TW: Death by firearms
This week, on another inescapable anniversary, I realise I have spent more of my life without my father than I have lived with him. I want to say that this, the reminder of his death, does not hurt as much as it did all those years ago. That I have healed and moved on. But “time heals all wounds” is a disingenuous lie. It is how we, as a society, obfuscate the fact that some wounds do not heal. They grow, they evolve; you adapt. Becoming part of the fabric of your life, they embed like a mole. Silent; sinister. Caked over, invisible to all but those who have known you at your most vulnerable. Aching at unexpected times, in the most debilitating ways, like cramps from IUCDs that doctors are quick to assure women will eventually pass.
I guess there will never be an appropriate age to lose a beloved parent. But so early on, one does not fathom how profoundly such a loss shapes a life. I learnt of my father’s passing when I returned home, high off completing my first set of exams as an undergraduate. By then, the most tangible physical evidence of his existence was already buried – in Muslim tradition – six feet in the dirt. Unwilling to make my bereavement a spectator sport, that night, I fought for solitude. Thankfully, none of the myriad of family members crowding our house was brave enough, or cared enough, to follow me into his bedroom. I sank on the floor and relived our last conversation on a loop.
“Abeg, do nah! We sef wan use phone o.”
I’d studiously ignored voices from the irate queue behind me at the NITEL phone center, as I blithely swapped one call card for another. My newly adopted people-pleasing persona fell away in the face of our long established father-daughter bond. Daddy was leaving for a business trip to Bauchi the next day, and we wouldn’t get to talk until we were both back home. No one was rushing me off this phone.
That night, I replayed his words, spoken into my ears through a mass of interconnected phone lines. Over and over, until they rang out like the Celine Dion song that still reminds me of him, even now. All the while, I was building my blocks of irrational hope. He wasn’t even supposed to be home yet. Maybe there was a mistake. There had to be a mistake!
Twenty-four years later, I still have the occasional rogue fantasy of my father resurfacing. Sometimes, his face and body show the ravage of time past. Other times, he’s exactly as I remember him, exactly like his portrait occupying the place of honour in the house Mummy built thirteen years after his death. He’d wrap me in the cocoon of his bear hug, the last place I felt unassailably safe, assuring me that this has been a giant mistake. Of course, he’d never leave me. He would always be here for me. Didn’t I know that by now?
And here is where the dreams veer into suspended disbelief. Dream-Daddy is talking to the girl he raised, Aya Baba e. The Daddy’s Little Girl his love bolstered into thinking she could be or have whatever, as long as she worked at it long and hard enough. I haven’t been that girl in a long, long time. And life is so thorough a teacher that I wonder, sometimes, if she, too, is a figment of my overactive imagination.
Maybe Daddy is the illusion; forged of a teenager’s loss and a young woman’s disenchantment. After all, he did not feature in the many of life’s milestones we’d planned out – in elaborate details of ridiculousness. There were no outrageous garbs worn on the occasion of my graduation, or photographers to “yami tika tika, omo mi lomi gradu-e!” No irrational demands of idobale were made to the groom on my wedding day, and no one insisted he “prove he realises the gem he’s marrying!” There were no attempts at cardiology in the evolution of my medical career, no one to show off “my daughter, the cardiologist!”
When fantasy pulls at me, my rational mind, honed into cynicism from growing into adulthood without my raison d’etat, reins me in, guides me away from the cliff edge of delusion.
There were witnesses, it reminds me. And I remember.
That my mother and siblings lived through the horror of that night, when neighbourhood-kids-turned-burglars stormed our house for the third time in as many months. That my family is still haunted by the sound of that single, cowardly gunshot ringing out as the intruders took to their heels. Little boys with the false courage of firearms were no match for the frustration of a man determined to protect his family from the landmines of 1990’s Nigerian socio-political milieu, by a four-to-one fist fight if necessary.
