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Capturing the parent-child bond through music

When Luther Vandross released Dance with My Father in May 2003, he was hospitalized, recovering from a stroke. Despite his condition and minimal promotion, the song quickly became one of the most requested tracks of the time. Its profound emotional impact resonated widely, earning Vandross accolades for Song of the Year and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance at the 2004 Grammy Awards.

Vandross was just eight years old when his father passed away. Dance with My Father is a poignant reflection on his deep longing to relive cherished memories with his late father. The song evokes the singer’s childhood, recalling moments of joy and love when his father would dance with him and his mother. Through his lyrics, Vandross expresses a profound sense of loss and an enduring wish to have one more opportunity to dance with his father, capturing themes of love, memory, and the lasting impact of a parent-child relationship.

This song resonates deeply with me, as it likely does with anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one. However, my own experience is quite different. Growing up, I never danced with my dad. That’s not how a typical African man expresses love. In fact, my dad would have likely chided me for wasting time dancing instead of focusing on my studies. Yet, together with my mom, he showered my siblings and me with unconditional love.

For me, if I could ask God for anything, it would be to bring back my parents and give me even a single opportunity to show my love and appreciation for their sacrifices. I long to offer them the little luxuries they denied themselves so we could have a better life. This desire is a sentiment I hold deeply and cherish profoundly.

In the intricate web of human relationships, the bond between parents and their children stands as one of the most fundamental and enduring connections. This bond, often perceived through the prism of love and affection, can also be interpreted as an unwritten social contract—a mutual agreement of care and responsibility that transcends generations.

Parents are tasked with the profound responsibility of providing for and nurturing their children by the very nature of their role. Driven by an intrinsic sense of duty and love, many parents go above and beyond, sacrificing personal comfort to ensure their children can advance in life. In return, there exists an implicit expectation that children will care for their parents in their twilight years, ensuring they are not left isolated and unsupported as they navigate the vulnerabilities of old age.

As a physician practicing in America, I have had the poignant and often heartrending experience of witnessing elderly patients on their deathbeds, forsaken by the very children to whom they devoted their lives. These moments of solitude and abandonment underscore a glaring issue within the fabric of modern Western society—a society that frequently prioritizes individualism over communal responsibility. It is a tragic irony that those who once provided unwavering support to their offspring find themselves deserted at the most critical juncture of their lives.

Contrasting this with my upbringing in Nigeria, a country deeply rooted in the principles of Ubuntu—which translates to “I am because we are”—highlights the stark differences in how societies approach familial responsibilities. In many African cultures, the concept of communal living is not merely a social norm but a way of life. The notion that one’s identity and existence are interconnected with others fosters a culture of mutual support and care that extends beyond immediate family to encompass extended relatives and even community members.

In Nigeria and much of Africa, the duty to care for one’s parents is woven into the social fabric. It is uncommon to find elderly individuals abandoned by their children. This is not merely a cultural practice but a moral imperative that ensures the elderly are cared for and respected. The community plays a pivotal role in reinforcing these values, ensuring that the cycle of care and responsibility continues across generations.

One reason strong familial bonds persist in African societies could be the limited role of government in individuals’ lives. In many African countries, social welfare systems are either weak or non-existent. This lack of governmental support places the onus of care squarely on the family. Consequently, the success or failure of individuals often hinges on the support they receive from their families.

In contrast, many Western societies have well-developed social safety nets that can, to some extent, replace the familial support structure. While this can provide a measure of security for the elderly, it can also inadvertently weaken the sense of obligation that children feel towards their parents. The availability of nursing homes and elder care facilities, while beneficial in many respects, can also contribute to the notion that caring for the elderly is a responsibility that can be outsourced.

Caring for parents should not be seen as a burden but as a privilege and a moral duty. It is an opportunity to repay the love and sacrifices made by parents and to ensure that they live their final years with dignity and comfort. This reciprocal relationship is the essence of the unwritten social contract that binds generations together.

The unwritten social contract between parents and children is a profound and enduring aspect of human relationships. While parents are expected to provide and care for their children, it is equally important for children to honor their parents in their old age. This mutual exchange of care and responsibility is essential for the well-being of individuals and the cohesion of societies.

Osmund Agbo is a pulmonary physician.

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