After my dad died, I found out he had a secret life
‘That’s young to die,’ people would tell me after my dad passed away from prostate cancer, aged 64.
They were half right.
Just days after my dad’s death in April 2011, I discovered he wasn’t actually 64 at all – but 75. He’d been lying about his age since before I was born.
Except, the secrets didn’t end there.
While sorting through his belongings in the weeks after he died, I discovered much more that left me thinking – who really was this man who raised me? And what else was he hiding?
My dad was born in Ghana and came to the UK as a young man to study. A keen student and hard worker, he joined an organisation in the 80s that aimed to address racial discrimination and promote racial equality – and worked his way up.
He met my mum in the late 80s and then after that they had me. We lived in Wolverhampton until my parents separated when I went to secondary school.
During this time, Dad told me that he was one of 13 siblings, but he never talked about his family. He never told me their names, or showed me pictures. He didn’t tell me what Ghana was like.
It was a part of his life that I didn’t ask about as it always seemed like something he was reluctant to discuss.
Looking back, it’s hard to know if he didn’t want to talk about these things because he was actually trying to hide something.
Dad was first diagnosed with cancer when I was a teenager. It was a scary time, but the treatment he received was successful, and he recovered.
Unfortunately, the cancer came back in 2010, but he didn’t tell me until Christmastime, by which point he was really sick. He went into hospital on Christmas Eve and he never came out again. He died on 8 April 2011.
I felt completely shell shocked – even though I knew he was terminally ill, nothing can prepare you for losing a parent. It was a difficult time but I kept myself busy by organising the funeral and getting his estate in order.
While I was going through the papers in his room, I noticed Dad’s Ghanaian passport.
It said he was born in 1936 – not 1947, which he told us.
When I first read it, I thought it must have been a mistake. But the more I thought about it, it made sense. He’d always looked old for his age, and been secretive about his past.
I remember the shock as it started to sink in, which quickly turned into anger… But then it almost became funny thinking about how he’d kept so much of himself hidden the whole time he was alive, and within days of him dying, the real him started to emerge.
I called my mum to tell her what I’d found out – she had no idea either. They hadn’t been together for a long time, but I think it was still a shock to her.
After that, I spoke to his former employers and it turned out they’d discovered the truth themselves only a few years earlier and had forced him to retire, as he was well above retirement age by then.
I also discovered a marriage certificate to a woman named Irene who he’d wed in 1974 in Birmingham – 13 years before he met my mum. But with only her name and age on the certificate to go on, tracking her down felt like an almost impossible task.
Dad and Irene must’ve never divorced, so they were likely still married until he died. He never married my mum – this explained why.
I also found a box under my dad’s bed, which was full of photos, letters and mementos of his family back in Ghana.
I’d always thought that maybe he’d lost contact with them, but the letters and photos showed a different story. He’d stayed in touch with some of them, and clearly had fond memories of his family, too.
Confused, disappointed, angry – I had so many questions, but nobody to ask: Who really was my dad? And why had he kept so much of his life a secret from me?
I got on with my life – working in the music industry as a singer in London – and put all those feelings and unanswered questions about my dad to the back of my mind. I sat on these discoveries for many years.
Then in 2020, Covid-19 hit. With no way of working, I decided to use my spare time to look back at Dad’s life – retracing his footsteps from Ghana to the UK, and try and find out why he kept so much about his life hidden.
Using Google and genealogy sites, I was able to connect with people from his life – old school friends from when Dad first came to the UK, work colleagues, people from his hometown of Kyebi, Nsuta, and eventually it led me to the Ghanaian family I’d been searching for.
In September 2020, I found a cousin, Edward, the son of one of my dad’s brothers. He’d been living in London for decades and had a family of his own. They welcomed me into their home and told me all about the family.
Sadly, it turned out that all 12 of Dad’s siblings had died, which was really disappointing. I’d wanted to meet my uncles and aunties, speak to someone who’d known Dad when he was a kid to get more of an idea of what life had been like for him back in Ghana.
But it wasn’t to be.
Edward told me that he and Dad had met up occasionally when Dad was in London for work, and he’d even talked about me to Edward as well. I thought about how easy it would have been for Dad to have brought me along to meet Edward – but I guess it was less complicated for him to keep those parts of his life separate. It was a real shock for him to find out that Dad had passed away.
Sadly, I uncovered nothing about Irene.
This January – after years of looking for answers – I decided to go to Ghana for the first time.
Edward’s older brother John, who lives in Ghana, helped organise my trip and put me in touch with relatives in the capital, Accra. He also arranged for me to go to Dad’s hometown so that I could see where he came from and meet some of the people he’d grown up with for the first time.
I stayed with my cousin Elizabeth, her husband and their daughter. They initially taught me some basic words and phrases in the Akan dialect, Twi, as well as how to make fufu – one of my favourite traditional Ghanaian dishes.
The things that had shocked me about Dad – lying about his age, being secretly married, not talking about the family to me – weren’t really of interest to the family. They were much more interested in the present, and getting to know me.
I also went to the room in the village where my dad was born and took part in a ceremony in his honour with all the elders and chiefs of the area. There was music, dancing, crying – it was an incredible experience and an important way for me to honour my dad.
‘Welcome home,’ everyone kept saying. They even made me a sub-chief of the village as Dad would have been considered local royalty if he’d gone back. They dressed me up in traditional clothing and had a ceremony to celebrate the occasion.
I felt a sense of belonging and a connection to these people. But I also felt closer to my dad.
Over time I’ve come to appreciate that there’s a big cultural difference between British expectations and values and those of many African countries.
The things about Dad’s life which he kept hidden – and felt like a real betrayal to me – have come across as pretty unremarkable to many of the Ghanaian and other African people I’ve spoken to about it.
So, I think for Dad in some ways the secrets wouldn’t have felt like a big deal to him.
With his family and Ghana, I think maybe he had just moved on from them and that part of his life, and didn’t feel like it was that important for him to let me know about it. Even if it might have been important to me.
Maybe if I’d asked more questions, he would have said more. But I guess at this stage I’ll never know.
Still, after all those years of being confused, angry and let down by the things Dad chose to keep hidden from me, I finally feel some closure.
By looking back at his life and connecting with his family – my family – I got to know him all over again, in a more honest way.
The roots that Dad kept hidden had been unearthed and, with it, I’ve been able to let go of all those negative feelings and accept him for the person he was.
It’s taken a long time to get to this point but it’s all been worth it. I can’t wait to get back out to Ghana – something I hope to do later this year so that I can take Dad’s ashes back to Kyebi, Nsuta so that he can be buried with his siblings.
I’ve lost the dad I thought I knew, in a way, but gained a new respect and understanding of him – as well as a new family along the way.
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