Learning To Mourn In My Father's Country
After my brother died and my father was partially paralyzed, my family traveled 7,000 miles in search of an old home, a new house, and the things we’d lost on the road in between.
I remember feeling grateful that we never said “Merry Christmas.” We didn’t say it on Christmas morning when we awoke in Virginia, during a layover at the world’s most desolate Hampton Inn & Suites, and took long showers and poured too much batter into the waffle machine. Or at Washington Dulles International Airport, 1,400 miles from our cul-de-sac in Houston, where, at 8 a.m., bright, deserted corridors seemed to me pleasantly indifferent to the calendar. Near midnight on Christmas Eve, we had wished for a shuttle in lieu of a sleigh, making our plea with a dead-eyed driver who we’d been told could take us to the Hampton Inn. His broad white vessel didn’t have a ramp for Dad’s electric wheelchair — the one that chirped like a repair droid (meep murp) whenever you turned it on — and was too far above the ground for us to maneuver him out of it and into a seat. The driver suggested that my sister Adaeze and I ride the shuttle with our bags while Mom and Dad follow in a taxi. But Mom threw me a look that even I understood meant “I don’t want to be alone,” and so Adaeze rode with the bags while the three of us stayed behind, waiting by the curb at passenger pickup as the cool black night ticked into morning.
We were traveling to Nigeria in an ostensibly holiday-themed edition of a pilgrimage my family has made infrequently since 1991. But I hardly thought of Christmas once and called it mercy. That it was the most wonderful time of the year didn’t cross my mind at the boarding gate at Dulles, where we waited for one in a series of progressively smaller airport wheelchairs that would deliver Dad to his seat on the plane. Nor when the chair eventually materialized, bringing with it the special airline staff that assists you when your body is broken and uncooperative and the experience of standing on your own feet, let alone walking, is an unapproachable memory. These people, distinguishable by their self-serious demeanor and uniform of dreary polo shirts and Dockers, are well-trained to minimize airline liability and flight delays; less so, it became clear, to mitigate the routine suffering and indignity of the humans in their care. Mostly, they shared the grace and tact of their counterparts in bag handling, and whenever one seemed intent on wrangling Dad and his chair like an obstinate mattress, we intervened and took care of him ourselves, using all the little tricks and techniques each of us knows but never wanted to learn.
When we were finally in our seats, belts buckled and seat-back trays securely fastened in front of us, I focused my mind and vanished stubborn memories of our cul-de-sac, and the lit Christmas tree, and the framed photo of my younger brother, Chidi — not more than 10 years old in a baggy T-shirt and white high-tops — that he had fashioned into an ornament with glue sticks, green and red glitter, and yarn. I steered my thoughts away from The Last Good Christmas two years ago when Chidi was 21 and Adaeze and I spoiled him like we usually did with a flight to visit me in New York, a trip that marked both his first time flying alone and the last time I would ever see him alive. And I allowed myself to forget the Christmas the year after, when I had insisted (to be normal? To be “strong”?) on trotting out the tree, and the lights, and the glitter-encrusted ornament, and quickly, tearfully, pitifully regretted all of it. We never said “Merry Christmas” as the plane arced fitfully over the Atlantic and then Africa for 15 hours and across six time zones, while day bled into night and into day again. And I was grateful for that.
I wish I could tell you this was a story with a silver lining, that the trip to the country of my parents’ birth was ultimately restorative for my mom, dad, sister, and me. If I could make the illusion stick, I’d say it was a trip worthy of the movies, a cathartic, third-act coda that brought our lives full circle and filled our hearts with sober gratitude. And the house that greeted us there? Dad’s decade-long obsession that we’d been building (in keeping with tribal tradition) in the lush, sun-baked village of my late paternal grandfather? It was finally completed, standing even as I write this as a shining monument to triumph over adversity and the immortal legacy of mankind’s struggle on earth, or something. Yes, we had fallen on hard times, to be sure. But somehow, during those two blistering weeks together, all of the ordinary and devastating tragedies that have fractured my family in ways both sudden and inexorable were put in proper perspective, their greater meaning climactically revealed as we held each other and wept under a mighty acacia tree. I would not be above telling a story like that if only any of it were true. But, of course, that's not the way it happened.
After a transfer in Addis Ababa, our plane began its descent toward Enugu, capital of Enugu state, the Seattle-sized southeastern city where my father was born and with which my family shares both historical and etymological bonds. (In Igbo, “enu” = “top,” “ugwu” = “hill.”) By random coincidence, we discovered that we were sharing the flight with the gallant Nigerian-British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of 12 Years a Slave. Adaeze and I spotted him across the aisle chatting and laughing with what must have been a brother or cousin. We poked each other and spent idle minutes furtively guessing at the reason for his travel. (A later Google search solved the mystery: a sister’s wedding.) It was the kind of imaginary kinship with a celebrity that is customary in America, but all too rare when you’re the child of immigrants, born into the wrong color skin with a wrong-sounding name. It was exciting. But if I harbored any hope that Nigeria’s most famous living international movie star was an auspicious omen, it was extinguished before we left the Enugu airport.
My sister is shorter than me with long, glossy black hair. At 32, she’s three years older, though her unreasonably faultless skin makes people think I’m the older one. At baggage claim — a Darwinian gauntlet even in countries with space programs — we were sentries, each standing watch at one of two carousels in a hot, un-air-conditioned room. We stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of flustered-looking men from the plane, all of them sweat-soaked and combustible after a long flight. They erupted into shouting matches in Igbo and broken English whenever a foot was smashed or an elbow jammed. A stifling aroma of dust and body odor lingered in the room like burnt rubber at a stock race.
It was too risky, we decided, to be sensible. So we chose to be reckless.
