This post was originally written shortly after Father’s Day in June of 2012, while I was in Uganda, Africa.
It was nearing midnight as we were all gathered around the bonfire. I gazed into the blaze, watching the flames gracefully dance around. It is amazing how something so beautiful can be so destructive, I thought to myself as the fire cracked and shot out spark-shrapnel in every direction. Here I am, sitting at a campfire in Uganda, Africa, and my beautiful state of Colorado is currently burning to a crisp because of wildfires.
My deep gaze and wandering thoughts were suddenly broken off as Big John stood up, boasting loudly that he could walk through fire. My thoughts and attention returned to the present as I looked up at the eight other teachers surrounding the bonfire. We were still new to each other, still feeling one another out. I watched attentively as John approached the flames, spread his legs and hopped through the fire. What an idiot, I thought as I began to laugh hysterically. The others also watched in disbelief and applauded John’s latest Evel Knievel act. Big John always knew how to be the entertainment of the party, and partying we were.
We had just wrapped up our first week in Uganda; a week full of meetings and orientation. The hours were long; the meetings were informative but hard to sit through towards the end of the week. We learned about the cultural customs, we learned how to speak some words in the Luo language, and we had met our host teachers. It was now time for a night of relaxation. All but two of the members in our group decided to take this weekend and spend it on a rhino trek. The rhino sanctuary was a three hour matatu ride away and we arrived fairly late in the afternoon on Saturday and had nothing to do but relax until we looked for rhinos the next morning. The three hour trip was definitely worth it —
The place where we were staying had a nice bar, great food, a swimming pool, and a fire pit. It even had flushing toilets and warm showers. Ahhh I am in heaven, I thought to myself as I soaked in the pool with a Nile Special in hand. The water was cold and the sun was down, but it did not matter. I was staring up at the night sky, which was filled with thousands of stars.
“Look, I think that is the Southern Cross,” said Isaac as he preceded to join me in the pool.
One of the great things about Uganda is the lack of light pollution from big cities; therefore the stars are much brighter and appear in masses. The night sky never disappointed, except when it was cloudy. I did notice some clouds starting to roll in from the west, so I decided to watch the stars as attentively as possible until they were covered.
As the night pressed on, we all decided to sit around a fire, which was prepared by our South African hosts, and share stories in order to get to know each other better. It was during this time that Big John decided to hop over the fire and singe off all of his leg hair in order to make people laugh. I could not help but create a “Dos Equis – Most Interesting Man in the World” commercial in my mind about John: When he touches fire, it is the fire that gets burned. Bees fear him, for he is the one that does the stinging. When he sits on a boda boda, it is the boda that gets a ride. He once wore the same pair of underwear for two months straight and still smelled like roses. He owns an invisible hacky sack. His beard has more hair than a lesser man’s head. He is the most interesting man in northern Uganda. “I don’t always drink beer in Africa, but when I do, I prefer a Nile Special.”
As we continued to go around the circle sharing stories and playing a game called Two Truths and a Lie, John leaned over to me and said softly, “Hey brother, it is almost midnight and that means it is almost father’s day.” I looked up at him trying not to show any sign of weakness or emotion. Does he know that my dad had just passed away? The thought of father’s day had been weighing on my mind all day, but I had not told anyone about dad’s passing except the three that I was with in London when it happened. “We should do something special for Isaac as he is the only father here.” Relief temporarily filled my mind. “Would you like to give a toast or a speech or somethin’?” Seriously? I am trying to fight back tears and now I am going to have to give a speech about how wonderful good father figures are. Thanks, Big Guy!
As midnight came and went, I decided to momentarily interrupt Two Truths and a Lie and give a quick toast in Isaac’s honor. “Hey everyone,” I spat out as I cleared my throat. I had not talked in probably an hour. “I would just like to take a moment to recognize and say thank you to Isaac. As it is now past midnight, it is officially father’s day. Through teaching and through my own parents I know firsthand the value of having a good father figure in one’s life. It is awesome to know that there are two little girls lucky enough to have you, Isaac, as their dad.” My voice trembled with the last sentence and I knew my speech was over.
Luckily, John alertly cut in by raising is glass and starting the toast. “Kopwi naka naka!” he said. (Sorry if I totally butchered the spelling here)
I sat back down, still overwhelmed with various emotions. I knew it was time to call home. “Hey big guy, do you mind if I borrow your phone for a few minutes?” I asked John. Without a word, he pulled the old Nokia out of his pocket and handed it to me with a smile. Maybe he does know… I walked away from the fire and dialed the country code of the United States and then entered my mom’s phone number. It rang three times before she finally answered.
“Hello?” she said curiously as she did not recognize the phone number.
“Hi Ma, its Josh.” I responded with a slight whimper. “I just wanted to ca-ca-call and say happy father’s day to you and Johanna.”
My mom and Jo were apparently in St. Louis visiting my older sister, Jennifer. It would not be father’s day there until tomorrow. My phone call was not at the most convenient time as they were in the middle of manicures and pedicures, and they were also scheduled to have massages. My mom scolded me for making her cry while her toes were getting worked on. With a half laugh, half cry, she passed the phone on to Johanna so we could chat for a few minutes. It was good to hear their voices.
After the phone call, I sat out on the front step of the deck that held two bedrooms, although I use the term bedroom loosely. A few minutes later, my friend Sarah joined me and we started talking about my dad. A storm was rolling in and it was nice to watch the sky explode with repeated lightning strikes. The heavy rain quickly followed, but we had overhead covering so we sat outside and talked for a while longer. It was nice to have Sarah around as she was there on the day which I received the news that my father had died. It was okay to cry now, and cried a lot. Dana, who decided not to come on the rhino trek trip with us, told me a few days prior, “The firsts are always the hardest. The first birthday…the first special anniversaries…the first father’s day.” She was right, yet again.
After an electrifying storm had lit up the sky and heavy rains pounded our roof for much of the night, there was not a single cloud in sight the next morning. I was out in the middle of Africa, about to go on a rhino trek. We left our accommodations and took a bus for a few miles through the desert bush before we stopped and met our guide, Toban. He was strapped with an AK-47 and camouflage slacks. He smiled at us and then introduced himself by saying with a thick accent, “I am Toban, and I am a man of the bush!”
Toban led us through the bush and to the resting spot of a mother rhino and her baby. The mother was asleep, but the calf was awake and moving around. It even nudged its mother at one point so it could be fed. Happy father’s day, Dad, I thought to myself as I watched the calf lay its head on its mother. The firsts are not going to be easy, but this is a heck of a way to spend father’s day, huh? As my thoughts continued to drift Big John turned around and said to me, “It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it brother?” as I tried to follow what he was saying. “Life and love,” he said as I tracked his eyes to the calf as it was resting at peace with its mother. There is no such thing as coincidence.