1. 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 8th, Okey went to Abba to see him and said that he looked tired. On June 9th, 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 10th, 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 am 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?
In my American home, I like to have National Public Radio on as background noise, and whenever my father was staying he would turn it off if nobody was there listening to it.
“I just thought about how Daddy was always turning off the radio and I was always turning it back on. He probably thought it was wasteful in some way,” I tell Okey.
“Like he always wanted to turn off the generator too early in Abba. I’d so happily let him now if he’ll just come back,” Okey says, and we laugh.
“And I will start to wake up early, and I’ll start to eat garri, and I’ll go to Mass every Sunday,” I say, and we laugh.
I retell the story of my parents visiting me in my graduate-student apartment at Yale, where I say, “Daddy, will you have some pomegranate juice? And he says, ‘No, thank you, whatever that is.’ ”
Pomegranate juice became a standing joke. All those standing jokes we had, frequently told and retold, my father’s expression this minute utterly deadpan and, in the next, wide open with delighted laughter. Another revelation: how much laughter is a part of grief. Laughter is tightly braided into our family argot, and now we laugh, remembering my father, but somewhere in the background of the laughter there is a haze of disbelief. The laughter trails off. The laughter becomes tears and becomes sadness and becomes rage. I am unprepared for my wretched, roaring rage. In the face of this inferno that is sorrow, I am callow and unformed. But how is it that in the morning he was joking and talking, and at night he was gone forever? It was so fast, too fast. It was not supposed to happen like this, not like a malicious surprise, not during a pandemic that has shut down the world. Throughout the lockdown, my father and I talked about how strange it all was, how scary, and he told me often not to worry about my doctor husband. “You actually drink warm water, Daddy?” I asked one day, surprised, after he said with sheepish humor that he’d read somewhere that drinking warm water might prevent the coronavirus infection. He laughed at himself and told me that warm water was harmless, after all, not like the nonsense that went around during the Ebola scare, when people were bathing in saline before dawn. To my “How are you, Daddy?,” he would always respond, “Enwerom nsogbu chacha.” (“I have no problems at all. I’m perfectly fine.”) And he really was, until he wasn’t.
Messages pour in, and I look at them as through a mist. Who is this message for? “On the loss of your father,” one says. Whose father? My sister forwards a message from her friend, saying that my father was humble despite his accomplishments. My fingers start to tremble, and I push my phone away. He was not. He is. There is a video of people trooping into our house for mgbalu, to give condolences, and I want to reach in and wrench them away from our living room, where already my mother is settled on the sofa in placid widow pose. A table is in front of her like a barrier, to maintain social distance. Already friends and relatives are saying that this must be done and that must be done. A condolence register must be placed by the front door, and my sister goes off to buy a bolt of white lace to cover the table, and my brother buys a hardcover notebook, and already people are bending to write in the book. I think, Go home! Why are you coming to our house to write in that alien notebook? How dare you make this thing true? Somehow, these well-wishers have become complicit. I feel myself breathing air that is bittersweet with my own conspiracies. Needle pricks of resentment flood through me at the thought of people who are more than eighty-eight years old, older than my father and alive and well. My anger scares me, my fear scares me, and somewhere in there is shame, too—why am I so enraged and so scared? I am afraid of going to bed and of waking up, afraid of tomorrow and all the tomorrows after. I am filled with disbelieving astonishment that the mailman comes as usual and people are inviting me to speak somewhere and regular news alerts appear on my phone screen. How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?