Given the length of our trip, Dad’s suite of medical equipment, and the assorted small gifts Mom brought for very extended family, we were traveling with so many bags that a Kardashian would have blanched at the excess. Even though on an intellectual level we recognized a certain recklessness in checking so much luggage across three flights and 7,000 miles, we had never dwelled on airline operational efficiency, just as we had never dwelled on the lack of cultural or infrastructural accommodations for disabled people in Nigeria, or on the vague assurances from relatives that our house in the village was in a habitable state, more or less, despite the fact that construction had been beleaguered and none of us had seen it in person in over six years.
You could say that we were delusional, that we weren’t sufficiently cautious or fearful. And I guess you’d be right. But the truth is that we were afraid. In fact, we were terrified. But our greatest fear wasn’t to do with luggage, or transportation, or housing, or any of the real and upsetting consequences that could and did await us for being reckless with such things. Our fear, the one that we couldn’t live with, was of what would happen if we weren’t — if we were sensible and stayed home, or waited for more convenient flights to present themselves, or for the house to be perfect. We were afraid of failing to act with appropriate urgency, of not pulling together even in all of our brokenness before it was too late. “I don’t want to die in this country,” Dad had said when he first showed us the blueprints of a house he hoped to retire in, before the stroke had robbed him of the chance. No. It was too risky, we decided, to be sensible. So we chose to be reckless.
After several minutes, the carousels at baggage claim whirred to life. Dad’s electric wheelchair was among the first wave of luggage to round the circuit. I exhaled. We had broken the chair down into three parts, which cumulatively weighed about 110 pounds. I plucked the black leather office chair–like seat from the track first, then the race car–red base, which was emblazoned with a manufacturer name that I had never noticed before. The name, “Pride Mobility,” struck me as both patronizing and a little on the nose, like a nightclub called Sad Dark Sex Preliminary. I set the base aside and noticed that the battery, a 10-pound brick with a handlebar that drops into the base, wasn’t with the other two pieces. Maybe it would come out later. Adaeze and I focused on retrieving the rest of our bags, quietly rejoicing whenever one would turn up, as if our number had been drawn in the Powerball. But after everything else had been accounted for, after we had searched the baggage claim area corner to corner, we were forced to accept the simplest conclusion. The battery was lost.
When I think of my dad walking, I think of his shoulders. They’re broad and slice purposefully through the air on a course just a couple degrees shy of George Jefferson. I see him and his aviator eyeglasses coming through the door of our brick house on the cul-de-sac after a long day of work, wide print necktie and white dress shirt exposed by a freshly unbuttoned suit jacket. The suit is gray and slightly oversize — the kind that has somehow never gone out of style in the South, with billowing fabric at the ankles — and he clutches a boxy leather briefcase firmly in his right hand. I see him at his gym, where he used to take me when I had hoop dreams and was in urgent need of bigger calves, pedaling relentlessly on a stationary bike in his white singlet and striped white tube socks. Beads of sweat accumulate on his hairy chest and on the top of his head, which is shaven so smooth that a reflective glare clings to it always like a tiny cap. I see him making the rounds in the church foyer after service — the only true extrovert in our family — smiling and gregarious while talking with the Greggs about their new car, or the Kobiljaks about their boy in Iraq.
In 1967, when he was 16 or 17, Dad lied about his age and ran away to fight for the Republic of Biafra in the Nigerian Civil War. He went through the hell of basic training and worked his way up to lieutenant. He became acquainted with death — the way it looks and smells and sounds when life leaves the body. Men were razed like ripe sugar cane to his left and right. Once, in a firefight, a bullet struck his rifle and thwacked it right out of his hands. More than a million were killed or starved to death before the Biafrans were defeated, but, somehow, Dad made it home and his story continued. He finished secondary school with distinctions in math, or, as they called it in the Queen’s English his late parents never learned, “maths.” Through an application mailed from the U.S. Embassy in Lagos, Dad won a chemical engineering scholarship to Michigan Tech, of all places, and was overjoyed. He bought a plane ticket in 1974, using money he had earned by convincing his brothers and sisters to sell one of the family’s plots of land. When he arrived in Michigan, with about $100 to his name, it was winter. He got clobbered by the cold; gobsmacked by the snow.
Dad went back home to Enugu the summer after graduation triumphant, a job offer in tow from the chemicals manufacturer Union Carbide in Indiana. That summer, he met Mom and vowed to make her his wife. He was a golden child, blessed by God Himself. Dad worked as many side jobs as he could get in preparation for a family, and to put Mom through school. They would both become Ph.D.s (“Dr. and Dr. Ugwu”), but first he was a part-time ice cream truck driver, and semitruck driver, and door-to-door textbook salesman. My older brother Chiugo was the first of the kids, in 1980. Adaeze came along three years later; and then me, six hours into her third birthday (she still razzes me for crashing the party). Chidi was the last of us, in 1992 — born with sickled blood cells and a bum liver, but ridiculously cute. By that time we were in Elyria, Ohio, a suburb outside Cleveland, living early ’90s Midwestern childhoods: Huffy mountain bikes and Super Soakers and Mario Kart for days.
Dad got an administrative job at Galveston College, but moved us all to Houston, a 30-minute commute away, which had better school districts. The weather was amenable, much better than the Upper Peninsula, and there were other Nigerians around — the highest concentration of any city in America. Life was good. Dad and Mom bought us boomboxes and put us in YMCA leagues and took us to Rockets games to see Hakeem “The Dream.”
It was a dark sort of symmetry. One son taken, one returned.
In 2000, when I was 13 and finishing middle school, Dad announced a grand plan to send me back to our homeland for a year, to get a sense of where we’d come from and, perhaps, some discipline — tricky to teach in the Land of the Free. He hadn’t been able to afford to send his other children back when they were still young and pliant, but he’d be damned if he didn’t send at least one. I fought like hell but returned from the experience with my world a little larger. I told myself I’d leave Houston on my own odyssey one day. By then Chiugo had moved out, following an epic dispute with our parents over college and the direction of his own life. He rarely spoke to them for 14 years; didn’t set foot in the brick house on the cul-de-sac again until after Chidi died. It was a dark sort of symmetry. One son taken, one returned.
