By Megan McGill
Bucm Icaac (strength of heart)
In Omaha, Nebraska, David Dep stands in a room full of people. It’s full of his family and friends and the people closest to him. It’s not a happy occasion. The room is filled with tears, mourning and shock.
Everyone is distraught, everyone except David.
In a room of sadness and silence, David stands there much like a tin man. Expressionless and somewhere else, anywhere but here. He hugs his mother close and comforts those around him, masterfully masking the utter anguish that lives inside him
“I felt so out of place,” he said. “It was like I didn’t have a heart.”
But to claim that David doesn’t have a heart would be inaccurate. Maybe he is just better able to hide it than most.
If I could talk to you for a day.
I’m pretty sure I know what you would say …
Fast-forward five months and not much has changed. David finds himself in this same zombie-like condition he was in on that day.
“Emotionally, I’m numb. I can’t feel how I used to feel,” he said. “I am my father’s son.”
David’s father, David Dep Taw, used to tell David stories. He said over and over again that his son had a very important story to share. His life was not simple, but complicated in every sense of the word. It didn’t make a lot of sense back then, but his father’s message has started to come full circle lately.
“My father used to always tell me that I had a story. I had been through things that most people had never been through,” he said. “He would tell me that most kids in my situation couldn’t have done it. He said I could be their motivation and their inspiration to keep going.”
Here is his story.
Changkuoth David Dep was born to David Dep Taw and Sarah Duol. Both were from South Sudan, but because of the war they retreated to Ethiopia. This is where the two met. Sarah recalls spending the majority of her life in a refugee camp. Life in the camp wasn’t great, but it was the only life she knew.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “We had to rely on the United Nations to provide us with things like food and clothes.”
David Taw was a student in South Sudan and also enlisted in the army. The two met and eventually had a son, whom they named David. After hearing about the opportunity to come to the United States, Sarah knew they had to apply. A refugee camp in Ethiopia and war-torn Sudan was no place to raise a child.
They were safe, but life was far from good. She knew they had to leave. David Taw, Sarah and David left for the United States after waiting for a year and a half. Once they were accepted as refugees, they left immediately.
You would ask the usual questions.
How’s your mom and the kids?
How’s school and basketball?
Then ask if I was doing ok.
Well, we all miss you …
The three made it to the United States in 1995. David had just turned 1 year old. Their first stop was Minneapolis, Minnesota, but it was also the last time the three would ever be together as a family.
David learned very quickly not to get too close to places or people because he knew that leaving them behind was inevitable.
“I learned to never get attached to things because eventually they would be gone,” he said.
At only 22 years of age David has lived all across the country. From Minneapolis, Minnesota, to San Diego, California, to Las Vegas, Nevada, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to Omaha, Nebraska, to Superior, Nebraska, to Nashville, Tennessee, and to Grand Island, Nebraska.
This nomadic lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and David found out very quickly that it wasn’t for him.
“I didn’t like moving. I was always jealous of people who didn’t,” he said. “Most people had established relationships. I wish I had that.”
David attended 16 different schools growing up. He lived with his father for most of his childhood. At the time his dad was enrolled in school. He loved to travel and anytime he had to chance to move he did, bringing David along for the ride.
One day when David was very young, David Taw told Sarah that he was going to take their son to the doctor. Sarah said goodbye not realizing that it was goodbye for three years. Sarah and David Taw separated, and he had taken David.
“I was so young and naïve at the time,” she said. “I couldn’t speak English, and I didn’t have a job. I knew he was with his father, and that was probably for the best. He could provide for him better than I could.”
Sarah saw her son again in 1999 and a couple more times when he was young. At age 12, he lived with her in Nashville, but he often moved around to live with his father and other relatives.
And school and basketball are keeping me busy.
A lesson in itself,
monitoring the things I’ll always have with me …
I’m stronger because of the lessons you’ve taught me.
I didn’t get it then, but I do now …
During his sophomore year of high school, David’s father moved back to Africa where he remarried and had another son. David remembers the call he got shortly after his birth.
“You have a brother,” he told David. “What do you want to name him,” he asked?
It didn’t take David long to respond with “Michael.” Why Michael? It only made sense that his little brother be named after his basketball idol, Michael Jordan. Without any hesitation, his father agreed.
At the time, David Taw was off fighting in South Sudan. He returned to Lincoln, Nebraska, to watch his son graduate from Lincoln Northeast High School in 2012 and to also grab a diploma of his own after earning his master’s degree as well. Shortly after, he returned to Africa to fight.
David remembers his father’s loyalty to his education and to his country.
“That’s all he did, school and war,” he said.
David had always wondered about his little brother in Africa, but one day last year the wondering stopped the only way really bad things happen: abruptly.
David got a call from his father. He told his son bluntly and immediately, the only way he knew how to. Michael had been with his grandma when a soldier came and attacked them. He cut off his grandma’s hands and shot Michael. Michael died. He was only 5 years old.
