MEMORIES OF MY FATHER
Last Friday, May 28, was the 15th anniversary of the death of my father, Christopher Chidebe Ndibe, a man who was C.C. to his friends and, simply, C. to his wife. For me it's somewhat hard to believe that so many years have rolled by since the passing of the most morally well-funded man I have ever known.
Yet, what's even more remarkable is not the fact of my father's death but the sense in which he remains vitally alive in my memory and that of my siblings as well as the memories of many others who knew him.
Our mother knew him the closest. My parents enjoyed an amazingly – in fact, legendarily – close relationship. I have told the story elsewhere about how my father insisted on marrying Mother against the staunch opposition of his relatives, but that story bears repeating here.
My father was thirty-six when he stunned his relatives with the announcement that he wished to marry Elizabeth Ofuchinyelu Odikpo. To say that his relatives were scandalized is to put a mild face on it. This was in 1958, a time when many women were married off during their teenage years. As far as my father's relatives were concerned, the woman he was wooing had several counts against her.
First, she was thirty-three, just three years younger than her would-be suitor. Her advanced age, as Papa's relatives saw it, meant that she could no longer bear children. Second, she had spent years training as a teacher in an era when many believed that the best wife was one who remained homebound, cooking and cleaning and rearing children. The third count against Mother had to do with the fact that she was from Onitsha. Then, and even now, the stereotype was that women from Onitsha – one of West Africa's largest centers of commerce and education – were often too "enlightened" and "liberated" for their own good and too independent-minded for a man's nerves. It did not matter that Mother spent a good deal of her formative years outside of Onitsha; some of my father's relatives in Amawbia feared that the only thing a woman from Onitsha could bring to a husband was grief.
The relatives who opposed the marriage chose to press the angle of my mother's age, in their view the most devastating factor militating against the prospects of marriage. In a rather impatient tone, they asked Father whether he had not seen all the women around him who were much, much younger. Why were his eyes set on a woman who was certainly too old to give him one child much less children?
My father's response was at once shocking in its directness and contained something of that stubbornness that my siblings and I grew to admire (and emulate) in him. He told his relatives that Mother was the one he loved, and that whether she could bear children or not did not alter his love in the least.
As one relative recalled to me a few years ago, my father's response was proof to his interlocutors that he had either lost his mind or was in danger of doing so. Father's bizarre appeal to the abstraction of "love" when a "normal" man was expected to focus on the concrete matter of children puzzled his people. For some of them, the words spoken by my father demonstrated that he was incapable of making a decision on the onerous question of marriage for himself. The relatives decided to assert control. Affecting an air of finality, they told Father that he could not marry this woman he pined for. They, as his relatives, would not accompany her to his dream bride's homestead to "knock on the door," the first step in the elaborate ritual around marriage in Igboland.
"Fine," my Father said, undaunted, "I'll go to her people alone." It was a threat that quickly and decisively changed the equation. In a society where marriage is seen and enacted as a social event involving two families, rather than an arrangement between two individuals, a young man who showed up alone at a suitor's home to ask for her hand would not only have incurred instant rejection, he would also have brought vicarious shame to his "family." Rather than risk that shame, my father's chagrined relatives resigned themselves to going along with his desire to marry the woman he would call E. (for Elizabeth) throughout his life.
Shortly after their marriage, my parents lived in Yola (the present capital of Adamawa State) where Father worked as a postal clerk whilst Mother taught at Saint Theresa's School. It was in Yola that Mother, whose womb was supposed to be bereft of life, bore four of their five children, three boys and a girl (their fifth child, a son, was born during the Biafran war in Oko where we were refugees). They gave us solid moral formation both by their words as well as (more vitally) their example. They made enormous sacrifices to ensure that all five of their children received sound education.
Infidelity has become voguish in many sectors of the world. But from the outset, my parents took seriously – in fact, literally – the Christian idea that, through marriage, a couple becomes one. They developed a set of rituals that celebrated and emphasized their oneness. Each morning, they woke up at 5:00 to take a bath together. They used the same chewing stick to clean their teeth; one used the chewing stick, rinsed it off with water, and then gave it to the other. They woke their children up at 5:30 to join them in saying the rosary, and then they walked to morning mass. They never ate a meal alone unless one of them happened to be out of town. They worked on their farms and gardens together and took walks side by side, holding hands. One day, I overheard a man say to my father, "C.C., I have something I want to tell you, but you must never tell it to anybody else, not even your wife." In a stern tone, Father told the man to keep the story because "I won't keep any secrets from my wife."
We, their children, were as much in awe of our parents' closeness as our friends. Along with our friends, we jokingly referred to our parents as "C. and E.," but never to their hearing.
When Father took ill in the early 1990s – a renal disease that culminated in his need for dialysis – my siblings and I were racked by distress. The most admirable man we knew had begun his slow dance to death. A veteran of World War Two, Father bore the sickness that slowed his gait and then progressively ravaged his body with a courage and grace that were in him as familiar as a signature. In health as in sickness, I never saw my father surly, downcast or in despair.
Given the dismal state of health care in Nigeria, Father's illness was compounded by other ordeals. He was supposed to get dialyzed twice a week, but the dialysis equipment at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital was so unreliable – and the crush of other patients so overwhelming – that the best he received was once in two weeks.
One day in March of 1995, after waiting fruitlessly all day at UNTH for Father to be dialyzed, my younger brother was driving my parents back to Amawbia. It was about 9 p.m., a dangerous time to ply the Enugu-Onitsha expressway where merciless armed robbers often lay in ambush. Even so, my father, who lay supine in the backseat, his wife and son had little choice; no hotel in Enugu would accept a guest who was so sick he would have to be carried in. It was a moonless night, the darkness padded. Somewhere after the Ninth Mile junction, my brother's car rammed into a huge log, shuddered and died.
In an instant, several heavily armed men emerged from the surrounding darkness. They dealt blows to my brother. One of them grabbed Mother's handbag, containing both money and my father's medicines. They pushed her away violently when she pleaded that they return her husband's medication. Then they vanished into the night. Through it all, Father lay in the backseat, too sick to reckon with his and his family's travails.
Tried as my brother did, the car would not restart. In the end, he and our mother – who was a month shy of her seventieth birthday – pushed the car for more than a mile until they sighted a mud house near the expressway. Desperate, they roused the resident from sleep and begged him to let them push the stalled car into his compound. The stranger took pity on their plight and allowed them to spend the night in the car parked inside his compound.
Two months later, on May 28, 1995, I received a telephone call from my elder brother. After some exchange of pleasantries, my brother, who inherited our father's calm wisdom, said, "Okey, you have to be strong. Our father died this afternoon."
True, Father died in 1995, but fifteen years later, he remains more alive than ever. My siblings and I are shaped and moved by the example of the love he and our mother shared, by their fidelity to abiding moral values, by their self-disregarding sacrifice, by their extraordinary generosity even though they themselves had little money.
Years ago, when I started out as a journalist, my parents sat me down and gave me two creeds. One: "Always write the truth." Two: "Try to be a voice for the poor, for the voiceless." In my imperfect way, I am animated – I have no choice than to remain animated – by those two precepts.
Okey Ndibe is at [email protected]