We left the airport in search of a hotel that might accommodate us. The house was still being cleaned. Dad and I were chauffeured in a small Peugeot sedan by my cousin Obiora — thirtysomething, tall and clean-shaven with black, rectangular glasses — while Mom and Adaeze rode with another cousin, Emeka — even taller and albino with sherbet-tinted skin and light hair. Both had been among a familial welcoming party that warmly received us after we emerged battery-less from baggage claim. It had been over six years since Dad and I last visited home, nearly a decade for Mom and my sister.
I didn’t remember there being so many hotels in town the last time I had visited. Now they seemed to have sprouted up everywhere, especially in Independence Layout, the prosperous capital district that was home to Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi — the newly elected governor of Enugu state. His fat cheeks and stilted, gap-tooth smile beamed from a legion of billboards as we drove around the city in 94-degree weather on a December afternoon.
“Day by day, we are making Enugu state better.”
The billboards were imprinted with a fine layer of rust-colored dust — a side effect of red, iron-rich soil — as is everything in Nigeria during the dry season: roads, cars, buildings, palm trees…even the air. The entire visible world often took on a red-orange tint, as if someone had replaced my contacts with blue-light filters.
We drove to four different hotels before we found one that could work. This wasn’t a matter of pools or Wi-Fi or complimentary breakfast. It was the stairs. Each hotel telegraphed its suitability to wealthy foreigners with grand staircases at the entrance framed by Greek columns, or stone sculptures, or manicured hedges — ostentatious displays that suggested aspirational if not literal distance from the poorer, less developed sectors that composed most of the city.
The entire visible world often took on a red-orange tint, as if someone had replaced my contacts with blue-light filters.
But to us the stairs were an intractable, inescapable menace. Able-bodied people are not inclined to consider the stark tyranny of stairs. How a single step — invisible when the body is cooperative — can be a wall between a disabled person and the basic comforts of civilization: shelter, bathrooms, air conditioning. In Nigeria — where, despite decades of oil-backed anti-poverty initiatives, even the healthy and gainfully employed do not enjoy easy access to simple conveniences like reliable electricity and potable water — there is no national disabilities legislation. So our expectations that any of the buildings we encountered would be wheelchair accessible in a meaningful way were extremely low. We aimed instead for accessible-ish, which, in the case of a 65-year-old, 5-foot-10, hemiplegic man in a 100-pound, semi-functional wheelchair, meant fewer stairs than Jay Gatsby’s imperial ballroom.
We settled on Dmatel Hotel and Resort in Independence Layout, a midscale, two-story residence with gray and tan exteriors and rooms available on the first floor. I counted six tiled steps between the parking lot and a set of steel and glass double doors that led to the guest quarters. Foot-long agama lizards, their black bodies capped with red heads and tails, flitted in and out of the brush.
Dad can no longer move the right side of his body, the consequence of a weak blood vessel in the left hemisphere of his brain that ruptured one ordinary summer night in 2010. In the years since, my family has devised an ad hoc catalog of precise, multipoint procedures to help him do many of the things he can no longer do for himself. In America, when it comes to getting around, this generally consists of picking up where the Pride Mobility chair leaves off: maneuvering him from the chair to his bed, or from the chair to the toilet, or from the chair to the car. Some procedures are more involved than others, but none typically require more than a moment or two of strenuous physical exertion: lift, support, pivot, place. None of our procedures account for stairs.
Obiora parked the Peugeot at an angle, the passenger-side door as near to the stairs as he could get. I bent at the knees, hoisted the wheelchair out of the trunk, and lugged it up the steps and through the glass doors. One of the back wheels was stuck, but if you switched the chair to manual mode and shoved hard, the skidding wasn’t exactly terrible. Mom came around the passenger side to help. Dad trusted her to hold him. She was soft but strong; had never shied from the hard things. She unbuckled him and pulled his legs toward her so that he was facing the car door. He reached with his left hand and grabbed it for support. As a boy, he’d been taught to scorn the left hand; he’d never used it for eating or shaking. But since 2010, none of that had mattered, or could. Left was all there was.
Six steps. Dad didn’t want to be carried. His pride, now as ever, a blessing and a curse. I chose to be empathetic. I told myself he could ascend the stairs with our help, if we folded our bodies into his and made him strong. If we supported him like he had taught us to support each other. Mom grabbed him by the waist and lifted him up to his feet. He rested his hand on her shoulder. She crept backward slowly while drawing him with her, as if they were slow dancing and she had taken the lead. The right side of his body slumped at the shoulder. Dad stepped forward with his left leg, trailing Mom’s momentum. I grabbed hold of his right leg and made it follow. Obiora helped prop him up from the back. We were moving. Mom climbed the first step and then the second and Dad lifted his left foot and I lifted his right. I thought that the three of us must look like marionettes, except we too were puppets made of patchwork cloth, and the show wasn’t a show to us but all that we could know of life.
His body was bent 90 degrees, like a cheerleader forming an R.
Something happened and Dad slipped, stumbled. His left hand dropped from Mom’s shoulder and clutched at the hem of her blouse. Then he cried out “Jesus!”and gave voice to despair. His body was bent 90 degrees, like a cheerleader forming an R. Obiora and I grasped him from behind, didn’t let him fall, didn’t let him fail. Mom repositioned. She guided his arm back to her shoulder and he was standing again, or as close to standing as he had ever been, as close as we were capable. Two more steps. First Mom, then the left leg, then the right. Once more and we were at the top of the stairs. Now we needed the chair. “Are you holding him?” I asked Mom, searching for her brown eyes. “I’m holding him,” she said. And I let go and ran to grab it, pushed hard and made it skid toward them with its missing battery and one stuck wheel. Mom and Obiora lowered him into the seat gently, folding his right arm into his lap and lifting his right foot onto the footrest. We mopped the sweat from our brows with the backs of our hands and breathed. Finally — after 15 hours, and 7,000 miles, and four hotels, and six steps — we had arrived.