Grief is forcing new skins on me, scraping scales from my eyes. I regret my past certainties: Surely you should mourn, talk through it, face it, go through it. The smug certainties of a person yet unacquainted with grief. I have mourned in the past, but only now have I touched grief’s core. Only now do I learn, while feeling for its porous edges, that there is no way through. I am in the center of this churning, and I have become a maker of boxes, and inside their unbending walls I cage my thoughts. I torque my mind firmly to its shallow surface alone. I cannot think too much; I dare not think too deeply, or else I will be defeated, not merely by pain but by a drowning nihilism, a cycle of thinking there’s no point, what’s the point, there’s no point to anything. There is a grace in denial, Chuks says, words that I repeat to myself. A refuge, this denial, this refusal to look. Of course, the effort is its own grieving, and so I am un-looking in the oblique shadow of looking, but imagine the catastrophe of a direct, unswerving stare. Often, too, there is the urge to run and run, to hide. But I cannot always run, and each time I am forced to squarely confront my grief—when I read the death certificate, when I draft a death announcement—I feel a shimmering panic. In such moments, I notice a curious physical reaction: my body begins to shake, my fingers tap uncontrollably, one leg bobs. For the first time in my life, I am enamored of sleeping pills, and, in the middle of a shower or a meal, I burst into tears.
My wariness of superlatives is forever stripped away: June 10, 2020, was the worst day of my life. The week before June 10th, while running around playing with my daughter, I fell and hit my head and suffered a concussion. For days, I felt unmoored, sensitive to sound and light. I did not call my parents daily as usual. When I finally called, my father wanted to talk not about his feeling unwell but about my head. Concussions can be slow to heal, he told me. “You just said ‘concoction’; the word is ‘concussion,’ ” my mother said from the background. I wish I had not missed those few days of calling them, because I would have sensed that he wasn’t only mildly unwell, and I would have insisted that he go to the hospital much sooner. I wish, I wish. The guilt gnaws at my soul. I think of all the things that could have happened and all the ways that the world could be reshaped, to prevent what happened on June 10th, to make it un-happen. I worry about Okey, a stalwart, sensitive soul, whose burden is different from ours because he is the one who was there. He agonizes about what else he could have done when my father that night started to show discomfort, telling him, “Help me sit up” and then saying, no, he would rather lie back down. Okey says that my father prayed, calmly, quietly, what sounded like lines from the rosary in Igbo. Does it comfort me to hear this? Only in the sense that it must have comforted my father.
The cause was complications from kidney failure. An infection, the doctor said, exacerbated his long-term kidney disease. But what infection? Of course, I wonder about the coronavirus. Some journalists had come to our house to interview him a few weeks before, about the case of the billionaire who wanted to take our home town’s land—a dispute that consumed my father these past two years. Might he have been exposed then? The doctor doesn’t think so, even though he was not tested, because he would have had symptoms, and nobody else around him had symptoms. He needed hydration, and so he was admitted to the hospital and put on I.V. fluids. Okey stripped the tatty hospital bedsheets and brought sheets from home.
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 relative 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 sharp 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 home town 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.
How quickly my life has become another life, how pitiless this becoming is, and yet how slow I am to adapt. Okey sends me a video of an elderly woman who walks through our front door, crying, and I think, I have to ask Daddy who she is. In that small moment, what has been true for the forty-two years of my life is still true—that my father is tactile, inhaling, exhaling, reachable to talk to and to watch the twinkle of his eyes behind his glasses. Then, with a horrible lurch, I remember again. That brief forgetting feels like both a betrayal and a blessing. Do I forget because I am not there? I think so. My brother and sister are there, face to face with the desolation of a house without my father. They can see that he is not at the dining table for breakfast, on his chair backing the window’s light, and that after breakfast he is not settled on the sofa in his midmorning ritual of napping, reading, and napping again. If only I could be there, too, but I am stuck in America, my frustration like a blister, scouring for news on when the Nigerian airports will open. Even the Nigerian authorities don’t seem to know. A report says July, then August, then we hear it might be in October, but the aviation minister tweets to say “may be earlier than October.” Maybe, maybe not, like playing yo-yo with a cat.
