The Day He Died
That morning that they brought the news that my father had killed himself, my mother was in the front of the house washing our clothes, a wrapper tied around her waist and basin of water and clothes between her legs. It was mid morning and I was in the room I shared with Adaugo staring from the ceiling to the unpainted walls in idleness. I was on afternoon shift at the betting shop where I worked. Adaugo was in the bathroom and when she would be out, she was supposed to wear that yellow shirt she kept on the drawer and her calf length skirt to the sales girl job she had gotten after completing secondary school.
It was Papa Ubong, the same man who sat with my father at the bar where they drank tombo and whose shop was a distance away from my father’s that brought the news. Papa Ubong and a bunch of others had been the ones who had discovered my father in his spare parts shop hanging from his distorted neck.
That morning was a perfect time for such news. Children from the compound were out to school and their parents were out on whatever hustle it was that sustained them. The normally noisy compound was quiet when I heard Papa Ubong say, “Adanna, I have bad news.”
Adanna was my mother’s name and I perched myself towards the window of the bedroom, hidden by the mosquito net to hear him clearly. By now the sounds of my mother’s washing had stopped and the only sound to be heard was the splash of water and singing from Adaugo in the bathroom.
“Mpa Ezekiel is dead,” he finally said.
It took me a few seconds to realize that I was in fact Ezekiel and when I did, I continued sitting by the edge of the bed watching my mother through the netted windows.
“Mama Ezekiel, did you hear me well?” Papa Ubong asked. He was unlike his son Ubong, the skinny dark boy who had gone to school with me and even though our fathers had been friends, I wasn’t friends with. Ubong spoke slowly and went out with the kind of boys who were easily jonzed, jew men.
I heard my mother say in that moment, “Jesus!” A forced one that had to be pushed out the mouth.
I watched the bringer of bad news prance about the vicinity unsure. Unsure because perhaps he had considered himself the comforter and now was left unsure of what to do. My mother was supposed have flung the buckets of water in front of her and jumped up and down. She let out a silent ‘Jesus’ again.
I sat on my bed equally unsure of how I was supposed to feel about the entirety of the matter. Of course I had being shocked, the same level of shocked I would feel years later when they would bring the news that our landlord had been crushed by a trailer just in front of the street. Shock and then nothing else. Shock that someone I knew had died and then nothing else.
My mother stood and began prancing about the compound her hands up in the air with her wrapper loose around her waist. It was now she allowed herself to scream. Loud ‘Jesus!’ rang through the air and it was then one of our women-neighbours came out of her flat to scavenge whatever was going on. Papa Ubong told her what was going on and soon her own, “Hei! Hei!” rang through the air.
I should have gone out now and held my mother. After all that was the duty of the di’okpala but I sat on the bed instead and watched the bringer of bad news comfort my mother and the woman neighbout saying, “Nwanyi ibe m, ndo!”
Adaugo came into the room now dripping with a wrapper around her chest and her bra strap visible on her shoulders. She was whistling a church song to herself. She had to be the most religious person in the house. My father had not gone to church and my mother had gone only for the show of it because it was expected, but my sister? With her rubber plaited head, she probably spoke to the Holy Spirit every night.
As she wore her shirt, she could catch the fiasco going on outside with our mother, the woman neighbour and the man my father had drank with.
“Brother,” she called me. Even though I was only her senior by a little over a year, my mother had insisted as soon as I turned ten that she called me ‘brother’. “What is going on?”
Her eyebrows were burrowed together in inquisitiveness not worry. What is that noise outside?
“Daddy is dead,” I said quietly. Quietly because I was not supposed to have heard the news yet. It was supposed to go like this, my mother would scream my name from outside and then when I went, she would say, “Ezekiel, your father is dead oo!” in uncontrollable tears least the neighbours say she was the witch who killed her husband. Then I would squat beside her and begin to comfort her.
I had not anticipated my sister’s reaction. Say you walked up to a girl and told her you liked her, you had spent time prior to the incident imagining what her reply would be but when you impulsively told your sister something, you perhaps did not even imagine what her reaction should have being and so I was more than surprised when I saw Adaugo throw herself to the ground wailing. Her voice piercing through the morning. She kicked her legs frantically in the air. I quickly walked up to her and held her by the shoulders still surprised by her reaction. Perhaps she knew the man more than I did. To me, he was just a man who had lived with us, who I had watched while growing up, come in and out of the house, swallowed his sacrifices for the family and remained silent about it. Perhaps she felt something more than the duty I felt towards him, was it love? I had always willed myself to feel something besides duty for him but there was just something about him that I couldn’t touch with my fingers, something vague and fleeting. Maybe you could touch love, who knew? No he had not been a bad person, He had never hit my mother and even though he flogged Adaugo and I as children, it was expected. Not the senseless kind of thrashing that went left marks all over the body but little ticks on the palm when we had broken a window or plate or when we misplaced hard-to-find-money. He had always tried his best to perform what was expected of him.
By now I could hear Mummy in the passage coming into the room and following closely behind her was Papa Ubong and the neighbour who had both broken social etiquette and moved beyond the parlour. As soon as Mummy embraced Adaugo, I let go of her shoulders.
“O zu go,” my mother said to my sister. “It’s enough, don’t cry.”
I stood awkwardly in the corner watching my mother and sister, unsure what to do. I was glad they didn’t ask what she was crying about.
Papa Ubong patted me on the back as if in a sort of understanding that men were supposed to share. I willed myself to cry then and I because I willed it enough, sparse tears formed at the base of my eyelids.
“Don’t cry, don’t cry,” Papa Ubong said. “Men don’t cry.”
We all cried for different reasons, Adaugo because of the love she had the man she called father, my mother who hadn’t worked a day since she married, the loss of the man who was supposed to take care of everything and me, well because I was supposed to. I was supposed to feel something and I didn’t and for that I felt bad.
Later we all relocated to the parlour with Adaugo on a couch with the neighbour-woman on the arm of the chair comforting her. My mother sat on the floor with her legs wide apart. Papa Ubong was by the doorway. He told us how they found my father hanging from the ceiling of his shop and how they had already sent his body away to the morgue. Wasn’t suicide a taboo in our culture? I thought to myself. I had always imagined my father to be one of those people whose lives were dictated by the customs of the society but then I never really knew him. Maybe he hated himself more than I knew of.
“…this is the key.” Papa ubong had being speaking. I had not being listening. He held out the keys of my father’s shop in front of me.
I took it from his hands and held it in my palms.
“Nna,” my mother called me. “Biko, go to the shop. See if you can see anything at least.”
Anything at least meant any money so that at least we could have dinner tonight.
I followed Papa Ubong out of the house, I hadn’t realized the sun had been so intense. As we moved past the front door, I stumbled across some of his unwashed clothes besides where my mother had been washing, at least she wouldn’t have to do that now.
He was really gone, my father. I remember relaying this information at the betting shop where I worked to my coworkers and the regular customers who frequented the stop later that week. “My papa don die,” I would say and that would be it. That was how the man went.