There’s a taxonomy of looks we get when we’re out in public with Dad. As a venue for genuine human feeling, I’ve found the face of the rubbernecker to be raw and dependable. The sudden and transitory nature of their encounter with us prohibits polite composure, the curtains drawn at an uncharitable hour. We’ll get common pity in a crowded restaurant, or morbid curiosity while browsing a department store. Among close friends, extended family, or the rare empathic stranger, you might catch a glimpse of genuine sorrow, a slight quivering of the lip. Most of these looks I ignore, unfazed. The voyeur feels at a great remove from me, as if we are on opposite sides of some unbridgeable chasm. The only look that ever really penetrates, can make me hot with contempt, is relief. The look that says, with a whiff of revulsion, “Thank God it’s not me.”
I recognized that look on the plane to Addis Ababa as I worked with the airline staff to roll Dad down a cramped aisle. I saw the averted eyes, the pursed lips, the chins tucked into necks. I felt the spike in my blood pressure long after I had settled in my seat. In those moments, I could take no solace from any sense of self-righteousness or moral superiority — I was sure I had been guilty of similar looks in the years before the stroke. But I was soothed by something that felt more useful and harder to earn, an awesome awareness that began to bloom in 2010.
I could see clearly that the comfort in “Thank God it’s not me” was a delicate self-deception. A lie that warms and embraces us like swaddling clothes. A mirage in the desert. I knew that just as God had not spared us, He would spare no one in the end. That infirmity and death await each of us and each of the ones we love. That everything can change in an instant. I knew this and was soothed because of the blind justice of the cosmos — the timeless balm of all grieving people. And I felt neither shame nor self-pity, but a powerful kind of peace. At least, at last, I was living in the truth of life, in all its frailty and impermanence — the truth of weak blood vessels and bad livers and mortality itself. The lie had been vanquished and I was free.
In the morning, Adaeze and I ordered room service, something we had never done before in Nigeria. I asked for an omelet with a side of sausage, but when it came, something about the sausage looked a little off.
“Is that…a hot dog?” Adaeze asked, clamping one between her thumb and index finger. “No way,” I said. “It’s a sausage… Right?” Adaeze took a tentative bite and chewed. “Definitely a hot dog.”
Our cousin Nwachukwu picked us up in his black Nissan Pathfinder to take us to the house. He’s barrel-chested, bald, and boisterous with a high-impact voice and mischievous laugh. “Ochinawata!” he blared, greeting Dad by his ceremonial name. He reached for his right hand before clumsily accepting his left. Loosely translated, the name means “Man Who Was Crowned Chief at a Young Age.”
After our Waterloo on the stairs the previous day, Dad agreed to let Nwachukwu carry him to the car, piggyback style, which went totally fine. Mom, Adaeze, and I squeezed into the back.
My father is from a village called Umuatugbuoma, about a 30-minute drive outside of central Enugu, or 20 minutes when Nwachukwu is driving. We zipped through the city like a rabbit through a briar. I noticed there were traffic signs on the roads — another change from the previous times we had visited — some of which were commonly observed (stop lights) and others of which were apparently decorative (stop signs). The roads themselves were touch and go, with no marked lanes and the occasional trench-like pothole that would send us swerving. In Nigeria, driving is like double Dutch: Half-steppers are best left to the sidelines.
The city was a riot of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, provincialism fading feverishly into modernity. Our route took us by men in tattered T-shirts herding white oxen down a main thoroughfare, and by giant LED billboards advertising Glo Mobile wireless service. We passed decrepit, windowless buildings with tin roofs and doors dangling from the hinges; and gorgeous, gated compounds with villa-style mansions and new Mercedes parked out front.
The houses have always been exceptional. Those who can afford to build homes do so with gusto. Hulking cement domiciles with separate servant quarters and elaborate landscaping are common, as are barbed security walls and live-in gatemen. The house is the essential luxury, less a building than a vessel for perpetuating foundational values in Igbo honor culture: family, resilience, work ethic, and hospitality.
The Ugwu house in Umuatugbuoma in March 2009, during the early stages of construction.
I don’t remember exactly when Dad initiated construction on our own house in the village. No one in my family does. I know that I learned of it at some point between 2001, when I returned from teenage repatriation, and 2006, when Mom and Adaeze surveyed the site after groundbreaking. What I remember most of all is Dad’s unsinkable pride in the very notion of the place. I remember the satisfaction in his voice as he gave us progress reports in family meetings where Adaeze, Chidi, and I flopped listlessly into couch grooves. I remember the palpable urgency of his regular international conference calls in the family room (the last landline standing), one of vanishingly few activities he managed to continue after the stroke. I remember the framed Sims-like computer rendering of the house — resplendent with a little black car in the driveway — that still sits on his bedroom dresser.
In actuality, Dad’s plan to build the thing proved only barely tenable. He had little choice but to personally oversee construction by phone from Houston, having forsaken the help of expensive professional contractors on the ground. Given that most of the project was conducted before the recent surge of camera phones and broadband internet access in Nigeria, this meant that messages to and from the site — care of a cousin or family friend or whomever Dad could cajole into playing envoy — arrived effectively as hearsay. Accounting and supply chain management were constant headaches. Project managers were hired with enthusiasm and fired with bitterness. But I think the greatest challenge of building the house, what ultimately allowed it to spiral — like a bad episode of Fixer Upper — from dream home to albatross, wasn’t the fault of technology but of physics.