I back away from condolences. People are kind, people mean well, but knowing this does not make their words rankle less. “On the demise of your father.” Demise. A favorite of Nigerians, it conjures for me dark distortions. “He is resting” brings not comfort but a scoff that trails its way to pain. He could very well be resting in his room in our house in Abba, fan whirring warm air, his bed strewn with folded newspapers, a sudoku book, an old brochure from a funeral, a Knights of St. Mulumba calendar, a bag filled with his bottles of medicine, and his notebooks with the carefully lined pages, where he recorded every single thing he ate, a diabetic’s account-taking. “He is in a better place” is startling in its presumptuousness and has a taint of the inapt. How would you know—and shouldn’t I, the bereaved, be privy to this information first; should I really be learning this from you? “He was eighty-eight” so deeply riles because age is irrelevant in grief; at issue is not how old he was but how loved. “It has happened so just celebrate his life,” an old friend wrote, and it incensed me—how facile to preach about the permanence of death, when it is, in fact, the permanence of death that is the source of anguish. I wince now at the words I said in the past to grieving friends. “Find peace in your memories,” I used to say. Rather than succor, my memories bring eloquent stabs of pain that say, “This is what you will never again have.”
What does not feel like the deliberate prodding of wounds is a simple “I’m sorry,” because in its banality it presumes nothing. Ndo, in Igbo, comforts more, a word that is “sorry,” with a metaphysical heft. Concrete and sincere memories from those who knew him comfort the most, and it warms me that the same words recur: “honest,” “calm,” “kind,” “strong,” “quiet,” “simple,” “peaceful,” “integrity.” My mother says that Ayogu called her to say that my father was the only boss who “never gave him any trouble.” I remember Ayogu, tall with a genteel manner, my father’s driver when my father was the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, in the nineteen-eighties. Was it Ayogu, or was it the other driver, Kevin, the charming firebrand, of whom my father once calmly said, when I had asserted with the haughtiness of a seven-year-old that I wanted my driver to take me to school, “He is my driver, not your driver.”
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.
My parents’ cold-weather clothes hang in the closet of the guest room that my daughter calls “Grandpa and Grandma’s room.” I touch my father’s puffy olive jacket. In the drawer are his maps of Maryland, just as he has maps of New England in a drawer in my sister’s Connecticut home. During the months that he and my mother spent yearly in the U.S., he would study his beloved maps, the boundaries of counties, what was north and south of what, and trace every journey, even trips out to brunch. Scenes from my father’s last visit: He is walking up and down the driveway, his daily morning exercise, no longer as briskly as before, and he has decided to keep count with stones, and so we find a pile of stones near the front door. He is getting cookies in the pantry, blithely unaware of his trail of crumbs. He is standing right in front of the television, his code for “you all need to stop talking,” watching Rachel Maddow, whom he calls “bright,” while shaking his head at the imbroglio America has become.
I reread “Biography of Nigeria’s Foremost Professor of Statistics, Prof. James Nwoye Adichie,” by Emeritus Professor Alex Animalu, Professor Peter I. Uche, and Jeff Unaegbu, published in 2013, three years before my father was made professor emeritus of the University of Nigeria. The printing is uneven, the pages slightly askew, but I feel a euphoric rush of gratitude to the authors. Why does this line—“the children and I adore him”—from my mother’s tribute soothe me so; why does it feel pacifying and prophetic? It pleases me that it exists, forever declared in print. I rummage in my study for the old letters he sent from Nigeria when I first came to the U.S. to attend college, and when I find them there is an intense pathos to looking at his handwriting. It tells his story, that handwriting, the curvy script of a certain kind of colonial African education, prudent and proper, Latin-loving and rule-following. Nnem ochie, he called me. (“My grandmother.”) He always ended with “Your dad” and his signature. He wrote his signature even on our birthday cards, which made my siblings and I laugh. “Daddy, it’s not a university memo,” we’d say. I look everywhere for the piece of paper on which he drew for me our family tree going back four generations, and I cannot find it—and that I cannot find it causes me distress for days, boxes and files flung open, papers thrown aside. I look at old photographs, and from time to time my whole body swells with a sob. My father often looked stiff in photos because he grew up knowing photography as a rare and formal event at which you dressed up and sat, uncomfortable, before a man with a tripod. “Daddy, relax; Daddy, smile.” Sometimes I tried pinching his neck. There is a photo of him I remember taking. He is at our messy dining table in Nsukka, at the house on the campus of the University of Nigeria where I grew up. Our head-rubbing ritual began there. I was in secondary school when his bald patch first appeared, and I would come up behind him at the dining table and rub it, and he, without pausing in whatever he was saying, would gently slap my hand away. I watch videos, saved on my computer, that feel like revelations because I do not remember them, even though I made some of them. We are having breakfast in my Lagos home, and I am pretending to be a Nigerian journalist asking my father about his courtship with my mother while he ignores me with a small smile on his face. We are in our house in Abba, and my daughter, who is three years old, is crying because she wants to skip breakfast and play, and my father holds her and tells her nanny to take the food away and let her play.
