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15 March 2024

Dad Died by Nneoma Kenure

Wasafiri is proud to publish the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize shortlisted pieces. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by promising new writers from all over the globe. Nneoma Kenure’s life writing piece, both humourous and touching, reflects on the author's complex relationship with her father and his looming death. Through poignant anecdotes and reflections, Kenure navigates themes of family dynamics, cultural differences, and the inevitability of death, grappling with her own emotions and memories as she confronts the reality of losing a loved one.

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 1 July 2024. Read the full guidelines and submit your work here.

After reading an excerpt from Chimamanda Adichie’s Notes on Grief, I returned to a piece I’d been writing about my dad’s death. My father was alive and well-ish, but I wanted to explore my feelings about losing him before he actually died. I called it Eulogy for My Undead Father. I’ve lived a life almost free of death, having never really lost anyone except a cousin as a teen, so permanent loss was unfamiliar terrain. My dad had trivialised death all of my life or maybe even all of his, my siblings and I enjoying morbid jokes that Pentecostal-leaning Nigerians fail to appreciate without a hurried God forbid’ to ward off the inevitable. But Dad always made jokes about death, and we, his progenies, picked up the habit. Would my flippancy with the reality of loss remain when it finally revealed itself to me? I wanted a Before. This is the After.

I knew that music would play a large part in my grief whenever my father died, so I wrote down a list of songs to stay clear of when he eventually passed. Top of the list was Ray Charles’s ‘Take these chains from my heart’. Something about the way my father would react every single time Ray cried out, ‘Take these tears from my eyes’, was exquisitely doleful. As my father’s health deteriorated rapidly, I would return to my notes to navigate my feelings.

One day, I said to him over the phone, ‘I’m writing an essay about your death.’
‘Can you let me die first?’ He asked with a laugh that inevitably morphed into a smoker’s cough. And then, ‘Can I read it?’
‘The rate at which I’m going, you’ll long be gone before I’m done.’ I replied.
‘Ahhh. I’m not dying soon.’

Except he was.

My father was not college educated, but he enjoyed words and stories. As a child, we argued about how he exclusively read non-fiction. He said fiction was okay for children, but I had to grow up. It made no sense to me. I thought the imagination at the heart of make-believe was sublime. He thought it was inchoate to read other people’s made-up stories. I remember reading some of his books, but only when there was nothing else to read. Henry James-A Life was my first biography. I’ve still never read anything by Henry James himself, and I am not sure that my father ever did too. I read this biography when I was about eight years old and remembered thinking it was the most boring shit, but I trudged on. When you are young and have all the time in the world, you don’t tap out just because. As a teen, I devoured Alex Haley’s Roots and finished it in less than three days. I discovered the joys of self-pleasuring, helped along by my dad’s copy of My Life and Loves by Frank Harris — a book that details Harris’s probably embellished ‘conquests’ and includes a colonial gaze at African bodies with all the condensation that Western imperialism afforded at the time. Harris, for all his libidinous predilections, was totally against masturbation, which was, ironically, the only thing his prose inspired. I’m not sure if that’s truly a fair statement as I clearly remember writing down what I thought of two exotic names: Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant. It’s been more than twenty years, and I still haven’t read either.

Dad was obsessed with the British royal family. He bought every biography that concerned the Kennedys (my sister Kay is named after Jacqueline), and when I think of tragic glamour, I picture Maria Callas.

And so I find it ironic how I’m now invested in writing essays, or how easily I finished writing a memoir after struggling to finish a novel. I am now just as equally drawn to the voyeuristic titillations of first-person accounts as my father was.

My father’s health began to fall apart rapidly. One minute, he was the healthiest man in his seventies, and suddenly, not so much. He was a terrible patient, reluctant to take medication, monitor his blood sugar, and was still trying to hide his cigarettes even after his third angioplasty. One day, after a bad night at the hospital, he complained, ‘Take me home to die.’
‘But why do you want to die in my house, Dad? Is it not better to die here?’ I asked.
It just made sense logistically.
‘I don’t like this place. Looks like where people come to die.’
The persistent mechanical beeping in the ICU unit was daunting, and there was a man at the end of the long room groaning dramatically, creating an ambience worthy of a death room. Death was clearly in this room. What did Epicurious know about anything?

Soon, it was time for Kay and I to leave.
‘Bye, Dad, we’ll see you tomorrow morning.’ I said.
‘I’ll be dead before you get here’, was his listless response.
‘You say that every night.’
‘This time, it’s true; bet it with me.’
I stuck my pinky out, and he stuck out his. We linked them to symbolise our challenge while Kay took a picture.
‘What will I get when I win’, I asked.
‘I don’t have anything to give you.’
Truer words have never been said; my father owned nothing.
‘What about your wedding ring? It looks like real gold’, Kay said, touching it.
‘What will I get if I win?’ he asked.
‘You’ll be dead.’ Kay said a tad too loudly, and the nurse sitting nearby shook her face in disbelief or disgust. I could not be sure.
When we walked in the following day, he was still on the all too familiar blue hospital sheets.
‘Why did you abandon me?’ He cried. ‘I need to leave this place.’
‘Dad, you still dey?’ I asked with a sad laugh ignoring his accusatory tone.
‘My sister, I don tire!’ he replied dejectedly.
I squeezed his arm in sympathy. We were not huggers. He’d raised me to give a firm handshake.

There was no getting out of this. Dad’s diabetes, high blood pressure, long history of smoking over a pack a day for more than fifty years, and finally, the heart attack and stroke he’d had in the past week pointed things in only one direction.