Aside from the trip he and I took in 2009, when he could swing it and get time off work, Dad was rarely physically present at construction. He wasn't able to look the project managers and masons and carpenters in the eye and make them understand the greater meaning of their labor that could only ever be lost in translation by phone or third party. He couldn’t make them see the house as it was in his mind when he lay still in bed at night and the dream was real. And they never did. It never mattered to anyone like it mattered to him.
We exited the highway and pulled into Umuatugbuoma. The main artery that leads to our village, formerly a red dirt road, had been paved with craggy asphalt. It carved through thick, waist-high brush and scattered patches of yam and cassava plants, with throngs of towering palm trees just beyond. Nwachukwu honked with glee at a group of schoolboys playing football in a clearing, their bodies elastic and glistening in fierce sunlight.
Our house is at the top of a hill surrounded on three sides by undeveloped grassland. Even behind four cement walls that form a perimeter, you see it long before you reach it — the intricate tan shingles of the cascading, cross-hipped roof; the two sets of brilliant white rectangular columns that face south and west. The scale of the place is genuinely stunning. It seemed large enough to contain our Houston house on the cul-de-sac two times over.
The house, like everything we love, was a mirror in which he hoped to glimpse a better version of himself.
As we got closer, the extent of the work yet to be done became clear. The security walls were unpainted and unfinished, with ragged edges and exposed bricks that had gone dingy and gray. The entrance gate was at the lowest point of a sharp incline, and the terrain beneath it was so jagged that the Pathfinder’s undercarriage took a loud beating on the way in — much to Nwachukwu’s displeasure. The land leading up to the house was a sweeping scar of red gravel pocked with weeds.
The house itself, viewed up close, would have been exquisite were it not for a handful of unnerving flaws, like an ill-fated romantic prospect you’d never text while sober. When Dad and I visited in 2009, it was essentially a pile of bricks, with gaping holes where windows would go and no roof. Now it had those things, and many other things that generally make a house look like a house, but nothing was as finished as it should have been. A planned two-tone paint job — white on the second story, apricot on the first — had dried unevenly, and the exterior was covered in gray blemishes where rough spots had been sanded down. Some edges of the building itself were misshapen. Doors fit awkwardly in doorways that either had warped, were poorly constructed, or both. The kitchen was a pile of rubble. Stairs were of inconsistent width and depth. Roof panels sagged. Floor tiles were missing or misplaced. The floor plan itself occasionally tested logic, with superfluous walls creating puzzling alcoves. And that’s to say nothing of plumbing (nonexistent) or electricity (on in some rooms, off in others).
We had no reason to be surprised at the discord, but I couldn't imagine what Dad must have been feeling — what it must have been to lose the veil. The house, like everything we love, was a mirror in which he hoped to glimpse a better version of himself. He stared for a long time at the blotched paint. “It's an eyesore,” he said, wrenching his face.
With some effort, I pushed Dad up a slick tile ramp that had been set just that day and into the house through a side door. Post-stroke, ramps needed to be installed throughout the house, including, hypothetically, a system long enough and shallow enough to safely reach the master bedroom on the second floor. The war against stairs would start at home. Our cousin-in-law and acting project manager for the past year had been waiting for Dad in a spacious first-floor living room with ornate tile floors and an arched entryway. I left the two of them to their business.
Mom, Adaeze, and I probed the house in all its fractured beauty, canvassing room by room, trying to imagine the possibilities. For all its imperfections, it was incontestably lavish, and we acknowledged how absurd it was that it belonged to us. Even if all six of my original family members had been able to inhabit the house at once, even if Chiugo had never left and Chidi were alive and healthy, there would have been too many rooms to fill. We picked out guest bedrooms, a game room, an office — each with floor tiles of different styles and colors.
The war against stairs would start at home.
As we walked up the stairs and down the halls, I felt something — dimmed but discernible — that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid: a particular kind of wonder, the recognition of potential not previously imagined. On the second floor, we rounded a corner into a bright room with a forest-green floor and two windows adjacent to a balcony.
“This is my room,” I heard myself say.
I recognized the words from a previous life, when my siblings and I were young pioneers, freshly arrived in some new town where Mom or Dad had found a better job, a better future, and we were good at the beginning of things. By reflex, I had claimed the room as if something urgent were at stake, as if I were calling dibs. No one put up a fight.
The morning of New Year’s Eve, Mom’s younger brother Nnaemeka came to the hotel to give her a ride to the market. He was visiting from Onitsha, where Mom and her siblings grew up, about two hours west of Enugu. The cousin-in-law had been relieved of his duties as project manager, and, in his stead, Mom volunteered to buy building materials, paint, and small furnishings for the house. The goal was to get it as close to finished as we could before flying back to the States on January 9. We had resolved, once more, to be pioneers.
In Mom’s absence, the responsibility to care for Dad during the trip fell to me. The reason for this was never put into words, as far as I can recall, but it didn’t need to be. We had all made incalculable sacrifices since the stroke: plans changed, dreams deferred. But there could be no comparison between how Dad’s condition altered the course of my life and how it altered my sister’s.
In the summer of 2010, Adaeze and Chidi were home in Houston. Chidi had just graduated high school, and Adaeze was entering her third year of law at Vanderbilt. She had always been the gifted child, the most likely to succeed. My brother and I were partners in crime since before he could talk, but my friendship with my big sister cooked more slowly, through heated rivalry in adolescence and into a tender allyship in young adulthood. When I was naive and selfish, she was wise and giving — the one phone call I’d make from jail.
I had left home the winter before the stroke to try to make it in New York. Making it in my case meant a second postgraduate internship and dates financed with overdraft protection money. It was Adaeze who called and told me, her speech faltering like foal knees, that something had happened. I can still only imagine it. Dad had gone numb the night before, she said. An ambulance was called. The doctors were running tests. By the time she called, they were all at the hospital and I was alone in a windowless room in an apartment I shared with a woman who had four cats.
