“The day I lost my father was the day I realized how close we all are to being mad.” She says this with a half-smile on her face, a reminiscence of sorts playing over her features, like she is relishing this memory of her close shave with insanity. The weather outside the car is the colour of foil, her face framed by the low-cut of her hair is trained on the back of the front passenger seat. Though older, I can see what her body must have been like on that day; a young woman – a young body – unraveling in the face of a loss so strange her mind did not yet know how to process it.
“I was in law school at the time and it was one month to our exams” she continues. “My family did not want me to know at first because they thought I would fail if they told me.” She is smiling wider now.
It is ten years since her father passed in his sleep and we are in the back of a cab, worn out from a day of litigation but wide-eyed enough for a conversation unrelated with witness statements as we head back to the office. It is a conversation springing seemingly out of nowhere; germinating as it did from a question – my question – about food. She tells me of her frantic race, away from her phone, the device cracked and deserted on the floor where she had let it drop as she, with a confused, desperate swiftness, increased the distance between her and the bringer of bad news. The only bad news that mattered. She tells me it was a full three and a half minutes and a dedicated display of abnormalcy before someone grabbed her.
She tells me also of how her brother was informed of this death. How he partook in march rehearsals at his boarding school in utter ignorance that they were rehearsals for a performance at his own father’s burial. He too had been the subject of a family scheme – the school authorities made conspirators – to be prematurely deprived of the news for the sake of academics. How he, too, ‘ran mad’ when he arrived home to a congregation of long-faced relatives. At this point, she gives a little laugh. We are just by the office.
She remembers her father convincing her to study law. The subtle cajolery about her stubbornness and how well-suited it was for legal strife. She remembers the strength of his lap as she sat on it. The secrets. The laughter. Especially the laughter. The pieces of meat taken directly from his mouth. It’s been ten years but she remembers everything.
Memory is the enemy of healing.
Two months ago, I made this tweet about grief on my Twitter account. About how the first thing it brings you is confusion, a confusion impossible to prepare for. Later, I make a screenshot of the tweet and post it on my Whatsapp status. A friend comments with an emoji that says “100100”. It means, I assume, that she agrees a hundred percent. Her father passed months ago and I had sent her condolences. I am not privy to her pain; I only saw the pictures of her father at her call-to-bar, her mother on one side and she on the other, both leaving a kiss on either cheek, the dark-skinned, smiling man cushioned by fair goodness – pictures reposted on her Whatsapp status at the peak of her mourning. That “100100” is haunting. It is suggestive of incredibly dark times I wish she never had to file into her memory.
She is a lawyer, a young friend, who has lost her father. He died last week. He was also a lawyer. A Chief too. Loved. Admired. Old. On the phone, the tiredness in her voice is all I remember. I have never known her like this. She is the laughing friend, the jovial, loving, everybody-loves-to-sit-beside-in-court-and-crack-a-joke-with friend, with the quirky jokes about lawyers’ wigs and litigants’ bad English. I have known her as a limitless source of mirth. When I tell her ‘let me know if there is anything I can do to help’, she says I am the fourth person making this offer and she does not know what to do with it. I say, ‘even if it is just to talk’. It is four seconds before she says okay. Every word has a drag, like she would rather not say anything.
There is something kindred between grief and weariness. It takes from you. From your skin. From your blood. From your heart. It extinguishes the desire to eat. And soon, the desire – and
ability – to emote.
Monday, 8.52 pm, I see this tweet from a girl who lost her father on the day she had a surgery. He called to pray for her before she went into the theatre and wasn’t there when she got out. I imagine, for her, the recovery process made two times harder.
I see this other tweet about a girl’s mother who gives up after a decade of fighting an illness, probably cancer – she is listing the favorite places they visited together. Disney, The Vatican, Ghana. Below hers is a tweet by another girl who I assume to be a nurse. She is saying five people died in her apartment building in the first month of the pandemic. She talks about her visit to one of the old men who didn’t. Her attempts at convincing him to accept the protective gear she was distributing free of charge. His wonder at how it would save him from a death everyone else had received.
A day later, there is another tweet that catches my eye. This girl is expecting her father’s death. She says it may be “tonight, maybe tomorrow, maybe Monday. It doesn’t matter when”. She wants those who still have their fathers around to make time and have a beer with them.
5 months earlier, someone is telling me about the death of a Senior Advocate in Port Harcourt. Two days later, my boss is in court, mid-litigation conversation with the judge, and telling him how the Senior Advocate was buried without a proper coffin. Covid protocols, they said. But this was an important man. A loved man. Something better was what he deserved.
I have written 12 condolence letters this year.
A dear client sits with me in the conference room. We should be discussing her case. She is accusing me of failing to call her in the midst of her loss. She is telling me all she wants is to lie on the same bed with her mother one last time. And gist. I gave her everything she wanted, she is saying. I provided more money than she would ever need. But I wasn’t there. She says she ‘ran mad’ in the hospital ward, beat up the doctor on duty and cannot remember much else.
There is something kindred between grief and insanity.
I am at the parish house with my principal and 3 other members of the office. We have an envelope. It holds a condolence letter and a cheque. There is a tray of can drinks. My principal is Catholic and a Knight. He delivers the consolatory words. The priest has lost his mother. You can see the weariness in his eyes. You can see he appreciates being, for once, the comforted.
I am reading Adichie’s essay on grief. She writes “I am writing about my father in past tense. I cannot believe I am writing about my father in past tense”.
My co-worker, the office receptionist, shows up to work in a black native attire. It is beautifully fitting. I joke about how our outfits are matching. I ask who we are mourning. She laughs and says “my father”. Just before I turn and inquire further, she adds, “who died many years ago”. Then I laugh. And she laughs. Then I wonder why I laughed.
Grief is a funny thing. You can never fully appreciate grief until you feel it. You can theorize about it, predict your reaction to it but when it arrives at your door like a birthday gift, you will not know what to do with it.
Everybody you know will die.
ANTHONY MADUKWE is a lawyer who loves food. A lot. His work has appeared on AFREADA, Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, African Writer Magazine, Dwarts Online and a few others.