Remembering Osita Ike: Life’s unfinished businesses
Prior to moving to Lagos in 1987 to take up employment as a staff writer with the Punch Newspapers, I knew only one person in the Lagos journalism world. But soon I met other people and many have remained friends. One of those earliest connections was Osita Ike whom I met at a children’s health event sponsored by UNESCO (or perhaps it was UNICEF). We shared a love for poetry: he was a published poet while I played at writing poetry. It was later that I learned that he was the son of Professor Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, the acclaimed and much-beloved author of Toads for Supper (among other novels).
As folks around me know, I have a knee-buckling weakness for dimples. As babies, my children suffered from constant pokes on their cheeks in my futility to create dimples that God “forgot.” Obviously, God used up all his dimples raw materials on Osita because he had the deepest and longest of dimples … and a smile to complement them.
Over the months, we ran into each other at different events and I got to know more about him beyond the dimples and ever-ready smiles. I found his humility and humanity quite astounding, especially for an only child of famous parents. Osita didn’t act privileged or entitled. If anything, his concern for people who were not as privileged was remarkable, demonstrating a good upbringing of care and compassion.
Years went by and we gradually lost touch, reconnecting about a couple of years ago on Facebook. Even then, our interaction was mostly in the “likes” and comments that we left on each other’s posts. However, when I was in Nigeria last year, I called him and we spoke for the first time in more than 20 years. He was in Lagos and it would have been a great opportunity to catch up but I was in Benin. I promised to visit him and his family, and finally get to meet his parents, Professors Chukwuemeka and Adebimpe Ike, two people I have admired from a distance over the years. I once saw Osita’s Dad at the airport during one of my visits. I was too shy (uncharacteristic of me) to go up and introduce myself. I was simply content to “worship from afar.”
My phone conversation with Osita occurred toward the end of my time in Nigeria. I promised to visit the next time I was in the country. I even practised how to say, “Igweee!” when I came face to face with his father, the Ikelionwu XI of Ndikelionwu in Anambra State.
Only recently, I thought about Prof. Ike and vowed to make the trip to Ndikelionwu even if it was the only thing I do during my next visit to Nigeria. I didn’t want to wake up one morning and hear that the “Minister” has gone to meet his ancestors. The “Minister” has been my nickname for Prof. Ike after I titled my first novel, “The Minister’s Son.” The main character was based on Osita and everything that I liked about him: the dimples (of course), his nice-ness and his concern for Nigerian children, the platform on which I first met him. For years, I have dreamed of taking the finished novel to the “Minister” and his “Son.”
The manuscript, handwritten on newspaper offprint, lies abandoned somewhere in the back of my closet here in Arizona. About 28 years have gone by since I started writing the novel, scraps of which have followed me everywhere. Indeed, after I spoke with Osita last year, I felt a renewed urgency to finally complete the book, tighten the storyline and give it a happier ending. I was determined to write it while the “Minister” is still on this side of Heaven. Osita, born about six months before me, would always be here, I believed.
On December 19, 2016, while waiting in a hospital cafeteria for news of the outcome of my husband’s surgery, I browsed absent-mindedly through Facebook. Suddenly and painfully, I got hit in the guts. Osita, it seemed (because I still couldn’t believe the news) passed away some 48 hours earlier after an asthma attack.
Between 2006 and 2010, there was a “harvest of deaths” in my family and I myself almost died, thrust as I was into the depths of depression. At the beginning of 2011, I managed to drag myself back from the cliff, and determined that death and the news of death would no longer have a hold on me. When my five-month-old granddaughter died in 2014, I was nearly dragged back down the abyss but the saving grace was the impulse to be strong for my daughter, the bereaved mother.
As news of Osita’s passing sank in, I kept telling myself, “You can’t go down on this one.” It was easier said than done because I spent the night tossing and turning and muttering the name, Osita, as if trying to conjure him back to life, or make myself come to grips with the tragic reality. I also worried for my sister, Udeme, a close friend of the Ike family. She lives outside Nigeria and does not frequent Facebook but could she have heard?
She is asthmatic and wasn’t doing too well the weekend Osita passed. Was it the news that brought on her own attack? We have communicated many times in the last one week but Osita’s name has not come up. Perhaps we are both being careful not to be the bearer of bad news.
In 2011, I finally accepted the reality that we will all die. That freed me from the fear and power of death. Still, some deaths are hard to take. Osita’s is probably the hardest because my grief is compounded by regret: “The Minister’s Son” remained an unfinished business and Osita will never read it; I didn’t follow up on my promise to visit him and his family the three “next times” I was in Nigeria. The grief is also accentuated by the tragedy of parents mourning the passing of their only child in a season when men and women of goodwill (like they are) were celebrating the birth of God’s only Son. Only a poet like Prince Osita Ike would understand these contradictions and tragic twists of fate.
If there is at all a silver lining in this tragedy, it is that the Ikes have raised many social and intellectual children in and outside Nigeria. It is time they and all of us who called Osita a friend stood up to ensure that The Oyster lives on by continuing his legacy of care and compassion for humanity.
Prof. Akpan-Obong writes from Arizona, USA.