At some point Adaeze put Dad on the phone, but he was too emotional to speak. At first I heard nothing, and then an odd sound. I’ll never forget it: a heaving, sorrowful croak. It sounded strangely anachronistic, like the preverbal cry of some marooned hunter-gatherer. I heard Dad start weeping, and I was weeping too. I had never thought much about his diabetes. He had gotten a stent in his heart earlier that year without even telling me. I found out days after the procedure, when he was already home. “It was nothing too serious,” Mom had said, dubiously. “We didn’t want to worry you.”
They never wanted to worry me. And I never called enough to be worried. That was the way things worked.
After the call I made myself small on a mattress and box spring. It occurred to me, as tears dampened my dollar-store sheets, what a profound waste I was, unable even to afford the flight to Houston. It would be over a month before I made it home, a month when the reality of who we were and could conceivably be was shifting irrevocably beneath us.
In the years after, when I had returned to New York, it was Adaeze who propped our family up. Even after she’d started at a law firm and made more than enough to strike out on her own, when it was her turn to be naive and selfish, she did the opposite. Became more generous in spirit. Moved back home and stayed there, helping Dad, yes, but also Mom and Chidi, who needed moral support. And when Chidi got sick for the last time, she was there for both of our parents. Screamed bloody murder by his hospital bed as he was dying. Drove Mom home when it was over and not over at all. No one ever asked her to do these things — she would never make them ask. But she was there when they needed her anyway. She cooked meals, cleaned messes, and DVRed The Good Wife. She put our family before herself. That’s the kind of person she is.
The kind of person I am is the kind who shows up twice a year and spends most of the time in his room with the door closed. The kind who makes you dredge up Christmas decorations when the pain is still fresh. So though it’s true I did my best to take care of Dad in Nigeria, stood by his side and generally tried to make myself useful, I didn’t do this because I was a good son, or because I was selfless. It was the opposite. I did it because I’m the selfish one.
To everyone’s surprise, Obiora, Mom, and Adaeze had returned to the airport the day before New Year’s and recovered the battery to the Pride Mobility chair, which apparently arrived on the flight after ours. Dad was sitting in the newly functional chair when someone from room service knocked at the door. We were in my parents’ room, across the hall from the one I shared with my sister, which had tangerine-colored walls with mundane paintings of flowers on them.
I opened the door and tipped a young woman in a navy blue vest a few hundred naira, which amounts to a couple of dollars. I was never quite sure if this was a good tip or a bad one. I cleared space on a table beneath a mirror and set a plate of fried plantain with tomato stew. I poured a bottle of water into a glass and plopped a blue-and-white striped bendy straw inside. Dad clicked his chair on (meep murp) and cruised over to the table.
In accordance with our usual procedure, I tore off a paper towel and tucked it into his shirt collar like a bib. I’ve never tried eating exclusively with my non-dominant hand before, but given that I can barely hold chopsticks with my dominant one, I can only think of Edward Scissorhands eating peas.
I had served Dad food, begrudgingly, countless times before the stroke. When we were kids, it was one of the main ways my parents taught us respect for elders, along with requiring us to greet them before school in the morning and when they came home from work at night. I remember being 11 or 12 and ladling ogbono soup, bubbles bursting on its swampy surface, from massive metal pots on the stove in our open-ended kitchen. When Mom wasn’t looking, Chidi and I would climb onto the bar opposite the stove and do death-defying stunt dives across the living room, crash-landing on a plush gray three-seater. I remember taking Dad’s favorite cup, a giant gray mug with a green handle from Mr. Gatti's Pizza that was bigger than my head, and filling it with water at the ice dispenser. I’d press the button and wait for an eternity as the water gurgled toward the brim.
Dad was the stoic and intimidating type, changing the air of whatever room he walked into. Whenever he was around, we sat up a little straighter, made ourselves less wild. I was in awe of him and the great things he’d accomplished, and I dreamed of becoming a Ph.D. too — buying a nice car and a big house and starting a family in my own corner of the world. But as I got older and my desires changed, so did our relationship. Awe turned into resentment; his life story began to sound like an outdated fairy tale. Rather than following in his footsteps, I started to feel like being myself meant running as far away from the things he had done as I could.
I started to feel like being myself meant running as far away from the things he had done as I could.
“Check the suitcases, it’s around here somewhere,” Dad said. He had finished his plantain and wanted to check his blood sugar. He had done this every day, more or less, since I’d been in college, and yet somehow I had managed to remain completely ignorant of what it entailed. “It’s in a small black pouch,” he said. “Look in your mommy’s bags.”
After a few minutes of erratic searching, I found the pouch in a plastic tote and brought it to the breakfast table. Dad asked me to open it, and I pulled out a black stopwatch-like meter, a bundle of tiny strips of litmus paper with circuitry on one end, and a long white tube that looked like a pen you’d get from a doctor’s office. I spread them out carefully.
Dad asked me to cock the tube, which I discovered was a lancing device, and I pulled the top half back until it made a satisfying click. Then he held out his left index finger, pink side up, and asked me to press the narrow end of the device against it. “Push the button,” he said after he had made contact, and I pushed an oval green button.
The tiniest speck of blood appeared on the tip of his finger. I was surprised at how small it was, a red bead hardly wider than a hair. To take a sample, it would need to be bigger, Dad said. He told me to massage the finger, push more blood to the surface. I pressed my thumb and index finger above his first knuckle and pinched, rolling gently. It was the smallest gesture. The bead grew steadily, and when it was large enough, I let go. I inserted the circuitry end of a litmus strip into the black stopwatch meter. Then Dad dabbed the paper end with the blood, which plumed like dye on cotton. The meter read “75.”
“Is that good?” I asked, and he said it was. I threw out the strip and put the equipment back in the pouch.
I imagine things work differently in other families with a sick parent, depending on the sickness and depending on the parent, but in my family, being on Dad duty is mostly following orders. Some days, I am better at this than others.
