I always knew I would write a tribute in your honor…what I didn’t know was that I would write it five months shy of one day to when we lost Keniebi. I was able to get your eye drops just before I boarded the plane enroute Port Harcourt to resume my shift. The day before, the nurse had called me to say you were unresponsive. I asked her what she meant. Deniye and I debated over the phone which hospital could attend to you at that time of the night and we took you to the hospital closest to home. I landed Port Harcourt and was rushing to the hospital with your eye drops. And then the call came- I wasn’t expecting to hear you had passed. I thought Deniye would tell me you were a bit stable now though weak.
It felt as though a gusty wind entered my innermost parts and started to excavate all my internal organs- I was well dressed but felt suddenly hollow, naked and unprotected. The gusty wind kept howling inside of me and in response to Deniye I uttered a barely audible “Wow”. Apart from wow and asking if mum had been told, I do not recall what else I said. He hung up. And then tears started to cascade down my cheeks. Mummy hadn’t heard and soon enough my phone rang. “Eriye, have you landed, I’m waiting for you so we can go to the hospital.”
“Yes mum, I’m on my way.”
Deniye and I got to the house almost at the same time. Dad- telling mummy that you didn’t make it and seeing her reaction was one of the most heart wrenching things I have had to witness in a while.
Dad, as I write this to you, I had imagined that I should have written it and read it out a few weeks ago but I felt it would look like a lack of faith in God to think you were not going to make it. The next day I got Stella to arrange your room, because I thought you were going to come back from the hospital. I thought you would get the nurse to call and say that you still pulled through. When I brought out your pictures, prepared the table, put a vase beside your pictures and sent for notebooks to prepare a condolence register, it started dawning slowly on me that I was not going to see you.
Dad, as a child, I always believed you were never going to die. And then as I grew up and realised that death was an intrinsic part of life, I prayed to God to keep you till about 90 years.
Dad, you are a good man with a lovely soul. People say daughters and their fathers share a special bond. As an only girl, you were extra protective of me. You believed in me and taught me to have so much confidence in myself. When I gained admission into the University of Jos, you took me to Jos to make sure I had a decent accommodation. I remember you walked into a lecturer’s office and introduced yourself and told him as a lecturer yourself you believed you could walk into any office with your daughter. And then you took me to the hostel. We entered rooms with graffiti on the walls and you told me that no decent student who wanted to make good grades should be in those kinds of rooms. And so, I got a place off-campus and you got my mattress, and everything needed for me to settle down.
I recall after NYSC, I ran into a colleague and he told me he recognised me from orientation camp in Port Harcourt because I was the only who came with my dad to camp. I smiled. You took me to NYSC camp, bought my bucket and mattress and ensured I was comfortable in camp before you left for the house. I tell my colleagues that they do not make men like you any longer. You would open your eyes in sheer horror if you witnessed how grown men fainted and woke up on national television, how grown up men with families told half-truths and outright lies on the pages of newspapers and television and bragged about their feats. The only lecturer I know who never made or sold handouts. The one public servant I know who as commissioner never collected bribe or gave bribes to any mortal man dead or alive but instead made sure people got lands and houses in a fair and transparent manner. If you were a friend to anyone, the person could go to bed assured of your one hundred per cent loyalty. Injustice rankled your very core. I recall you cutting a hose from the filling station on campus because the fuel attendants were selling fuel to outsiders rather than Uniport staff and their families.
I spend time reading the condolence messages in the notebook outside the entrance to your house and some common themes run through the messages- a good man, a mentor, “a great man”, “you stood by me”, “a father to all.” Uncle F.K, sobbed uncontrollably when he heard you had passed, (sounds so surreal, so I alternate between passed on, died. “Died” seems so rude). We had to console him. Same for Uncle Godwin who used to bring fruits for you without fail every other week. Dad, do you recall Victor – your first driver when you started work in Uniport? He came as well. Age had drawn lines on his face, and I didn’t recognise him at first until he broke into a wide grin. He told the story of how you encouraged him to send his kids to school. Your first secretary when you were dean of student affairs came as well. Dad, Audu also came some days ago. Ever faithful Audu the mallam who worked with you in the late eighties or early nineties- can’t quite recall.