That my sister, till date, lives with the dubious distinction of being the one to stumble upon the rock of our family where he laid. Daddy was felled by a tiny metal discharged into his already overtaxed, hypertensive-before-forty heart. On occasion, she and I trade self-disparaging stories of panic attacks brought on by the sound of fire-arms. Most recently, mine was during the COVID-19 lockdown when awon boys terrorised a residential estate close to our Mum’s, where I was bunkered down to wait out the travel ban. Hers, during the #EndSars protests when the Nigerian security forces did the same to her Lekki locale.
No, there is no escaping the reality of our father’s death, no shaking the weight of the attendant grief. It occupies, like every meandering river, the winding terrain of my family’s collective lives. At times eerily quiescent, too many times turbulent with an unexpected air of violence. We, the survivors unmoored by the boat fashioned to keep us buoyant, cling to each other or allow the tides to push us momentarily apart; paddling furiously to avoid drowning in the tumultuousness, or drifting through life in snatches of forgetfulness.
There were times when I doubted we’d make it. There are still times when I question how we did, if we have. How, against all odds, we did not drown during those darkest, early years. Especially after life-rafts of help and continued support promised in touching speeches by the extended family at Daddy’s burial, at the eighth-day, then fortieth-day fidau, proved as absent or inadequate as those of the Titanic.
Ti baba ba kú, baba ni’n kù. Don’t worry, we will be as fathers to you. Heavy proverbs that carried only the weight of the breaths they were uttered on.
Somehow, though, we made it through. Armed with one another, with denial and our individual distractions of choice, and with a plethora of inappropriate, inside-jokes about dying and dead parents. Were we from a culture that invested in mental health, where therapy and grief counselling were things people do, I wonder how many more of our present ‘issues’ would lead back, like the proverbial foisted bastard child dismantling a legacy, to Daddy’s death. Our unquestioning loyalty to each other, while keeping outsiders at a distrustful distance? The unrelenting drive to achieve; to be and to do whatever, early enough – because who knows how long anyone had? The semi-detached attachment style to anything and everyone, because Daddy died at forty-five! is a potent reminder of how ephemeral this duniya is.
Three years after my father died, I married a man who did not prostrate to another human, in a simple ceremony Daddy would never have agreed to. Years later, I chose not to walk the stage at my graduation, attending the event as a guest, cheering for my then-best friend. No one from my family was there; I hadn’t informed them. For a career, I dove into obstetrics and gynecology with a heedlessness I’ve since come to decry. I still hate cardiology and cardiologists, inexplicably, for all I am stuck with them; I inherited my father’s weak heart.
On days I can look back and smile, I am able to bask in the privilege of having been loved: vocally, actionably, unconditionally. In the surety of having survived the worst thing my younger mind could never have envisaged, and still be here. On those days, I have Daddy tales. A thousand and one stories of the colossus who sired me.
I regale my kids, now approaching the age of my loss, with anecdotes. Our adventures of crashing owambe weddings; Daddy and I dressed in incongruous matching garments of agbada or buba, paired with blue jeans – our fila worn at just the exact rakish angle over our left brows. My kids sport identical expressions of puzzled incredulity when I recount the mischievousness of accompanying him to business dinners as a teen, watching leery old men try to decipher if he was my “sugar-daddy.” I do not begrudge the kids their disbelief. All they’ve ever known of me is Mum – perpetually overworked, sometimes cranky, somewhat cynical.
During the rare virtual family gatherings spanning the many continents we have dispersed to escape the Nigeria of our trauma, I can almost imagine myself in the past, shrouded by memories. My siblings and I fall down the rabbit hole of remembrance, trading Venn diagrams of a history that overlap only in segments. We recollect individual anecdotes of heartwarming moments of affirmation with our Dad, ignoring his first son’s less favourable evocation. We enjoy belly-clutching laughter at Daddy’s many antics; our father never had a problem laughing at himself. Goofing off at home, holding court in any gathering, or delivering a (hopefully) well-deserved put down, Daddy could always take a joke, eliciting laughter at volumes that never matched his.
