We sat in the back row, you and me, listening. Your right hand clasped firmly over my left to still the trembles. Tears streamed down my face as I cried openly. You pleaded with me that morning to come along. I told you I was scared and funerals were not for children to attend. You scoffed at the idea and said, “Ada, this will make you strong.” I yielded and went along. Yet as we sat on that back row, I didn’t agree. All I had done was sit and cry, and sit and cry. My eyes were focused straight ahead on the casket. Amaechi our neighbor had been killed by an overzealous vigilante group who thought they had gunned down an armed robber. It was too late before they realized their error. He was dead, suddenly and violently; without a chance to say goodbye to his family or friends.
I retreated to a shell I never knew existed during the weeks that followed. My sleep was disturbed by nightmares of Amaechi’s family, shrieking and wailing. For the first time I saw worry in your eyes, but that lifted when I slowly returned to my normal bubbly self. I startled you one day when I asked if mommy was buried in a casket like Amaechi. You said, “It doesn’t matter now. You and I are doing just fine.” I told you I had no memories of mommy and you replied with “you were too young.” I said it was unfair that people like mommy and Amaechi had to die without saying goodbye. It took you a moment to reply. I remember because I thought you had fallen asleep again on your favorite chair, so I went back to my homework. “Ada, death reminds us of why we want to live.” Those were your final words on the subject. Daddy, if you die, please say goodbye were mine.
You and I were the perfect pair. I was your darling Ada for I was a trouble free child. “My only worry is when she grows older, trouble will come” was your usual reply whenever anyone remarked on my good behavior. It took several years before I understood the full weight of your words. My classmate, Nedu announced that he was now an older brother. His mother had given birth to a boy and we were all invited for the baby’s naming ceremony. At the ceremony everyone seemed to be happy except Nedu’s mother. She was still inconsolable for she really wanted a girl. You walked up to her and said, “Mama Nedu, please try to be happy. What is in your arms is what many have searched for. Remember, with a boy you only have to worry about the other boys picking fights with him, but with a girl you have to fend off other girls and boys.” Then I knew why you said trouble will come.
Trouble did come from the boys, but for a different reason. It was my last year in secondary school and I was the class’ star student. I made many enemies because of this but you attributed it to irrational teenage jealousy. I believed you until that fateful lunch break. Mrs. Emem had instructed me to write down the names of those who were talking in the library during the two-hour reading period. I complied and even included cousin Nonso. He was irate after being punished and I told him I was taught to be impartial. He and his group of troublemaking friends broke out in laughter and then he asked, “Who taught you? Your prostitute mother or your lying father?” Honestly, I was more confused than provoked. By the end of the day, the boys called me ashewo pikin. I had no problem with being called the daughter of a prostitute. You were the problem.
Why didn’t you tell me?
Your lies of mommy being killed in a car accident after I was born hurt more than their taunts. We were no longer fine, we were no longer the perfect pair, and I was not your darling Ada anymore.
I loathed you more when you admitted that Nonso was right. Your explanation of waiting for the right time to reveal the truth found no room for forgiveness in my heart. I vowed to make you pay dearly for what you had done and your countless trips to visit me at my university’s hostel didn’t pay off that error. Picking an out-of-state school to attend was not a mere coincidence for I wanted nothing to do with you. Eventually, you understood that I meant business to cut you off and you stopped; visits and phone calls altogether. The years went by and you heard about my welfare from neighbors and friends. Left to me, my mother was long dead and my father was gone too.
“Ada, death reminds us of why we want to live.” Those words continually echo in my head, a decade and a half after you uttered them. Nedu’s mother called to tell me the news. She said, “Ada, please do not hang up. Your father’s stomach cancer is not getting better.” I told her what she was saying wasn’t new. I had heard you had cancer years ago. The doctors operated on your esophagus and although you had new dietary restrictions, you were back to your normal routine. Yes, I heard all of this but didn’t visit. Once news of your stable health was confirmed, I sent you a get- well- soon card, out of obligation.
“No, no Ada. That operation was different from what your father now has,” Mama Nedu continued. The doctors have given him three to six months to live. The cancer is spreading fast and is inoperable. Please, please Ada, come home.”
I guess that was what I needed to hear to jolt me out of that stupor of stupidity and back to my senses. Putting an expiry date on your life did it for me. I put down the phone and started to cry. Once more, I was a child and your right hand was clasping my left, to still the trembles. I walked into this room and it all came back to me, you on your favorite chair and I doing my homework across. You were right. “You and I were doing just fine.”
How thoughtless I was to be blind to the kindness you showed to me. You could have shirked your responsibilities, but you didn’t and you brought me up regardless of what others thought or said. You and I were the perfect pair. You were the only one who knew and accepted my preference to eat a bowl of cereal without any milk. Occasionally, you gave me the parental talk about the vitamins and nutrients milk contained; still I was fine with plain water. Despite the awkwardness of shopping with just you, you turned out to be the best fashion consultant I could ever have as your choices never went wrong. I was trouble free because you taught me to be so. Yes, you trained me well.
Being with you this past month does not make up for the years of animosity I harbored towards you, yet you have been forgiving. I thanked all the friends that took care of you in my absence, my chosen, willful absence. How could I forget the way your eyes lit up when I walked back into your life? You said in a weak voice, “Ada, forget the past.” Then I knew. You were really dying. I never did get to ask you what you wanted from me and I guess it is too late now. Or is it?
It certainly is for you have neither spoken nor eaten all day. I am the only one doing all the talking now. You are right. I should forget the past, but first, let me remember that it once was. Despite the bad memories, the good times are equally woven in. Here I am, sitting by your favorite chair, watching your life ebb away little by little. Please forgive me daddy for not being there for you all along. Thank you for waiting to say goodbye.