Although David had never met his brother, he couldn’t help but experience a painful feeling in his gut. He couldn’t be attached to someone he had never met, but that didn’t make it any easier. It hurt worse knowing that he hadn’t had the chance to.
In situations like these, David turned to his first love: Basketball. He started playing when he was 5 years old and never stopped. It was the one thing that made sense in his life, and it was his best distraction.
You showed me to be there for others and to be a leader …
You weren’t only a general, a president,
a scholar, athlete and a preacher …
Real men don’t cry. In order to be strong, a man must never show weakness or vulnerability no matter the circumstances. This definition of strength was constantly verbalized to David. His father practiced what he preached. When times got tough, he got tougher and when times got worse, he got better. David remembers the statue of a man that was his father. Fear had never been in his eyes.
“He’s pretty tough,” David said. “He was really good at hiding his feelings. He always taught me to hold them in and be a man.”
However, beneath his father’s hard exterior was a kind soul, too. David remembers playing soccer in the house. He kicked the ball so hard that it broke a picture. His father came out and just laughed. He remembers that as president of the African Multi Community Center in Lincoln, his dad knew everyone and introduced him to so many different people.
“He had so much charisma,” David said. “He was just someone that people wanted to be around.”
Striving to be his father all his life, David hadn’t realized just how similar he was.
Sarah describes her son much the way she described his father.
“David gets along with everyone. The younger ones really look to him as a role model,” she said. “He’s intelligent, nice and quiet.”
But like everything in David’s life, things were bound to change. He knew better not to get too comfortable. Despite his efforts life always had a way of surprising him.
Last January, David received a call from his uncle. This time it was about his father. His uncle informed him that his dad had stepped on a landmine in Africa. He was in the hospital in Ethiopia, and it didn’t look good.
“I was shocked,” he said. “My dad was burned, and his leg was amputated.”
David Taw remained in the hospital for months. This time David wasn’t by his side, but worlds apart. The worst part of seeing the man he deemed as the strongest in the world crippled and wounded was not being able to see him at all.
Despite his physical condition, David Taw was not broken and he was certainly not weak. At least out loud, he showed no sign of fear. This familiar attitude was something David took comfort in.
“I felt helpless, but this is the stuff he’s been training me for. He is the toughest guy I know,” he said. “You would have never known he was hurt. He sounded fine.”
You were a man with a vision, a man who was for peace …
I find myself like you in many ways,
characteristics that I’m very thankful to be blessed with …
But he wasn’t fine.
David was always wondering about his dad in Africa, but on May 23 the wondering stopped, once again the only way bad things happen: abruptly.
David was hanging out at his best friend’s house when his phone rang. It was his uncle.
He asked him, “Are you with family?”
“No,” David replied. “Then go home to your family and call me back.”
This was not a normal response. He didn’t need to call his uncle back to figure out what was going on.
“I already knew it,” he said.
His best friend, Yassir Soumit, remembers seeing the look on his friend’s face when he dropped the phone.
“He had left the room to answer the call. When he hung up, he sat down and his eyes looked watery,” Yassir said. “At that moment I didn’t know what to say or do. I had never experienced anything like that before.”
David returned home to find his mom and aunts crying. In an instant, he assumed the role of protector. He hugged his mom close.
He didn’t shed a single tear, remembering his father’s words.
At that point David knew acceptance was the only answer.
“It’s in God’s hands now,” he said.
Because of you, I know my culture.
Because of you, I have a better life …
Change is good, but to David it was good only in moderation. Everything around him was constantly changing. Consistency was never consistent in his life.
Looking back there was only one thing that never changed. One thing that has stayed the same no matter where he went. Basketball is more than a game to the 6-foot-7-inch senior at Our Lady of Lake College in San Antonio, Texas. It is perhaps the only thing keeping him sane.
“It is my release. Every time something isn’t going right I go out and shoot,” he said. “It’s the only thing that is constant. You can pick up a ball and find a hoop anywhere.”
Basketball along with poetry and the piano have acted as David’s outlets throughout the years. When change is inevitable he turns to them rather than to those around him.
Thank you …
Sarah and Yassir recognize the strength of the tin man that stands before the crowd at his father’s memorial service in Omaha.
“He tries to hide it. But he knows we’re always here for him,” Yassir said.
Sarah tries to see through her blurry eyes and looks at her son, who stands tall and tearless. She finds comfort in the fact that David will be returning to Lincoln for school next fall.
“He doesn’t say it, but as his mother I know it isn’t easy on him,” she said. “They were always together.”
To say that David Dep doesn’t have a heart would be inaccurate. He can feel. He knows the sting of pain all too well but appreciates the moments of stability and peace even more.
Why? One word forms one of the most daunting questions that sits in the back of David’s mind. One that he revisits weekly and one he will never know the answer to. Why?
But he quickly remembers his dad and that change is inevitable, but that strength is a choice.
“Without struggle life wouldn’t be near as fun,” he said. “That’s the beauty in it. I know I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without it. I think this is how it was meant to be.”
David’s dad was right. David hadn’t had a life like most his age, but what he did have was a story worth telling.