In my study, I find his old sudoku books, the squares filled with his numbers, upright and confident, and I remember us driving to a bookshop in Maryland to buy these some years ago. He bought me one to try because “it’s very good,” but trying the first puzzle revived my hatred of mathematics, and I remembered my father coaching me and how he said, as I stalled in solving a long equation, “Yes, you’re getting there; don’t doubt yourself; don’t stop.” Is that why I believe now in always trying? It is, of course, too easy to draw simple causative lines. It was the wholeness of him that formed me, but it was also these incidents, slice by slice.
In secondary school, my friends and I once took a problem to the timid new mathematics teacher, Mr. O., and, glancing at the thorny problem, he hastily said that he needed to go and get his four-figure table, even though the problem didn’t require a four-figure table. We left his office, roaring with teen-age mirth. I told my father about this, expecting his laughter. But he didn’t laugh. “The man is not a good teacher, not because he didn’t know how to solve it but because he didn’t say he didn’t know.” Is that how I became a person confident enough to say that I don’t know when I don’t know? My father taught me that learning is never-ending.
Often I hailed him by his title “Odelu-Ora Abba,” whose literal translation is “One Who Writes for Our Community.” And he would hail me, too, and his hailing me was a love-drenched litany of affirmation. “Ome ife ukwu” was the most common. (“The One Who Does Great Things.”) I find the others difficult to translate: “nwoke neli” is roughly “the equivalent of many men,” and “ogbata ogu ebie” is “the one whose arrival ends the battle.” Is he the reason I have never been afraid of the disapproval of men? I think so.
No one was prepared for how deeply besotted with sudoku my father became after he retired, much to my mother’s irritation.
“He won’t eat,” she would say, “because he’s busy playing sudoku.”
“You don’t play sudoku,” he would reply mildly. “It’s not Ludo.”
And I would quip, “James and Grace, bickering since 1963.”
My mother’s first words when Okey walked into her room on the night of June 10th and turned on the light and told her were “How can?”—Nigerian-speak for “it can’t be, that’s impossible.” And then she added the words that seared their way into our hearts on that Zoom call: “But he didn’t tell me anything.” Because he would have told her. They were like that. If he was going to leave us forever, he would have told her, and so his not having told her meant that it could not be true. She was in the hospital until a few hours before and had come home to get some sleep and then return for the trip to the kidney specialist in Onitsha. “I already brought out his sweater in case he gets cold,” she said.
Their courting story charmed me. It began on a farm in 1960, with neither of them present. A relative of his was boasting about the bright young man who had just started teaching at a university and was looking for an educated wife. A relative of hers said that she was educated and beautiful, fair as an egret. Fair as an egret! Another standing family joke.
“Daddy, so you just get up and drive to a town you don’t know to ‘see’ a girl you heard about?” I teased often. But it was how things were done. My mother liked his quietness. When her family at first resisted because he wasn’t as flashy or as wealthy as her other suitors, my mother said that she would not marry anyone else. I called him D.O.S., Defender of Spouse, for how quick he always was to support my mother. One afternoon, when she was a deputy registrar—she became the first woman to be the registrar at the University of Nigeria—he came home gleeful, chortling while loosening his tie, swollen with pride about her speech at the university senate meeting. “Mummy was fantastic,” he told my brothers and me.