Before the stroke, Dad was about as exacting as you’d expect an army-trained, self-made engineer and academic man from an extremely patriarchal society to be. He was particular about the air conditioning filters in our house in the same way he was particular about the grades we brought home. If he believed in tattoos, the ancient Dad proverb “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well” would go right around where Tupac had “Thug Life.”
When his body stopped cooperating, Dad’s need to hold everything and everyone around him to a certain standard only became more dire. He lost his autonomy but concedes no loss of control, directing us on how to dress him and prepare his food and put him to bed as if he has declared war against oblivion and each task performed to his liking marks a tactical victory. Crudely speaking, I know that the power he has to conscript us in this scheme is purely psychic, that by the ignoble laws of nature, our roles have been reversed. But taking dominion over a parent’s body is an awful test. What rung of hell is reserved for those who fail it? What are my desires weighed against his suffering? How can I not show his body every ounce of love, and compassion, and fanatical attention to detail that it showed mine, when it was puny and soft and nothing at all but an extension of his own?
I put Dad to bed. Unfastened his black Velcro shoes and set them aside. I grabbed him by his waist, transferring him from the chair to the mattress: lift, support, pivot, place. And when he asked to be moved closer to the center of the bed, I moved him. And when he asked for the pillows to be adjusted four times, I adjusted them. And when I felt the bitterness swell in my throat like a knot, I swallowed it back down again. I was the parent then, and isn’t that what parents do?
That night, the plan was for a twentysomething cousin of ours named Chinedu to take Adaeze and me to a nightclub. We would get away from our parents, and the hotel, and the house for a while and ring in the New Year with other Nigerians our own age. The only thing was we weren’t exactly sure when Chinedu was supposed to arrive. Our WhatsApp messages confirmed only that he would be coming by “later.” This, we remembered, is the way things work in Nigeria. Time is relative. There weren’t even clocks in our hotel rooms. In New York, you can’t get a cup of coffee with someone without a calendar invite and two weeks' notice, but in Nigeria people lead much less hurried lives. It occurred to me that this signaled two different strategies for contending with the disorder of the universe: resistance versus acceptance.
We got dressed around 10 and sat on the bed watching my favorite channel in the hotel’s satellite bundle, M-Net Movies Action Plus. From what I could gather, M-Net Movies Action Plus is a near constant stream of terrible movies starring incredibly famous people that were never widely released in America. Watching it was like watching TV in some alternate reality where the faces were familiar but all the titles and storylines were new and much, much worse. This particular night we were engrossed in a mystifying 2013 gem called Devil’s Knot, in which someone encouraged Colin Firth to play a working-class investigator with a prominent Southern twang.
At 11:53, we got a message from Chinedu that he was pulling into the parking lot. We climbed into his soft gold SUV and headed to meet more of our cousins at a club in town called eXtreme. From the road, scattered fireworks ignited the black sky, announcing the stroke of midnight. “Happy New Year!” we all yelled and erupted into laughter.
Given the changes I had already seen in Enugu, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the nightclubs there were nearly indistinguishable from the ones you’d find on any booze-soaked promenade in a midsize Western city. And yet, when we arrived at eXtreme and I saw a young woman in a form-fitting outfit delivering bottle sparklers of Moët, I couldn’t help but think of mornings 15 years earlier when I had to fetch bathwater from a well. We peeled through a dark, crowded room skewered by roving laser lights and posted up at a banquette near the bar.
The most remarkable aspect of the club experience was the music. In recent years, Nigeria’s music industry, based out of Lagos, has rivaled the Nollywood Industrial Complex for the mantle of most essential cultural export. Contemporary Nigerian pop is both proudly local and pleasantly porous, a fizzy brew of dance hall rhythms, hip-hop triumphalism, and post–T-Pain R&B. The country’s hottest young stars, like Wizkid, whose incandescent “Ojuelegba” was remixed last summer by Drake, and Ycee, whose hit “Jagaban” packs more ferocity than anything Maybach Music has put out in years, enjoy the status of royalty and lucrative sponsorships from companies like Glo Mobile and Guinness, maker of Nigeria’s beloved stout beer.
“Duro,” by Tekno, a crowd favorite with a similar tempo to “Tempted to Touch,” the 2004 slow wine anthem by Barbadian singer Rupee, blasted from the speakers as Adaeze and I caught up with our cousins Chinedu, Kanayo, Chukwudi, Nonso, and his new wife, Lota. Adaeze laughed diplomatically when the conversation inevitably turned to the subject of marriage — specifically, when she planned to settle down with a respectable Igbo man. But soon we were debating Donald Trump (“Horrid”), the merits of sushi (“Raw fish?” Nonso said and sucked his teeth. “Raw. Fish?”), and Jay Z versus Nas.
Later, we went upstairs to a less crowded area and Nonso ordered a bottle of Hennessy for the group (no sparklers). I let my mind go blank as we danced until 4 in the morning.
The nucleus of all my extended family in Enugu is a house in Umuatugbuoma my late paternal grandfather, Ugwu Nwamba, built in 1957. It’s a sturdy, low-slung bungalow — just a fraction of the size of my father’s house — with cream walls, a squat brown roof, and green wooden shutters. Out front is a rust-red gravel yard tromped by a small herd of dairy goats — residents on the property since not long after it was erected. Every time I’ve been to Nigeria, we’ve gone to this house for family meetings that follow a typical pattern: My uncles arrange themselves in an egalitarian circle, commence a vociferous airing of grievances, and swig palm wine until the stars hang like tinsel and my eyelids get heavy.
I’ve heard sketches of Ugwu Nwamba’s story countless times since I was a kid. How he was orphaned as a child, was robbed of his birthright, and grew up vagrant and illiterate. How he rose out of penury and became a yam farmer and commodities trader, sometimes walking 20 hours to do business in far-flung towns. How everywhere he went he was known for his honesty and fair-mindedness, always believing that you reap what you sow. And how he eventually flourished, taking four wives and siring six sons and eight daughters, Dad being the youngest of the boys.
