the picture that means so much
Soma Ghosh’s dad ‘disappeared’ when she was little – but she knows he was never really far away...
This photo is one of just a handful of memories I have of my dad, Sanat. Then in his 40s, he has a huge grin on his face, hands firmly around my arms as he helps me take my first steps. Every girl says their dad is special but mine truly was. and yet he was only alive for the first six years of my life, and very poorly for most of it. But I was still his princess.
My dad was a career man. He moved from West Bengal to England in the late 1960s and got a scholarship to work as a clerk. He quickly progressed to become a criminal barrister. When he met and, in 1970, married my mum, Amala, an accountant, he set up his own solicitor’s business.
At over a decade older than Mum, then 33, he cherished the moment he became a father to me, his youngest child. I’ve been told that when I was only 18 months old and crawled onto his lap, his shoulders would relax and his face would erupt into his familiar, toothy grin.
As a baby, I was affectionate and bubbly. No one could resist my head of floppy, jet-black hair and big smile. I was cheeky, too — refused to walk, preferring to crawl and shuffle on my bottom.
Mum’s told me countless times about the day this picture was taken. There I was, shuffling across the burnt-orange carpet to Dad who was sitting crosslegged on the floor in the sitting room of our family home in East London. As normal, I went to settle on his lap, but on this occasion, Dad decided to try and get me to walk. ‘He hoisted you up by your chubby arms and placed your feet on the floor,’ Mum said. ‘Walk to Mummy!’ Dad said, laughing. And there, just like that, I took my first steps. Before I reached her, a family friend managed to grab their camera and take a picture, capturing in time this precious moment I’d cherish for many years to come.
After that, I was told my first words were ‘Ma’ and ‘Baba’ — a word for Dad in Bengali. Dad worked a lot, but occasionally on Fridays, he’d take me to work with him and sit me on his desk. I always felt so special. Only, when I turned four, my dad started staying home more and he stopped taking me with him to work. I was sent to nursery instead and I loved coming home to see Dad in the afternoons. My memories of that time are blurry, but he would be waiting at the door for me to come home – by now, he would always be using a metal frame to help him stand up.
I knew he was having trouble walking, but to me he was still just Dad. He’d smile and then make his way back to the sofa and Mum would lift me onto his lap. I didn’t understand why, but I also knew he couldn’t bend down to lift me up in his arms either. On my fifth birthday,
‘he made me feel so special’
I had a big party with cake, nibbles and presents. I can’t remember much else, except that by now Dad would sometimes use a chair that had wheels.
The following year, he did the same for my sixth birthday, but I knew things were different. Strange people would come over and help my dad stand up, talk or eat —I didn’t like them being there – why were they touching Baba?
Not long after my birthday, though, my dad ‘disappeared’. It was strange – the house still smelled of him, and his face was in photo frames, but he wasn’t in bed, or on the sofa any more. Familiar faces of family and friends came to see my mum to hug her and kiss her.
‘Where’s Baba?’ I said. ‘He’s in heaven,’ someone replied. I knew what heaven was, but how had Dad got there? I felt a huge sadness but couldn’t understand why. At school the next day, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, or sit with friends, so I sat silent in the corner.
Mum says that my bubbly, affectionate persona changed that day and I became shy, an introvert. Every day after school I’d expect Dad to be sitting in his favourite spot on the sofa — but he never was. He wasn’t even there at my seventh birthday party, or the next…
It wasn’t until I was 12, in secondary school, that it really hit me he was dead. ‘Does your dad help with your homework, like mine?’ someone asked. A lump rose in my throat, my breath caught in my chest — my dad was gone, forever. I cried until I had no tears left, and was sent home to be with Mum, who told me everything. ‘Your dad had an accident,’ she explained. In 1988, age 50, my dad had fallen over in a library and hit his head.
The fall led to a neurological disorder, which made him seem like he was drunk, the way he struggled walking. He had neurodegeneration, and within a year, he was paralysed from the waist down. The strangers in our house were Dad’s carers, who gave him physio and speech therapy. Sadly, the disorder eventually led to him dying in 1990 from a heart attack.
Mum, 39 when widowed, had to play both mum and dad — she was amazing but I never got over losing Dad. As I got older, I remained shy and didn’t progress to talking to boys. Instead, I worked hard to get into university to study psychology and criminology — just like Dad. I’d look at his photo every day. My graduation, aged 21, was hard without him, but Mum waved from the stands. And even when I finished my post-graduate degree in careers guidance two years later, him not being there didn’t get easier.
The hardest part was when I got engaged in December 2012. While my mum hugged me tight, I shed a tear for Dad. And, at my wedding the following July, a framed picture of him sat at the head table. ‘You would have liked him, Dad,’ I whispered about my new husband.
‘i’ve never got over Losing HIM’
I now run my own business as a careers happiness mentor, helping people build up confidence to ask for promotions, pay rises and to be a better version of themselves. I truly believe I wouldn’t be the strong woman I am today without memories of my dad. He’s missed my entire adult life, which does devastate me on my down days, but I think of how far I’ve come because of him. Plus, I’m very lucky my wonderful mum is around today to hold me tight and remind me of the good times we had together.
My dad was generous, warm and so loving. From that photo of him helping me to walk, I know he cherished being my dad and even though he’s not here, it’s like he’s holding my hand and helping to take those first important steps in life.
The moment Soma took her first steps, thanks to her dad, Sanat
Precious times: Soma, aged around four, with Sanat
Wonderful mum: Soma as a baby with Amala
Soma feels her dad is still with her, helping her on in life