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28 December 2020updated 05 Sep 2021 10:56am

How this Christmas allowed my family to confront my father’s absence

Ever since my father’s death, we had spent Christmas Day at a restaurant. But this year we finally stayed at home and celebrated together once more. 

By jason Okundaye

My father’s second job, at a minicab service in Wimbledon, had always intrigued me most during the Christmas period. It was normally a Friday and Saturday evening job, but with the promise of double pay, my dad would work Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, returning in the early hours of morning. It was something me and my family begrudged – it meant wishing Dad “happy new year” on the phone well past midnight, without the excitement of a preceding countdown. It meant, as sparky children, not being repeatedly returned to bed by him as we attempted to get the first glimpse of our Christmas presents. I always wondered what exactly he got up to in that job, why it meant he would be absent during occasions that most families spend together – even if he was still there for the main features of these days. 

In many ways, these public holidays had come to be defined by his semi-absence. I would always be half-asleep in the early hours of Christmas, waiting to hear my dad return from work. In my younger years I imagined the 4am or 5am jimmying key and footsteps were those of Santa Claus, and as I grew slightly older I devised more complicated theses: Dad’s mystery night job at Christmas must be to assist Santa with delivering presents around the estate. Around an hour after he returned, and I was sure he was asleep, I’d leave my room at around 6am and put on my favourite holiday film, The Muppet Christmas Carol, being sure to keep the volume low enough not to wake him.

Since Dad passed in 2016, when I was 18, I haven’t had to be concerned about accidentally waking him on Christmas morning. These past Christmases I haven’t been waking up at 6am, I’ve been waking closer to midday. When Dad was around he’d always be the last to rise on Christmas Day because of the tiredness from his night job, and we’d sit at the table to eat our traditional Christmas breakfast of salmon, scrambled eggs, and bagels. 

We’ve barely had breakfast these past Christmases, and we’ve avoided cooking entirely by going to hotel restaurants. I’d previously imagined eating at a restaurant at Christmas to be a luxurious, sophisticated experience. But I just found it depressing. Dull, contrived, clinical, cold. Eating plateau de fruits de mer, seafood served on crushed ice, felt like the most uncomfortable and forced escapism when we were accustomed to our Nigerian-British fusion of beef, turkey, or lamb with the typical Christmas trimmings, served with jollof rice and plantain. Still, if you request a table of four, there will be no missing chair because the restaurant staff have no reason to think, or care, that you were once a party of five. That’s the pain of absence which we were avoiding by not celebrating Christmas at home – that sinking feeling of setting the table, only to stare mournfully at the empty spot at the head where none of us would dare sit. 

That said, I’ve found consolation during past Christmases by thinking about my father’s night-time absence quite differently. The summer before his last Christmas, I had my first and only real glimpse of his night job. It was the small hours of an evening in July 2015, the night of my Sixth Form leavers’ ball, one of those summer nights which was equally neutral and mercurial; you could comfortably walk the streets in a T-shirt, but at any moment the temperature could drop, or rain could fall, or the lack of breeze could suffocate you. As instructed by my mother, after the ball and after-party at Croydon’s Tiger Tiger had concluded, I called my dad to send a car to take me to the minicab service unit. 

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I was exhausted when I arrived, and once I had limply half-greeted my dad’s colleagues, he took me through to a small room where I was to sleep on three-quarters of a square arm sofa, with an ottoman for either my head, or my calves and feet to rest. My father laid a clean blanket over the sofa arrangement and, once I curled up on top of it, rested his coat over me as the temperature dropped. There was no heating in the car service unit – either it wasn’t working, or it was deliberately not switched on. I was so freezing that I couldn’t sleep. So I stayed up and listened from the small room to the sounds of my dad and his colleagues working the job that had so far been such a mystery to me.

Those who worked at the unit booked minicabs for partygoers who were returning home. But the job was more like a form of nightlife security. That night, I remember hearing excited and intoxicated women who, clearly familiar with my dad, called him “Del” (a name I had never heard him called – his name was Derrick) hurrying him to organise their minicabs as they collapsed over each other. At other points, I heard my dad consoling customers who had turned up to the service in distress, or who had completely lost their way. I remember thinking to myself that the kind of role my dad was performing here was less one of administrative duty – booking cars and logging journeys – than one, fundamentally, of care.

This year, the pandemic forced my family to confront the absence of my Dad at Christmastime. In common with millions of other people, our Christmas looked very different. The announcement on 19 December that London would enter tier four – at cruelly short notice – meant that many British families endured significant absences. Households that would usually mix were reduced to nuclear units. Grandparents and young people, living in cities away from their hometowns, alike were forced into solo festivities. But for us, it was the announcement on 14 December that London would enter tier three – with all restaurants closed – which disrupted our plans. While the pandemic had forced many families to abandon their traditions, we were now being forced to face the kind of Christmas we had desperately avoided.

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I secretly hoped that we would agree to ignore the day entirely, but as a Catholic family that was never tenable. So the pandemic meant I had my first home-cooked Christmas meal since my father passed. And ultimately, it was the best Christmas I’d had in years. The cosiness of home-cooked food and huddling round the television made me feel like I was in 2015 again.

In the kitchen, my mother, younger brother, and I prepared food while dancing to a Spotify playlist which ranged from Magic System’s Premier Gaou, to the afroswing melodies of NSG’s “Kate Winslet”. Rather than feeling stiff in the shirt and loafers l usually wore to restaurants, I got to wear pyjamas. Still, there was an absence beyond my dad – my elder brother, a key worker, did not attend Christmas: he works in a high-risk environment and feared infecting our mum with coronavirus. But as I recalled how my dad cared for others, I was able to cope with my elder brother’s absence, remembering how vital he was to keeping the children he works with safe, educated, and entertained during this crisis. 

The pandemic has forced many of us to challenge, embrace, or reject our current family structures and dynamics. For my household it’s meant rethinking how we cope with loss during one of the most difficult times of year for families in mourning. It’s meant being able to stomach the sight of a Christmas meal without Dad carving the meat, and without his usual Christmas Eve send-off. When this is over, perhaps my family will have another home Christmas, perhaps we will return to a restaurant, or perhaps we’ll take things a step further and enjoy a family Christmas in Nigeria. Whatever we choose, I’ll always remember this Christmas as one when we learned to celebrate together again. Next year, I might even watch The Muppet Christmas Carol, at a low volume, of course.

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