FACING THE FINAL CHAPTER: REFECTIONS ON AGE
In recent weeks there have been too many signals. A fortnight ago I wrote here about the sadness of seeing an increasing number of my acquaintances joining their ancestors. That very week another one of the true icons of the Nigerian media Prof. Alfred Opubor went the way of all flesh. A man who had dedicated his entire life to trying to inspire a principled adherence to good quality writing, and the morality of service, in the profession of journalism died as he lived so to speak. He was living in Cotonou where he headed a media studies institute affiliated to the World Bank. Alfred was a youthful seventy-five year old and as many of his former students will gladly testify he was always jovial and very innovative in his approach to instructing those whose professional lives he guided. I last saw him just over five months ago and he seemed like the last person who might be anticipating the end.
He was full of life as they say and looked more than ten years younger than his age. He was filled with praise for his wife's restaurant in Cotonou where he said we should meet soon to reflect and ruminate on things that have occurred and those that may occur. Alfred was a lively conversationalist and a very sharp-witted teacher. Judging from his mood when I last saw him he must have met the grim reaper with a smile rather than with a frown. Now I have one less close and good friend to look forward to visiting in West Africa. Deaths like this bring home the nearness of my own end with undeniable prescience. Many of my friends and relatives, especially my wife and young children regard my sentiments on this matter as being both morbid and unnecessary but I insist that it is best to face reality and prepare rather than to go on acting as if life is forever. When I was young I lived as if tomorrow would never come, but then now that tomorrow has arrived I believe we need to be ready for the end.
This reflection has been prompted not so much by the deaths of colleagues however but rather by the death of a niece-in-law of mine who was too young to die. A little over a week ago in Port Harcourt there was a tragedy that should never have happened. No one will blame those who have put the sad event down to government neglect and mismanagement, at least not if they know the true circumstances. My niece Tarilayefa was only twenty three years old. She was nearly six-foot tall and a strikingly beautiful girl. Although she had a full share of youthful mischief in her conduct the true characteristics of her behavior were her deep religiosity and academic seriousness.
On the night of her demise she had completed the task of giving Bible lessons to a group of young children in her community and then set out to visit a neighbouring community with a friend. Had the devastating deficiency of road maintenance in the city not existed they would have taken a very short journey by taxi to their destination. It was late and traffic was in total gridlock so they chose to use an informal and highly irregular boat service from the suburb of Eagle Island to Iwofe another nearby suburb. The boatman pleaded with the passengers to allow him make two trips but because of the lateness the desperate commuters were skeptical of his promises and chose to force themselves into the boat.
Only a few metres from the shore it capsized and about three dozen people perished, including my dear young niece Tarilayefa. There and then I became a victim of a distressing syndrome of generational distress, in which I have been forced to wonder whether I deserve to be still alive, and if there was any way that I could have taken Tarilayefa's place I would gladly have done so. Death is no longer a thing I fear but rather the inevitable visitor for whom I wait with both apprehension and resignation.
The reflections that have overwhelmed me in these last weeks of 2011 as I realize that I must come to terms with the certain and probably not too distant confrontation with my own end are redolent with both sadness and a strange sense of fulfillment. I have realised that regardless of the elements of disenchantment with which I am forced to contend as I confront how many of my wishes remain unfulfilled my life has been a full and exciting one. When it is time for me to face the end, I will have much more to be grateful for than to regret.
This realisation has brought me to the stage where I must consider the rest of my life as a period of consolidation. This column for example, may very well be coming to end of its life because a substantial proportion of the rest of my professional years (if I have years) might be devoted to very personal creative writing. It is time for me to respect the age that I have attained by reflecting on the experiences that I have had, and the best way to do this will be to plumb the depths of personal emotion in my work in ways that have yet to be understood. This is one of the most refreshing aspects of reaching the hallowed heights of gerontocracy with one's talents and abilities relatively intact.
As a writer just being able to communicate by using one's intellect in a rational manner is a gift at this age. Many of my age-mates spend more time trying to manage the loss of certain faculties than they spend keeping up with the times. So far the decline of my health has taken a back seat and the preservation of my love of language and discourse has become the central basis of my continued existence. In facing this challenge between declining physical strength and undamaged mental faculties I find it is important to see death's approach as an incentive rather than an obstacle to living a full life. As life winds down it demands that we live it to the fullest for the sake of those who love us.
In the new year of 2012 my life will be influenced in many ways by this realisation. This column will certainly be halted within a few months from today. I will stop writing it and concentrate on producing a quarterly or bi-monthly journal that will reflect my opinions and those of selected commentators whose views I respect. I have only a short while left to fulfill my basic dreams and this venture will be the engine of that objective. Nonetheless let me make it clear that just because so many of my friends and colleagues are going away in their seventies does not mean that I do not hope to live much longer. There is a tradition of longevity in my family.
My father who was a great agriculturist died in a road accident at the age of 86, his father died at 84, my paternal grandmother died at 96, and one of my favourite aunts died last year at the age of 104. I hope that my health will hold up for at least another ten years. If it can all good and well but if the legacy of my seventy years on earth is to be the basis for building a genuinely fulfilling life for the family I have made whose lives are my responsibility what I have achieved so far is more than enough. It is how best that achievement is deployed and consolidated that matters now and not whether I will live longer and do more, because the final chapter of life when properly used is as important as the beginning and the middle.