Okey tells me that he slipped Daddy’s watch into his pocket that night and sends me a photo, the blue-faced silver watch that Kene bought a few years ago. We were amused that my father started wearing it right away; we bought him things that he never used because, he said, his shirt from 1970 or his shoes from 1985 were still perfectly fine. I begin to look at the photo of the watch often, day after day, as if in pilgrimage. I remember it resting on my father’s wrist and my father often looking at it. This is an archetypal image of my father, his face bent to his watch, checking the time, a hyper-punctual man; for him, being on time was almost a moral imperative.
Childhood was my father downstairs on Sunday mornings, ready for Mass an hour before everyone else, walking up and down to hurry us up. In those years, he seemed remote. My mother was the warm, accessible parent, and he the man in the study writing statistics and talking to himself. I was vaguely proud of him. I didn’t know then that he was Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, but I knew that he had become a full professor long before the fathers of my friends, because there was a boy at school who called me “Nwa Professor” (“Professor’s Child”). In my later teen-age years, I began to see him, to see how alike we were in our curiosity and our homebody-ness, and to talk to him and to adore him. How exquisitely he paid attention, how present he was, how well he listened. If you told him something, he remembered. His humor, already dry, crisped deliciously as he aged.
My best friend, Uju, tells me how my father turned to her at the end of my Harvard Class Day speech, in 2018, and, in a voice more powerful for being muted, said, “Look, they are all standing for her.” I weep at this. Part of grief’s tyranny is that it robs you of remembering the things that matter. His pride in me mattered, more than anyone else’s. He read everything I wrote, and his comments ranged from “this isn’t coherent at all” to “you have outdone yourself.” Each time I travelled for speaking events, I would send him my itinerary, and he sent texts to follow my progress. “You must be about to go onstage,” he would write. “Go and shine. Ome ife ukwu!” Once, I was travelling to Denmark, and, after wishing me a safe journey, he added, in his deadpan tone, “And when you get to Denmark, look for Hamlet’s house.”
I not only adored my father in that classic manner of a daddy’s girl, but I also liked him so much. I like him. His grace and his wisdom and his simplicity and how utterly unimpressionable he was. I liked his luminous, moderate faith, strong but worn lightly. If you expected my father to stay a weekend anywhere, you had to find the nearest Roman Catholic church. When I first moved to Maryland, I worried that St. John the Evangelist, in an interfaith center in Columbia, with a guitar-playing choir—would be off-putting to him, nothing like his stained-glass Catholicism, but he pronounced the priest “very good” and happily went every Sunday. I liked that his response to power was a shrug. He worshipped integrity. He was indifferent to, if not distrustful of, grand flourishes.
“I have eight cars,” my sister’s wealthy suitor once boasted, and my father replied, “Why?”
He was not materialistic, and this would not be so remarkable if he were not a Nigerian living in Nigeria, with its hard-nosed grasping ethos, its untrammelled acquisitiveness from bottom to top. I liked his sense of duty. There was something in his nature that was capacious, a spirit that could stretch; he absorbed bad news, he negotiated, compromised, made decisions, laid down rules, held relatives together. Much of it was due to his having been born the first son in an Igbo family and having risen to its mesh of expectations and dispensations.
I liked, too, his appreciation for the properness of things. His meticulous record-keeping, the rows of files in his cabinet: each child had files for primary, secondary, and university records, and every domestic helper who ever lived with us had a file. Once, in the middle of watching an American newscast, he turned to me and asked, “What does this word ‘nuke’ mean?” And when I told him, he said, “Nuclear weapons are too serious to be given nicknames.”
“You have a particular laugh when you’re with Daddy, even when what he says isn’t funny,” my husband said. I recognized the high-pitched cackle he mimicked, and I knew that it was not so much about what my father said as it was about being with him. A laugh that I will never laugh again. “Never” feels so unfairly punitive. For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for things that are no longer there.
“Mama is sad because Grandpa died,” my four-year-old daughter says to her cousin. “Died.” She knows the word “died.” She pulls tissues out of a box and hands them to me, and her emotional alertness moves, surprises, impresses me. A few days later, she asks, “When will Grandpa wake up again?”