I felt like the world had actually ended, but for some reason I was left behind, expected to do laundry and respond to emails within a reasonable timeframe.
I’d heard this legend and admired my grandfather, who died before I was born, the way you admire Great Men you read about in history books — my own personal Founding Father. As with the men in those books, this admiration was more notional than tangible. His life and struggles were too different from my own to have real force, abstracted through semipermeable layers of culture, time, and geography. But one afternoon in the village — when Dad, Mom, Adaeze, and I were visiting the house of my cousin Chinedu’s mother — I overheard a darker, more obscure chapter of my grandfather’s story that made it suddenly and unexpectedly resonant.
In the story that I’d known, my grandfather was a superhuman figure — unbroken though he’d been born a wretch. He had shaken off profound anguish and alienation as if they were rocks in his sandals, mere pebbles on the road to redemption. It’s exactly the kind of story we tell all the time about survivors of tragedy, without pausing for questions, even though we suspect the truth is more complicated.
It would be harder to internalize and impart stories like my grandfather’s in their fullness. We don’t want to acknowledge that anguish and alienation might never fully leave someone, let alone someone we think we know. We can’t accept that a person could feel so hated by the world that he would find himself desperate for escape; or that he would attempt to achieve that escape not once but over and over again in the prime of his life, before things ever had the chance to get better, when better was the end of a rope hung hastily from a kitchen cabinet. The hard story to tell is the story that suggests suffering is not a pebble on the road but the road itself, extending ceaselessly before us into the horizon.
My aunt was openly reviewing this chapter of my grandfather’s story because she too had been destabilized by tragedy. Her husband, father to Chinedu and five other young children, had recently died suddenly after being taken to the hospital for an asthma attack. In the shadow of grief, Ugwu Nwamba’s attempted suicides, once too confounding to contemplate, sprang to the front of her mind. She no longer wondered how someone could covet their own demise.
Like my aunt, I recognized myself in my grandfather’s encounters with existential despair. I have never been suicidal and hope to live a long and full life. But in the weeks and months after Chidi died, still engulfed in darkness, I felt ready to die, too; by which I mean that losing the person I loved most in the world seemed equivalent to losing the world itself. In truth, like many who experience what is sometimes called catastrophic loss, I felt like the world had actually ended, but for some reason I was left behind, expected to do laundry and respond to emails within a reasonable timeframe.
On an ordinary day some decades ago, a few threads of twine and the miraculous timing of a good Samaritan are all that stood between my grandfather and annihilation. That is a part of his story and a part of mine. A shift in the wind and everything that came after, everything I have ever known, would never have come into being, lost to the currents of reverie like so many passing thoughts in an anxious mind.
Had I discovered this fact years ago, in 2009 say, I might have recoiled in shock, or, duly disquieted, pushed it from my mind entirely. But at my aunt’s house in the village that day, I found that there was room within me to receive it. I had already been learning to dwell on the imminence of my withdrawal from this world, to let go of the lie that my life here is inevitable and unending. This did not mean that I was not afraid of death or that I understood it. But I had begun to make room for it, like an heirloom, handed down at first breath.
On our last night in Nigeria we were having a party. Mom had spearheaded a heroic sprint on the house, which now had a fresh coat of paint, a new entrance gate, two additional ramps, curtains, sofas, and beds with linens in each of our rooms. It still was not finished — the old gate needed to be sealed up, for example, and the kitchen was still a mess — but it was habitable, which by then felt like a miracle. We were finally going to be sleeping in our own home, for the first and only time of the trip, and we planned to celebrate.
We invited our relatives to a housewarming, for which a cow and goat were being prepared in the manner of a traditional feast. This, I had learned, meant slaughtering and roasting them on the property. “It’s organic,” Nonso joked.
With Nwachukwu’s help, we checked out of our hotel in the afternoon, making eager use of a ramp that had felicitously been installed days earlier. The manager — and the guests, and the cleaning staff — had taken note of our dramatic productions on the stairs, which apparently put him in mind of a previous visit from the department of safety.
“Day by day, we are making Enugu state better,” the billboards had promised.
Nwachukwu’s Pathfinder, packed like a clown car with all of our luggage, made it through the house’s new gates unscathed. It was the hottest day yet, at 102 degrees, and my collar wilted on my neck as I hauled my bags up the stairs to the room with the forest-green floors.
Even as Dad toiled over the years, seemingly willing a house into existence by sheer force of vision, I’d made a habit of avoiding the obvious question of who would live in it. It had been introduced, innocuously enough, as retirement planning on the part of my parents, who, having achieved the impossible in a world far away from the one into which they were born, sometimes dreamed of returning home. “I don’t want to die in this country,” Dad had said.
But I knew the house was also a scheme of my father’s, like sending me abroad when I was young, to engrave Nigeria on the hearts of his remaining children — to keep us coming back. After his stroke, when the exigencies of his condition muddied the dream of a radiant final homecoming, this second meaning overshadowed the first. The house, if we chose to accept it, would become ours; Dad’s hope and blood and treasure embodied in one flawed place.
After nightfall, our relatives descended on the party in droves. People who had helped us over the past two weeks — Obiora and his sister Ifeoma, Emeka and his brother Chijoke, Nnaemeka, Chukwudi, and many more — came with their children and parents, generations of Ugwus assembling in our absurdly large yard in front of our absurdly large house. Nigerian pop was played, Guinness and palm wine imbibed, and rice with fresh meat served to bursting.
In a quiet interlude amid the clamor, sitting between Adaeze and me on the patio, my Dad made one last proposal.
“Come for vacations,” he volunteered, tactfully. But what he really he meant was: “Don’t forget.” ●