Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks during the annual Make Equality Reality Gala hosted by Equality Now on November 19, 2019 in New York City.

| File | AFP

When Dad dies: Chimamanda grapples with grief in new book

What you need to know:

  • Chimamanda recalls such seemingly unremarkable circumstances that tragically turned to be the last moments with her father.
  • The good writer she is, Chimamanda probes the colour of grief; its depths, twists and turns.

“Messages pour in and I look at them as through a mist. Who is this message for? ‘On the loss of your father,’ one says. Whose father? My sister forwards a message from her friend that says my father was humble despite his accomplishments. My fingers start to tremble and I push my phone away. He was not; he is... There is a video of people trooping into our house for mgbalu, to give condolences, and I want to reach in and wrench them away from our living room… I think, Go home! … How dare you make this thing true? Somehow, these well-wishers have become complicit... Needle-pricks of resentment flood through me at the thought of people who are more than eighty-eight years old, older than my father and alive and well… I am afraid of going to bed and of waking up; afraid of tomorrow and of all the tomorrows after. I am filled with disbelieving astonishment… How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?”

These are the words of Chimamanda Adichie in her new book, Notes on Grief, which is an elegy to her father, James Nwoye Adichie. It’s a heartrending interplay of grief and memory.
Chimamanda aptly describes her father’s death as “a permanent scattering”. As C.S Lewis observed, “…absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” And indeed, from personal experience as one who lost his father more than a decade ago, that’s how it still feels: a kind of scattering spread over everything.

The angel of death is like a showboating cynic — with barbarian menace and phlegmatic ruthlessness. And death can strike suddenly as Joan Didion writes: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends… confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck… It was just an ordinary beautiful September day…And then — gone… ‘In the midst of life we are in death’, Episcopalians say at the graveside”. 

Chimamanda recalls such seemingly unremarkable circumstances that tragically turned to be the last moments with her father. She writes, “On 8 June Okey (Adichie’s brother in Lagos) went to Abba to see him and said he looked tired. On 9 June, I kept our chat brief, so that he could rest. Ka chi fo, he said. Good night. His last words to me. On 10 June, he was gone. My brother Chuks called to tell me, and I came undone”.

Notes on Grief

Chimamanda Adichie's new book, Notes on Grief.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

That dreaded phone call. I still remember that phone call when my father died. My friend Allan called from the village to inform me. There was first denial. No, my father cannot be dead. Then there was confusion. What? And then raw anger. Why me? I felt numb. It was a feeling akin to but much worse than defeat; sinking and melancholic.

My father loomed large in my room as I made plans to travel the next day. I remembered him as strong as he had been when I was younger and, then later, the ailing man who had been ravaged by age and illness. I felt guilty that he had died when I was away. That, in the end, he didn’t see me. I wondered whether he thought of his only son and wondered where I was as he closed his eyes. Grief is too complex and too elliptical to understand.

To date, the past when my father was alive is like an unvisited land, always idealised, receding into myth like the always longed-for Golden Age. The memories were especially cruel in the first days. I would be walking in the streets, see an old man with a familiar gait and memories of my father would flood back; he would careen into focus in my mind, galloping as if riding on a swift chariot from another world.

When my father died, I hadn’t really read firsthand accounts of people who had dealt with such debilitating grief. And that’s where Chimamanda’s Notes on Grief come in handy. She lifts the veil on a difficult topic, though of course, she doesn’t really give advice as such. Grief is so personal that advice mostly sounds hollow. However, what Chimamanda does is process her own grief and that could help readers process their own grief — that’s an important step in the journey towards healing.

The good writer she is, Chimamanda probes the colour of grief; its depths, twists and turns. And she makes complex allusions with a flick of her pen; not only producing substance and rhythm but also an eloquence that captures and crystallises grief into something that can be grasped and maybe even surmounted. Let’s always remember the words of the sage who said that, “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.” Memories of our loved ones linger on; and oh, sweet memories, how they linger!

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