Layers of loss, Chimamanda writes on father’s death
From England, my brother set up the Zoom calls every Sunday, our boisterous lockdown ritual, two siblings joining from Lagos, three from the United States, and my parents, sometimes echoing and crackly, from Abba, our ancestral home town, in southeastern Nigeria.
On June 7th, there was my father, only his forehead on the screen, as usual, because he never quite knew how to hold his phone during video calls.
“Move your phone a bit, Daddy,” one of us would say. My father was teasing my brother Okey about a new nickname, then he was saying that he hadn’t had dinner because they’d had a late lunch, then he was talking about the billionaire from the next town who wanted to claim our village’s ancestral land. He felt a bit unwell, had been sleeping poorly, but we were not to worry.
On June 8, Okey went to Abba to see him and said that he looked tired. On June 9, I kept our chat brief so that he could rest. He laughed quietly when I did my usual playful imitation of a relative. “Ka chi fo,” he said (“Good night”). His last words to me. On June 10, he was gone. My brother Chuks called to tell me, and I came undone.
My four-year-old daughter says I scared her. She gets down on her knees to demonstrate, her small clenched fist rising and falling, and her mimicry makes me see myself as I was, utterly unravelling, screaming and pounding the floor. The news is like a vicious uprooting. I have yanked away from the world I have known since childhood. And I am resistant: my father read the newspaper that afternoon; he joked with Okey about shaving before his appointment with the kidney specialist in Onitsha the next day; he discussed his hospital test results on the phone with my sister Ijeoma, who is a doctor, and so how can this be? But there he is. Okey is holding a phone over my father’s face, and my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose. Our Zoom call is beyond surreal, all of us weeping and weeping and weeping, in different parts of the world, looking in disbelief at the father we adore now lying still on a hospital bed. It happened a few minutes before midnight, Nigerian time, with Okey by his side and Chuks on speakerphone. I stare and stare at my father. My breathing is difficult. Is this what shock means, that the air turns to glue? My sister Uche says that she has just told a family friend by text, and I almost scream, “No! Don’t tell anyone, because if we tell people, then it becomes true.” My husband is saying, “Breathe slowly; drink some of this water.” My housecoat, my lockdown staple, is lying crumpled on the floor. Later, my brother Kene will jokingly say, “You better not get any shocking news in public, since you react to shock by tearing off your clothes.”
Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language, and the grasping for language. Why are my sides so sore and achy? It’s from crying, I’m told. I did not know that we cry with our muscles. The pain is not surprising, but its physicality is, my tongue unbearably bitter, as though I ate a loathed meal and forgot to clean my teeth, on my chest a heavy, awful weight, and inside my body a sensation of eternal dissolving. My heart—my actual physical heart, nothing figurative here—is running away from me, has become its own separate thing, beating too fast, its rhythms at odds with mine. This is an affliction not merely of the spirit but of the body. Flesh, muscles, organs are all compromised. No physical position is comfortable. For weeks, my stomach is in turmoil, tense and tight with foreboding, the ever-present certainty that somebody else will die, that more will be lost. One morning, Okey calls me a little earlier than usual, and I think, Just tell me, tell me immediately, who has died now. Is it Mummy?
Because I loved my father so much, so fiercely, so tenderly, I always at the back of my mind feared this day. But lulled by his relatively good health, I thought we had time. I thought it was not yet time. “I was so sure Daddy was nineties material,” my brother Kene says. We all did. But did I sense a truth that I also fully denied? Did my spirit know, the way anxiety sat sharply like claws in my stomach once I heard that he was unwell, the hovering, darkening pall that I could neither name nor shake off? I am the Family Worrier, but even for me it was extreme, how desperately I wished that Nigerian airports were open so I could get on a flight to Lagos, and then on a flight to Asaba and drive the hour to my hometown to see my father for myself. So I knew. I was so close to my father that I knew, without wanting to know, without fully knowing that I knew. A thing like this, dreaded for so long, comes at last, and among the avalanche of emotions, there is a bitter and unbearable relief. It comes as a form of aggression, this relief, bringing with it strangely pugnacious thoughts. Enemies beware: the worst has happened; my father is gone; my madness will now bare itself.
There is value in that Igbo way, that African way, of grappling with grief, the performative, expressive outward mourning, where you take every call and you tell and retell the story of what happened, where isolation is anathema and “stop crying” a refrain. But I am not ready. I talk only to my closest family. It is instinctive, my recoiling. I imagine the bewilderment of some relatives, their disapproval even. At first, it is a protective stance, but later it is because I want to sit alone with my grief.
I last saw my father in person on March 5, just before the coronavirus changed the world. Okey and I went from Lagos to Abba. “Don’t tell anyone I’m coming,” I told my parents, to ward off visitors. “I just want a long weekend of bonding with you two.”
The photos from that visit make me weep. In the selfies, we took just before Okey and I left, my father is smiling and then laughing because Okey and I are being goofy. I had no idea. I planned to be back in May for a longer visit so that we could finally record some of the stories he had told me over the years about his grandmother, his father, his childhood. He would finally show me where his grandmother’s sacred tree had stood. I had not known this part of Igbo cosmology—that some people believed that a special tree, called an ogbu chi, was the repository of their chi, their personal spirit. My father’s father was kidnapped in his youth by relatives and taken to be sold to Aro slave traders, but they rejected him because of a large sore on his leg (he walked, my father said, with a slight limp), and, when he returned home, his mother looked and saw that it was him, and, crying and screaming, she ran to her tree to touch it, to thank her chi for saving her son.
My father’s past is familiar to me because of stories told and retold, and yet I always planned to document them better, to record him speaking. I kept planning to, thinking we had time. “We will do it next time, Daddy,” I’d say, and he would say, “O.K. Next time.” There is a sensation that is frightening, of a receding, of an ancestry slipping away, but at least I am left with enough for myth, if not memory.
I am writing about my father in the past tense, and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.
• Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a world renowned writer who has published three novels, including Americanah,which is being made into a television series.
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