I weep and weep and wish that her understanding of the world were real. That grief was not about the utter impossibility of return.
One morning, I am watching a video on my phone of my father, and my daughter glances at my screen and then swiftly places her hand over my eyes. “I don’t want you to watch the video of Grandpa because I don’t want you to cry,” she says. She is hawkeyed in her vigilance of my tears.
A scene from my daughter’s first months: My father is hurrying upstairs. My daughter is a howling baby downstairs in my mother’s care, and he has been sent up for the pacifier, whose name he does not remember, and so he urgently gestures to his mouth and tells me “mouth plug!” Months later, my daughter’s potty training has reached the milestone of pee, and now she has been cajoled to sit on the potty and do more than pee, a rapt audience of family watching her, and my father wanders in and mildly asks, “Would any of you go if you had so many people watching you?”
The dictates of Igbo culture, this immediate pivot from pain to planning. Just the other day, my father was on our Zoom call, and now, on this Zoom call, we are supposed to plan. To plan is to appease the egos of church and traditional groups and to get a burial date approved, which cannot be during the New Yam Festival—or any other community ceremonial—and must be a Friday, because the parish priest buries the elderly only on Fridays. But the most important thing is “clearance”—it is a word thrown about in English, “clearance.” Clearance attests to how deeply, how forcefully communitarian Igbo culture remains. Clearance means that any outstanding dues to the age grade, the town union, the village, the clan, the umunna, must be paid; otherwise, the funeral will be boycotted. A potent threat, the shunning of a funeral. To most Igbo people, at least those of my father’s generation, an almost existential fear is to be deprived of a proper funeral. It is common to hear stories of grieving families outraged by the manipulation of village groups who ask for money, this their only chance to exercise a trifling power. My father was diligent with dues, so Okey runs around to get all the receipts. There are long lists of what each group expects from us. How many coolers of rice, whether a gift of a chicken or a goat will be presented, how many cartons of beer. I look at the lists askance. It’s not a bloody party. I don’t care what we wear or what the caterer cooks or what groups come or don’t come, because I am still sinking. But I have to care; these things mattered to my father. “Think of what Daddy would want,” Chuks says, comforting me.
My grandfather died in the Biafran war, in a refugee camp, buried in an unmarked grave, and one of the first things my father did after the war was to organize a belated funeral ceremony. And so I try to remind myself that my father would want things done as they are done. There is much I find beautiful in Igbo culture, and much I quarrel with, and it is not the celebratory nature of funerals that I dislike but how soon they have to be. My mother says that some widows have come to tell her what the custom is. First, the widow will be shaved bald—and, before she can continue, my brothers promptly say that this is ridiculous and not going to happen. I say that nobody ever shaves men bald when their wives die; nobody ever makes men eat plain food for days; nobody expects the bodies of men to wear the imprint of their loss. But my mother says that she wants to do it all: “I’ll do everything that is done. I’ll do it for Daddy.”
A friend sends me a line from a novel I wrote: “Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.” How odd to find it so exquisitely painful to read my own words.
Imagine dreading a burial and yet longing for it to pass. We have settled on a date, September 4th, and the bishop has kindly agreed to say Mass. It will be a covid-compliant ceremony, face masks will be required, and guests will be served in the homes of various neighbors, to maintain social-distancing rules. I am to draft the invitation. Writing “burial” is impossible for me. My best friend, Uju, types it because, at first, I cannot. But a day before we print, there are rumors that the Nigerian airports will no longer open in August. The news is haphazard—even basic information is uncoordinated—and it is all the more confounding because in neighboring countries the airports are open. Nigeria, as usual, making everything more difficult than it should be. The incompetence is iridescent, splaying, touching, tainting with its many-pronged evil shine. Disillusionment with the land of my birth has been my life’s constant, but an animosity this astringent is new. [See addendum below]
I felt something like it only once before, when my father was kidnapped, in 2015, by a group of men in collusion with his driver, who told him to ask his famous daughter to pay the ransom. Of the men who threw him into the boot of a car and left him for three days in a forest, only his driver has been caught. I have never been as grateful for my father’s dual Nigerian-American citizenship—thanks to my older sisters, who were born in America—as I then was. The Nigerian government was spiritless while the American ambassador checked in and called and sent a counsellor and a kind investigator, who coached my mother on how to talk to the kidnappers. And after Okey dropped a bag full of cash under a tree in a remote area, my father was released, rattled but calm—that capacious thing in him again.
