Something has happened to me
The things so great that I cannot weep;
Somebody is dead.
—Kofi Awoonor, “Songs of Sorrow.”
HE WAS INDOMITABLE and alluring, in public and in private.
His was a measured gait, a quick, measured, purposeful gait. The soldierly stride of a man who could knock down the most entrenched of obstacles. In crisply ironed shirts, in perfectly fitting trousers, plain and jeans. Like the brown, black shoes and sandals grounding that regal bearing of his, his manners were polished, sometimes exotically so. When he spoke—Igbo or English or German or French—his flow, by chance or design, often paused, brief pauses of calculation followed by a trail of assuredness, by well-crafted and weighted words. The knowingness of a lecturer couched in the teacherly aura of a priest. He tore down walls with his words, he raised confidence like towers. He cared. Most times he cared too much.
His was an elevated existence, one of rare complexity, of generous tenderness and necessary toughness, of solid personal achievements. He was evidently and beautifully different, and he knew he was that different, and he was confident in that difference. Because he had the brains and he had the style and he had the heart, the admiration trailing him sparkled like fire, the stirred impressions like sea waves breaking on rock.
It was unimpeachable, his being; it towered quietly: a lion’s in harmattan.
IT WAS SO easy to want to be like you, to wear that galvanizing certainty about the world, to seem to know how Life worked. It was that doting fixation of students on their teachers, and it propelled me.
“You write? That’s good. That’s very good,” you said, nodding.
Your book shelves were revelatory. Scott Adams’ hilarious The Dilbert Future, Richard Tarnas’ poetically sweeping The Passion of the Western Mind: you gave me these and I took much more, but I was interested mostly in your own work: The Sin of Conformity, Agonies of the World’s Most Humiliated Race, Hermeneutics as a Theory of Interpretation and as a Literary Theory, your English-language translation of Gills Caron’s and F. Bonneville’s memoir The Death of Biafra.
Months later, you said, “I’m trying to write this novel.” And you bent and pulled out a pile of magazines stuffed with newspapers and cut-out pictures. “There’s just no time,” you said. “No time.”
It was remarkable how much busyness filled your life. You were churning out insightful academic papers routinely, organizing international conferences, editing and peer-reviewing journals: Interdisciplinary Academic Essays, The Nsukka Journal of the Humanities, Asian Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities. Without you functioning, so much around you just wouldn’t. Only you could be You.
ABOUT YOU, I lived in a haze of curiosity, I always had questions, an unquenchable craving to know more than I was allowed to: your two doctorates in French Literature and in German and International Relations, your studies in Rome and Munchen and Saarland and Grenoble and Ibadan, your undergraduate years here in Nsukka, your years in the seminary, your childhood.
I told you that your The Death of Biafra is a major contribution to the civil war canon and you shrugged. I asked if you planned to translate it into the German, and you said you hoped you would. Then you said, “Maybe you should do it.”
I laughed. I was illiterate in German.
“You can learn,” you said, an un-laughed laugh in your eyes, and got up and came back with your German at Your Door: German Grammatical Structures for Beginners and placed it before me.
I never opened it.
YOU LIKED FRUITS: oranges, grapes, paw-paw, lemon. They were good for the body, you said. People need to take good care of their systems, you said. “If you continue eating only yam and rice everyday…that’s terrible, just terrible.”
You liked basketball. Often you played in your compound, or in the university courts. “You don’t make use of your height,” you said.
You liked music. Afrobeats, Afropop. “The beats are nice,” you said.
With you, there was as much laughter as there was introspection, and there was depth in your perception of things quotidian and extraordinary, layers and layers of truths, an overarching sense of justice about the world.
When my mother died and my sanity was being slowly siphoned and I nearly fell into meaninglessness, you halted my falling-apart; you sought out the scattered pieces of me and gathered them and gummed them and oversaw that remaking of me.
Sometimes, you were too fatherly. You talked and talked about so many important things. You emphasized so much that I feared I would forget. From you I learned positivity and what courage entailed.
Each time I teased you about your professional generosity, the number of lecturers you helped launch or stabilize their careers, helped push to another level, the number of strangers whose meals you paid for daily, you shook your head slowly, your face blank. Sometimes, your startlingly deep sense of humour folded into itself.
There was the student who, unasked, brought you a drawing of yourself in that remarkable pose of a Thinker. There was the aging lecturer who, each time you saw, always said, “Nwoke mara mma.” Handsome man. Who always said it as though meditating. There was the non-academic staff who had begun to bend to kneel in gratitude before you barked, “What are you doing!” Once, I asked you how it felt living in earned reverence, knowing you were extravagantly loved and extravagantly respected.
Sometimes, in your private moments, you sounded so different from the lecturer with that air of stoical untouchability; you sounded so normal, so human.
I FORGET, I forget.
In these past few days, I have only circled on the rim of this agony. It is not that I am entirely afraid to do what I must: enter, reach a compromise with it, in it. It is only that I am afraid that, when I do, I might not return as half as intact.
One moment, it is numbing, and I feel absolutely nothing, feel soulless. Another moment, it is scalding, and it flushes up my chest and lungs, my skull, rinsing my veins, ache so brutal it is physical. I feel it in the sun on my scalp, I feel it in my teeth. I feel it in my toes, my fingernails; I feel it in the hairs on my skin, the warmth of my breath. It is entire. It demands to overwhelm.
I find these words now because I can still think clearly, because I am still in satisfactory command of my senses. Because there will come a time when I no longer might, when I must locate the courage to embrace this. When that time comes and the small clarity I retain evades me, I hope it will not be total.
The interrogation of pain is such a private thing.
There is so much that I cannot contain in words, that I cannot grasp within my senses. I want to laugh, I want to live on in your happiness, but this most sensitive part of me may have been squashed beyond salvation, and I might be clutching furiously at lifeless air. In the way your life did, the knowledge that you no longer breathe looms larger-than-life.
I am in pieces.
This is taking me in pieces.
THE LAST time we saw, a terse September night, you sat hunched over your laptop, a narrowness in your eyes. I mumbled a joke about your birthday, November 8. You seemed not to have heard. Then you smiled and murmured, “Ginikwa?”
I live now in all these moments, in that last time, and in the very first time on the corridor of your office where you had stood, a tall silhouette of kindness in the gathering dusk.
Image by Hernán Piñera via Flickr
About the Author:
Otosirieze Obi-Young’s Transition story, “A Tenderer Blessing,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize last year. His story, “Mulumba,” appears in The Threepenny Review, and his essays in Brittle Paper and Interdisciplinary Academic Essays. He edited Enter Naija: The Book of Places, a free e-anthology of writing, photography and visual art focused on places in Nigeria and created to mark Nigeria’s 56th Independence anniversary.