French adoptive parents). She lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She has worked in the faith-based sector among children at risk and on HIV/AIDS. She is also a French Teacher, Translator and a mother. She tells tales that are deeply African, deeply spiritual and that can be experienced in various cultural contexts.