“They didn’t pronounce your name properly, so I told them the correct pronunciation,” he told me. He seemed visibly upset only when he told us how the kidnappers had said, “Your children don’t love you” and how he had responded, “Don’t say that about my children.” After the kidnapping, my father said that he could no longer live in Nsukka; he wanted to move to “the village,” our ancestral home town Abba.
“I don’t ever want to be on that road again,” he said of the pothole-riven way where the kidnappers had cut him off and where his driver, pretending to be shocked, had stopped the car. The kidnapping brought out a new vulnerability in him, a vulnerability that was willingly laid bare, a softening of his carapace. With his vulnerability also came an old-man stubbornness, the occasional cantankerousness, which sometimes annoyed but mostly amused us.
And so September 4th is impossible. The Nigerian government announces that the airports will now open in late August, and my mother returns to the church to get a new date. It is now October 9th. The next day, a Nigerian newspaper reports that the government has said that the opening is tentative—maybe, maybe not. My mother is desperate for a firm date. “After the burial, we can begin to heal,” she says. I am heartsick to see her look so brave and so drained.
The waiting, the not knowing. All over southeastern Nigeria, mortuaries are over-full because the coronavirus has delayed funerals. It doesn’t matter that this mortuary is supposed to be the best in Anambra State. You have to visit often and tip the morticians; there are horror stories of loved ones being brought out of mortuaries looking unrecognizable. Every week, Okey goes to check on things and emerges wounded. It is as if every week he witnesses again this so fiercely unwanted transubstantiation. I have to brace myself to hear. Or I don’t want to hear. “Maybe stop going?” I suggest to him. “Let’s get somebody not close to us to go.” And Okey says, “I’ll go every week until we are able to lay him to rest. Daddy would do the same for any of us.”
One night, in a vivid dream, my father comes back. He is sitting on his usual sofa in the living room in Abba, and then at some point it becomes the living room in Nsukka. The hospital made a mistake. What about my brother Okey’s visits to the mortuary? Also a case of mistaken identity. I am ecstatic but worried that it might be a dream, and so, in the dream, I slap my arm to make sure that it is not a dream and still my father is sitting there talking quietly. I wake up with a pain so confounding that it fills up my lungs. How can your unconscious turn on you with such cruelty?
My mother tells a story of my father, in our university house in Nsukka, in the nineteen-eighties, once jumping out of the bath and dashing, still wet, to his study because he had finally figured out a problem. He loved academics but not its politics. “When I was made deputy vice-chancellor,” he told me, “I couldn’t wait to leave all the squabbling and get back to teaching.” He studied mathematics at Ibadan, Nigeria’s premier university college, then affiliated with the University of London, and when he went to the University of California, Berkeley, to do a Ph.D. in statistics, on a usaid scholarship, he felt his British training was at odds with the American way. He faltered. He decided that he would leave the program and return to Nigeria, but his adviser, Erich Lehmann, encouraged him, telling him that he, too, had come to the U.S. with British training. “He was a very kind man,” my father said often, one kind person admiring another. He and my mother were asked to dinner at Lehmann’s home, and they dressed up in Nigerian abada, and on the way a little boy pointed at my father and said, “he’s wearing funny clothes”—a story that still amused my father decades later.