He said he had been coming to see you with gifts of onions and carrots for mum as he was wont to always do but nobody allowed him to see you. He too has grown old and he says he’s told his children in the North that you have passed. He said he told his children that the man that wrote a note for him to get a job has gone. Dad, I cannot tell you the number of men that broke down and wept at your demise. Demise-what a word- hard to have it in the same sentence with your name.
Dad, you lived for your children. It is no wonder that Keniebi’s death and subsequent events got you depressed because whatever affected any one of us was as though your eyes and heart was affected. For me as an only girl, I could do no wrong in your eyes. A mother told her daughter who in turn told me the story of how you stood up at a P.T.A meeting to caution the teachers. They had told the parents present that they were going to flog students for some offence. And you immediately jumped up and said- “Eriye, can do no wrong. You can flog the boys if you want. Nobody touches Eriye.” You always stood by me and indeed all your children. I recall when I had an issue in my former workplace- you fought for me and sent me money in your usual way of demonstrating that you stand by and for us.
You taught me the value of contentment, the wisdom in financial prudence and the force of humility. You are a contented man, a man of principles and integrity, brave and a man with a generous heart. A man of extraordinary foresight, you told mummy in the 60s while both of you were schooling in Canada that you wanted to have your kids outside Nigeria because the way Nigeria was going, you believed it would be better to expose us to the best of both worlds and give us the option to choose. Daddy, we called you many names- “Kimse one leg”, because of your military strides, “Popino in the house”, “one-man riot squad”. If you believed in a cause and everyone was going right, you would go left if your conscience told you to do so. We were just three, but a lot of people called you “daddy”. You are a completely detribalized Nigerian, but a fiercely proud Ijaw man and you made us proud to be called Ijaws and known as people from the Niger Delta.
We had planned for your 80th but Keniebi’s death got you completely disinterested in any celebration. We thought we would at least do something small as a family for you, but alas you and I spent your 80th in the hospital. Life demonstrates repeatedly that there are no guarantees of structured paragraphs and sentences in a man’s trajectory. In the hospital, when I wished you a happy birthday you told me “We would pull through.” The same words you told all of us when we lost Keniebi. I believed you dad, that you would make it and still be with us. One day, Deniye said to me, “Eriye, you haven’t noticed that daddy is not interested. He’s lost the will and interest to live.” I didn’t notice and I didn’t want to notice to be honest. A few days before you passed, you told Seun, “I want to go. I have lived my life.”
I’m glad your grandkids were able to stay with you for a while. They took it very badly. You would wake them up so they could eat with you- Port-Harcourt fish and shrimps as they called it tasted better than what they had in Lagos.
Dad, you be man as they say in local parlance. Owei. You be living tinz. To say that I am saddened does not come close. To write and describe how we feel will not do any justice to the emotional rollercoaster we are on now. Deniye and I promise to look after mummy and to hold the fort for you and Keniebi.
Dad, ehe, before I forget- did you hear what mum was telling you as you lay on the bed unresponsive to our tears? She told you in Ijaw language that when you see Keniebi both of you should not forget us here. Protect us, watch over us and fight for us as you have always done. Dad tell Kb to check his Whatsapp messages. I usually send him messages to tell him things happening. For the better part of his marriage, career and political life, he slept, wined and dined with evil. I’m glad he is resting.
Dad, we love you. What a privilege and an honor to have called you dad. I know that you will go through this letter and wonder why some sentences are in present tense and others in past tense. You will have your pen ready to edit and make corrections. I did it on purpose because the values you instilled in us and the lives you impacted keep you alive in my heart. The past tenses remain the part of me that allows myself to slowly come to terms with the cruel fact that your flesh is gone and I won’t come into your room to see you, I won’t hear your voice on the phone and I won’t hear your laughter. Dad, bye oo. You lived a life of service. Doo mo mu. Wo dou, ogono do wo di o. Wo dou, Suni wo pri o. From, your one and only country girl.
Onagoruwa wrote from Lagos.