We sat with him for a while, and then he asked for a phone to call his brothers and cousins, most of whom were in Owerri. He said goodbye with a joke or two, hailing them by their nicknames.
‘Ol’ boy, My time here is up; see you on the other side – if you make it yourself.’
At first, there was the ‘no, don’t say that,’ but they hurriedly made side calls to ask me the state of his health, and I confirmed it was bad.
When he was done, he said, ‘At my burial, don’t say only good things about me. People like to lie like their parents were angels.’
We had laughed over this multiple times over the years. Once, at a funeral, a cousin had gone on and on about his mother’s virtues. My father turned up his nose as he whispered to me, ‘She was so greedy and would have sold him in a heartbeat if anyone
had offered her one naira for him’, which was entirely true about this aunty.
‘Don’t worry, Dad, I have a lot of not-nice things to say about you. The burial no go finish sef.’
He chuckled.

From the start, I was my father’s biggest ‘opp’. I called him out on everything he did wrong – and he did a lot wrong. I thought one of his worst flaws was how he’d continue to be the jokester at important crossroads. Nothing was ever really that serious to him. We would go at it back and forth, and back and forth, neither of us backing down.
As a teen, I slowly realised most people around me did not have this — a space to speak back to a parent, especially to their fathers. The fact that he almost never hit us at a time and place where almost everyone hit their children. He pulled me by the ear when I ran away from home with my younger siblings, only because I ran away earlier and no one noticed. Or when my youngest sister, Cheese, got hit by a car — crossing the road without looking. I know it makes no sense, but as soon he realised she was okay, Dad laid her across the couch and spanked her. That was the only time I ever saw him truly lose it. But as a father, he did a lot right.

‘I think I have Covid.’
He’d called me into my guest room, where he’d been for a few months after a stint at the hospital.
‘What are you talking about dad?’ I asked still sleepy. It was 2 am.
‘Something is wrong. I can’t breathe.’
‘Dad, you are sick. You’ve been ill for a while now.’
‘What’s wrong with me?
‘It’s your heart.’ I sat at the foot of the bed.
‘My heart?’ He questioned with disbelief.
The sleep cleared from my eyes. Something was wrong. Why couldn’t he remember anything?
‘Your heart is bad, remember? You had a procedure done again.’
‘What happened to my heart?’
‘Many things, but the smoking …’
Then quietly, leaning back onto the pillow behind him, he said, ‘So the cigar catch me?’
There was acceptance at this point.
‘Yes, the cigar catch you, Dad.’
It felt like I was suddenly talking to my old dad, not the feeble man who just wanted to be left alone most of the time. Except I hadn’t realised he’d been missing, but he was suddenly here, present.

‘I’ve been very lucky with you all’. He suddenly said.
The tears let themselves down my eyes.
I called my sisters and muted the call so they could listen to him talk.
‘All of you. I know I’m very lucky.’
After a long pause,  ‘Well, if it’s like that and I’m at the end, give me one cigar there.’
Apart from being available to his children physically and emotionally, one of the right things my father did was to get us all ready for his death long before it was his time. As a child, it was normal to see him yell out, ‘One thing is going to kill a man’ to his  inebriated laughing audience as he blew out a ring of smoke after a night of drinking and storytelling with his friends. My father was here for a good time.
I’m trying to be the same with my children. My husband John and I are already pragmatic about death, his and mine. Whenever he has to fly (I’m scared of flying), we cover the ‘this is what needs to be done’ part of what to do if his plane crashes.
Considering I’m just as dependent on my spouse as my dad was on his, my husband’s death seems to be a much more life-altering consideration.
‘Do you know where this or that is?’ he’ll ask. Not because he’s afraid, but to soothe me. He’s one of those lucky bastards who falls asleep before the plane even takes off.
‘Yes, I know’.
‘And call this person first.’
‘Yep! While you are still smouldering.’
‘Please don’t forget.’ This concern is for the children.
‘Don’t worry, I’m ready to glide into my rich, sexy widow era.’
‘You kuku have enough black dresses for the role.’

Our fly/death conversations inspired my first published fiction piece, ‘The Housewife’, which I wrote in less than two hours, a pace I had never experienced with writing fiction. I must wonder why I wrote a fictional piece about my husband’s death and was ready to write non-fiction for my father.

I moved to the UK two months after Dad died. Glad to escape the whirlwind that had been my life in the last couple of months for a fresh start. Except I had brought the wind with me. One day, rushing to a class, I turned a bend in the midst of stone-faced commuters at Tottenham Court, and I heard the words before I even recognised what they were. Someone was singing Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’. It hadn’t made it to my list. The list I made when I tried to imagine grief. I saw my dad’s face singing along, his euphoric ‘dia dia dia’ for all the words he didn’t know. The troubadour was there again the next day, and just like the day before, I got on the next train sobbing silently. I stopped connecting at Tottenham Court and walked to Holborn after that.

A few days later, I sat on my bedroom floor and played the playlist titled ‘Dad’.

Dad actually died sha.

I’ve played his music often since, often enough that I don’t cry anymore. It also helped to yab him with my sisters. Kay says she cried when Messi won the World Cup. When Queen Elizabeth passed, though, I thought of how he’d have said, ‘Make she rest kwanu, e don do.’ I think I get non-fiction storytelling now. It’s the chance to romanticise our past, to retell it out loud just like people do at funerals.

I sent a message to Kay last week.
‘Hey, I’m filling out a form and need Dad’s address. Can you text it to me?’
‘I don’t know it. You think he’s in heaven or hell?’ she replied.
He would have enjoyed that one.

Feature image via

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 1 July 2024. Submit here.    

Nneoma Kenure is a Nigerian writer interested in the intersections of gender, media and culture. She is currently editing a collection of short stories on everyday epiphanies that change the course of lives.
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