He returned to Nigeria with my mother and my sisters shortly before the Biafran war started. In that war, all his books were burned by Nigerian soldiers. Mounds of charred pages in a pile in my parents’ front yard, where they once grew roses. His colleagues in America sent him books to replace those that were lost; they even sent him bookshelves. I remember my father telling me how much he admired the great African-American mathematician David Blackwell, and, in my novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a character whose books have been lost in the Biafran war is sent books from America, with a note that reads, “For a war-robbed colleague from fellow admirers of David Blackwell in the brotherhood of mathematicians.” I now do not remember whether I made up that line or whether my father got a similar note.
In 1984, my father taught for a year at San Diego State University, and he spoke fondly of his friend Chuck Bell, an African-American academic who helped him get settled. One day, he recounted, Bell opens the fridge in my father’s apartment to get something to drink, sees a crate of eggs, and shouts, “Jim!” My father, alarmed, asks what is wrong, and Bell says, “You can’t eat eggs. They’ll kill you—too much cholesterol. You must throw them away now.”
My father told this story wryly, as if to say, “Of all the things to tell me not to eat!” and “Who knows what Americans will come up with next!”
“You can’t eat eggs!” I’d say to my father at breakfast as he spooned egg sauce onto a slice of yam.
I last saw my father in person on March 5th, 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.
On March 28th, my favorite aunt, my mother’s younger sister Caroline, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, in a British hospital that was already locked down because of the coronavirus. A joyous woman. We were stunned by sadness. The virus brought close the possibility of dying, the commonness of dying, but there was a semblance of control if you stayed home, if you washed your hands. With her death, the idea of control was gone. Death could just come hurtling at you, as it had with her—perfectly fine one moment, and the next she had a very bad headache, and the next she was gone. A dark time inexorably darkened. She lived with my parents for many years before I was born, and, to my sisters, she was more a big sister than an aunt. I look back now at my father saying that her death was “shocking” in a voice strained by that shock, and I imagine the universe further plotting sinisterly. In June, he would go, and a month later, on July 11th, his only sister, my Aunt Rebecca, heartbroken about the brother she had spoken to every day, would go, too, in the same hospital as my father. An erosion, a vile rushing of floods, leaving our family forever misshapen. The layers of loss make life feel papery thin.
Why does the image of two red butterflies on a T-shirt make me cry? We don’t know how we will grieve until we grieve. I don’t particularly like T-shirts, but I spend hours on a customization Web site, designing T-shirts to memorialize my father, trying out fonts and colors and images. On some, I put his initials, J.N.A., and, on others, the Igbo words “omekannia” and “oyilinnia”—which are similar in meaning, both a version of “her father’s daughter” but more exultant, more pride-struck.
Have T-shirts ever offered such escape? Often, I pause to cry. Often, I think about what he would think of them. He viewed my interest in fashion, especially my less conventional choices, with an accepting amusement. He once said, of a pair of balloon-cut trousers I wore to an event, “Nke dika mmuo.” (“This one looks like a masquerade.”) “Masquerade” is perhaps not the word I would have chosen, but I did see his point. He would approve of some of these T-shirts, I think. It is design as therapy, filling the silences I choose, because I must spare my loved ones my endless roiling thoughts. I must conceal just how hard grief’s iron clamp is. I finally understand why people get tattoos of those they have lost. The need to proclaim not merely the loss but the love, the continuity. I am my father’s daughter: it is an act of resistance and refusal, grief telling you that it is over and your heart saying that it is not, grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying that it is present.
It does not matter whether I want to be changed, because I am changed. A new voice is pushing itself out of my writing, full of the closeness I feel to death, the awareness of my own mortality, so finely threaded, so acute. A new urgency. An impermanence in the air. I must write everything now, because who knows how long I have? One day, Okey sends a text that reads “I miss his dry humor and how he would do a funny little dance when he was happy and how he would pat your cheek and say ‘never mind.’ ” It makes my heart leap. Of course, I remember how my father always said “never mind” to make us feel better about something, but that Okey has remembered it, too, makes it feel newly true. Grief has, as one of its many egregious components, the onset of doubt. No, I am not imagining it. Yes, my father truly was lovely.
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 has published three novels, including “Americanah,” which is being made into a television series.