With loquaciousness proportional to our increasing age and memory store, we who are oldest invariably turn to marvel at the uncanny proof of nature vs. nurture displayed in the brother who most resembled our father. Six foot plus of heavy-set muscles, twinkling eyes, and a characteristic rolling guffaws of laughter; my brother is our father’s doppelganger. This is a poorly-masked sore spot of his. His twelve-year old self never quite forgave the father who died before he could grow into an understanding of their masculine interaction.
The youngest two siblings, just six and nine at Zero Hour, contribute the least to these emotional séances. I can never decide if I envy or pity them.
On the few occasions she indulges, my mother’s recollections are far more sombre. Unfurling in measured paces, hers is the lived experience of a woman who loved a great man. Mona Lisa’s smile firmly in place, her tongue utters only the eternal gratitude of a Yoruba wife. I will come to appreciate her womanly reticence after earning a few relationship scars of my own.
Trapped in the echoes of her empty nest, the world being ravaged by the panic of a pandemic that stranded me there, away from my own life, we were two battle-worn women. Tentatively sharing disparate memories of a man we’d loved and lost too long ago. Pulling out previously guarded snippets; attempting to unravel the complexities of man’s role. Husband and father, how differently these executions play out.
Our tributaries intersect unexpectedly. Hers, the loss of a life partner long before she gets very far into doing life. Nostalgic reminiscence of a woman unaware of her own becoming until everything she was taught to aspire to as a good woman of her generation, everything she’d thought she’d won, was lost. Mine, the aching knowledge of having lost too early the one man from whom I could accept love with no fear of strings. Finding myself through the banks of desolateness his absence wrought; as one adored so completely and not nearly long enough to settle for a sham two to twenty years later.
Where our memories diverged were lessons in dichotomy. Of wonderfully supportive fathers championing in daughters what they could never abide in wives. Mine taught me how to parent; firm but fair, loving with clearly defined expectations. Hers taught me how not to be partnered.
With the passage of every monotonous minute under lockdown, every facet shared or revealed, I found more, yet less of my father and the halo I’d built him in the mausoleum of my mind. An immersion – shared with the phoenix my mother necessarily had to become to raise five orphan kids, the one that arose only after his shadow was cruelly yanked away – there was no drowning in this grief. It is joy, and love, and acceptance. It is me, once again seeing my mother in the full glory of the light she’d been content to cede. The same light I, like my mother, and so many women before and after us, had let wither, by degrees, for far too long. Because iyawo ma n ni suuru ni o.
This week, like those first days, months, years after his death, I question if the way my father loved me, and I him, set me up for a lifetime of not enough. My eyes well and my heart bleeds, over what was, what could have been, what would never again be. Everything I lost, the ones I gave up voluntarily, or accepted in hopes of a “maybe.” The many ways I continue to pay for it all. Then, I practise my mother’s gratitude – cherishing what was, letting go of my hankering.
I remind myself, again, that Daddy is dead. That I am still here, twenty-four years after I thought I had nothing to live for. That we do the best we can and just get through today, are as powerful mantras to a middle-aged mother of three, as they were to the nineteen year-old orphan whose ground fell away from under her feet. I am kinder to myself now for not knowing what’s next.
My solace is faith, the belief that this is not the end. It never is. That we’ll figure it out is a legitimate solution. And all I can do is live each day the best way I know how, assuaging decisions my father would have disagreed with, knowing he wanted me to chart my own course. Always.
That he lives on in me, in my siblings, my children. In the prayers we say, the stories we tell and retell. In those embarrassing moments when I slob all over said children and siblings, gushing about how much Daddy would have been proud. And in the waves of anguish that periodically wash over me in random moments of remembrance – unpredictable, no longer unexpected nor unwanted.
Like little nuggets of buried memories that are revealed when oft-repeated stories are told yet again, this grief is a testament to Life. His, mine, ours. To love – even when truncated, sometimes flawed; painful.
I am grateful for it all. The alternative would be so much worse.