Some of my most vivid memories of my father are those of him watching the presidential debates, listening intently to NPR in the mornings, consulting me for sizes when ordering candidate T-shirts, explaining contentious issues to me across the dinner table. Though he raised me, we didn’t have a lot in common, a 49 year old man and a 17 year old girl. But we found our commonality on the political floor. It was there that I was my father’s daughter, so aware of what was happening in the world because he took it upon himself to make me an informed, global citizen from the first day I started elementary school, when he began quizzing me on state capitals on the drive up.
I was young, but I have one of those flashbulb memories of watching the Kerry-Bush debate with him, the way that the camera panned across the audience and back to John Kerry’s face. I remember my father’s interjections as they spoke, and I remember the day he told me that his candidate had been defeated. I didn’t feel a sense of loss then, only a curiosity that one could lose at this political game. There was a big mass of land, cut into sections, and men with fair skin and grey hair fought over them—that was what I knew then. I remember sometime before Obama announced he would run for President, my father holding up his second book, The Audacity of Hope, in our living room and telling my mother that he thought this man might run for President. I remember blinking, because he didn’t look like what I thought a President was supposed to look like. But I remember how thrilled and excited my father was when he did run—this young man who was about his age, and whose skin color was not so far different from his own.
My father was a software engineer who should have been a politician, a people’s person who cared about the welfare of communities and the extermination of corruption. He probably would have been one, had that been a viable career option for a middle class student in India, or had he been of the same skin color as all the leaders that line the hallways of the White House. I am certain it meant a lot to him, that someone who looked more like him than the white men that seemed to grip this country sat in the highest office of the land. I remember his energy, his unbridled enthusiasm during the campaign, the “Yes We Can” magnets and hats, the “Obama 2008” T-shirts in multiple sizes, the silent watching and post-analysis of the rallies and interviews and debates. I couldn’t help but feel it too, as we watched him take the stage at the DNC, that contagious energy, that personal stake in all of it. When Obama won in 2008, I remember that it mattered to me. I remember the nervousness before the victory, the vindication when my father came into my bedroom the next morning, a broad smile on his proud face as he informed me that the man we had believed in had done it.
My father’s happiness bred my delight, and we spent those next eight years of my life, my formative, teenage years, watching our President grow as well. We admired his stance on marriage equality, we argued about his positions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and through it all, I became an intelligent consumer of news and an equal peer to my father. In the Obama years, we found an unshakable common ground, and it was inextricably tied to the man who had inspired in my father the enthusiasm that inspired me. When he was away on business and called, we would talk about the headlines, which were not often without mention of our President. When he drove me to school in the mornings, NPR often directed our discussions, again rarely without mention of President Obama. It was the three of us, sometimes, riding to school in that white Lexus—me, my father, and the President.
When my father began his involvement in the Indian political process, Obama was his guide. He was still the same believer in that grassroots, “yes-we-can” mentality, and it drove his vision of a corruption-free political system in India. I watched him work to energize people, often sitting in the back of auditoriums in college campuses where he went to talk to students, energizing and electrifying them the way Obama had done in 2008. He was not the kind of father that could talk to me about boys, or school plays, or dances, but we could plan to race home early to watch the State of the Union together on January evenings, and in the pauses between our President’s words, feel our shared comradeship.
When my father died, in September of 2016, when I was seventeen years old, one of the greatest oddities that had struck me about the fact that he was no longer around was that he would never know the outcome of the election. Of everything I would miss about him—those rides to school, those frenzied discussions about the state of this-or-that in this country—that had seemed the worst of it. That somehow the man who had believed in Obama the most would not know how his chapter ended. In the months leading up to his death, he had been traveling for work, and whenever we spoke, despite the fact that our lives existed oceans away, we always found common ground in the election. He would ask me if his order from the Bernie campaign had shipped yet—two T-shirts, one for me and one for him—and if I had seen the latest debate, what I thought of it. In the months after his death, I watched the news obsessively, some combination of CNN and MSNBC and The Daily Show, his regular networks, because somehow the discussions that happened in those TV studios made me feel closer to him. Often times I would turn to him to scoff at something someone had said, discuss my incredulity, but of course he wasn’t there. That was painful, but it would have been more painful still to avoid that world altogether—it was as much a part of me now as it had been of him.
And when I watched Obama say goodbye to the nation on January 10th, my reaction was more than sad. It was deeply emotional, visceral. Because he was more than just a national leader to me, he was the first time I saw my father as more than my caretaker, as a man with hopes and dreams and steadfast beliefs. Obama was a great achievement for people of color everywhere, one that I, so young, could take for granted but whose power I saw in my father’s eyes. I will miss that—looking to the highest office in the land and seeing a man that my father could believe in, did believe in. It was a reassurance that no matter what happened, no matter who was so cruelly ripped away from me, there was someone at the helm of this great ship whose grip was steady and honorable. In believing in Barack Obama, I met the man behind my father, a complex dreamer and believer, and his goodbye on January 10th meant officially saying goodbye to eight beautiful, shrouded, nostalgic years of a father-daughter relationship that would have been far different without the common bond of Obama’s America. For that I am forever grateful.