I often wonder which of us, of all my father’s children will miss him the most.
Everyone tends to deign to Adaku’s opinion on the matter. She was the one that nurtured Papa in his last days after all, the one that read novenas out loud at his bedside while he diminished, the only one of us that closed her eyes in prayer at his graveside two days ago. The rest of us had our eyes open.
When we were children, there was no doubt that Adaku was my father’s favorite. She was his Ada after all. He sang consoling songs to her as she sobbed from the beatings of our no-nonsense mother, smuggled her ukpa as a bed time snack when our mother wasn’t looking, complimented her neat uniform and threaded hair every morning as she set out for school. To Papa, Adaku was the first proof of his manhood; proof that his seed could grow into a strong tree that weathered the storms of life. Before she came along, my parents had miscarried three babies and lost one child to measles. Papa was in his mid-thirties when Adaku showed up.
Adaku grew into a beautiful woman, aided and abetted by the sunshine and rain that was our father’s love. She however broke his heart at age 16 by falling in love with a man who looked down on healthy farm work, a man who sat in a chair all day long counting money at the community bank two villages away from ours. Papa had always had his eye on Chief Okolo’s farmer son for an in-law but Adaku had sniggered at the man’s bowlegs and halting use of English and settled for the yellow skinned teller captain at the bank instead.
They got married when Adaku was 18, a whole year after their introduction because Papa kept stalling. I was only 6 then but I remember wondering at the new frown lines that crisscrossed our father’s face throughout the proceedings of my sister’s wine carrying.
We all enjoyed varying degrees of Papa’s affection and love but after Adaku, it seemed like he stopped having favorites. Madu likes to opine and say Adaku never really stopped being his favorite but I beg to disagree.
There were those long, rainy evenings he spent with Okorie telling him tales of the warriors of old, teasing him about the almost invisible shadow of beard that threatened his young adolescent face. Or the times Papa would take only Okorie with him on his journeys to Nsukka and Asaba. They would return with identical smiles and memories of the world in their eyes to the eternal jealousy of Madu and I.
With Madu, our father was a little boy again; playful with laughter that gave us glimpses into the boy we never got to meet. One time, Madu got into trouble at school. We had all waited with baited breath for Papa to bring out his cane after the school teacher that brought the bad report left but all my father had done was give him my brother a piece of wood and instructed him to join him in the carving exercise he spent his evenings on. In the silence of their carving, my brother had learned his lesson somehow. He was never again sent home for school.
And then there was me. The many times Papa came home from the farm, his pockets filled with the Udala fruit he knew I loved. The time I fell ill while Mama was away on a journey to Asaba to buy the George wrappers she sold at our village market- it was Papa that had bathed me when my brothers had scoffed at the chore of “bathing a girl”. It was Papa that had put me on his back and walked all the way to the next village where the closest clinic was. I was also the youngest and the one to get the first glimpses of my father as an old man.
“Efuru, did you make this soup?” He would say as he ate the evening meal I placed before him.
“Papa! You have started again abi?” I would answer, faking a hurt look.
“Ah, so I can’t even ask a question again in my own house?”
“Papa you know very well I made the soup. Stop teasing!” I would tell him petulantly
“Ehen! I just wanted to know if I should tell those young men that disturb me on the street every day that it is okay to bring wine. And after tasting this soup, I am going to just go into the village square and announce that my Efuru is ready for marriage.”
“Papa!!” I would scream in mock horror upon which he and my mother would fall over each other laughing, their almost gray heads locked together in mirth, the finish lines of time deeply etched into their faces. I could never stay mad long at either of them. I was the child of their old age, their harvest for seeds of love long forgotten…
Mama died when I was 14. She slept one night and didn’t wake up. It was Papa that found her and it was I that found them both. He held her in his arms for the longest time and sang all her favorite worship songs before he let me go get an ambulance. There were no tears but whereas there had been only a few patches of gray on his head before she died, by the end of that sad day, there was no trace of youth left anywhere on his head.
When we buried her, it was my hand he held onto. Madu came home from university but Nnamdi was too far away doing his NYSC in Katsina. Adaku was pregnant with her third child and Papa forbade her from mourning.
“Do you want to bear an unlucky child?” He asked her every time he found her weeping.
Everyone went away when it was all over but I stayed with Papa till I couldn’t stay any longer. I got admission into the University at Nsukka when I was 17. It wasn’t that far from our village, only a 3 hour bus ride and I would return home every weekend to help Papa with whatever he needed. And Papa, he could visit me whenever he came to Nsukka to sell his carvings. It was all going to work out well.
So when the time came for me to take the first of the many steps that would lead me away from the man I loved most in the world, I was unprepared for the tears that flowed freely from his eyes.
“Papa?” I asked the man who waved my brothers off happily to the university, the man who frowned all throughout Adaku’s wedding rites, the man who mourned stoically for my mother.
He shook his head and wiped those traitorous rivers away.
“Nwanefuru,” he said, taking my hand. “Let your father cry in peace. It is not every day a man gets a good reason to cry. Life has far more bad reasons to cry than good reasons so let me enjoy this one.”
He came for my graduation and showed me the same fate he had meted out to my sister during my wedding to a doctor. The first time I miscarried, my father took the three buses and one taxi it took to get to Lagos where I lived all by himself. He sat with me on the subsequent nights the ghosts of my unborn children haunted me. He cooked for me and offered his bent back on the days I didn’t feel up to walking through life any longer. When I wept for the bad reasons that had come into my life to make me cry, he cried with me and assured me the good ones would come along someday.
We are all staying at Adaku’s house for the funeral rites. None of us wants to deal with ghosts or the memories that our father’s house will assail us with at every turn. I look at my brothers and sister and envy them. Adaku got to know my father for 53 years, Okorie for 51, Madu for 49. I only got to know him for 42.
Of us all, no matter what my sister has to say, I know who it is that misses him most.
It is only fair that it is the one who got to see him cry that misses his laughter the most. It is only fair that it is the child of his old age that misses his youth the most. It is only fair that the one that got the least time gets to miss the time she never had. It is only fair that I, Nwanefuru, the only one of my siblings that is yet to be a parent, it is only fair that I get to miss the our parents the most.
Adaku tells me not to cry or the child in my belly will be unlucky. I want to laugh but I see Papa’s love in her eyes so I don’t. Madu teases me in ways only Papa could have. Okorie is gentle and kind; offering me his arm as we walk home from our father’s grave, buying me Udala I never asked for, offering me his pillow…
Tonight when I sit with my siblings over dinner and plans for our father’s will; Madu with our father’s laugh, Adaku with his eyes, Okorie with his build and kindness, and listen to them reminisce about the man we all knew in different ways, I will tell them finally of the name I have chosen for the child I will bear in a few weeks’ time.
Nnamdi; Nnamdi so I can let go of my right to miss my father the most to whoever else wants it, Nnamdi for the good reasons life gives to cry, Nnamdi for my father lives…in all of his children.
Song of the day: The Script – Superheroes