Wednesday, September 24, 2014

David Umogbai: My Father, My Hero

This is a tribute I wrote 
when my father died some
 months ago. I never got to 
publish it, because I was
 not satisfied with it then. 
 Now, I am.

It is Father's Day today, and I am lying in bed. Exactly at this same time, a week ago, I was lying down on the same bed, asleep. I had just returned from a road trip to Kaduna. My wife came to wake me.

My phones were on vibrate mode, so all calls were not reaching me.  My father, I was told, had just had a stroke, in church.

I stood up, confused. I did not have any prior preparation, or checklist to rely on.  It was like someone had informed me of the event in a dream. Somehow, I hoped I would wake up from it.

And like one in a dream, I declared that I was going to Lagos. A few minutes into my preparation, I got a call from Lagos that he had started showing signs of recovery! I was told I did not need to come to Lagos again!

Unknown to them, my spirit, and soul, were already in Lagos, all that was left in Abuja, was my body , and it was resolute in joining them in Lagos.

At the airport, I got another call again, he was now well enough, that he actually stood up to go eat a meal: they admonished me not to bother.

I called my brother in law, TJ, and urged him to go to my father's house, and ensure that he was taken to the hospital.

At five thirty, my flight landed, and Jonathan, my younger brother was already waiting at the airport.

I was not sure what was waiting for me at the hospital. The journey seemed to go on for ever, while in actual fact, with all the Lagos traffic, we had spent only one hour.

And then I saw him.  He was lying on a gurney. Surrounding him, were some members of my family. His children, grandchildren, and in-laws that his eighty two years on earth had blessed him with. The Accident, and Emergency unit of the Federal Medical centre Ebute Metta, were no strangers to extensive entourages, it is the African way.

The man on the gurney looked like my father, they said he was my father, but, from what my eyes could see, this was not the same effervescent, full of life man that I knew as my father. He had physically withered in a short while. His eyes were sunken, his skin was callow, and he could not talk. And to worsen it, he was in obvious pain!

I had seen him two weeks before that day.He had called me, to inform me that his septic tank had collapsed, and that some cracks had appeared on the walls of his house.

I had, to his surprise, flown to Lagos, just to see the problem for myself, so that I can brief the engineer who was to oversee the work. He had asked me then if I had other business in Lagos, but I informed him that he was my reason for being in Lagos. That day, he looked at me and said, " I must be very important to you! Wow, I am loved"

Two weeks after, the man I loved, was literally fading before my eyes.

It took the hospital close to five hours, to finally take him to be ward, and begin resuscitation. And we had to hew the hospital staff like wood, to get them to do their job. 

I was helpless because I was not resident in Lagos. I was a stranger here. Each time I asked my siblings if there was no alternative place we could go, they informed me that most private facilities, would still call on the doctors at the Federal Medical Centre, as consultants. Secondly, there was the issue of the fragility of the young man, he was looking all of his eighty two years. He looked like one ancient, fragile, ready-to-scatter treasure map, that some long gone explorer had left lying in some dusty cave.

The next morning, when I came to see him in the ward, we noticed that he had difficulty breathing. We were able to persuade the nurse, in an obsequious manner, to give him some oxygen.

The lady brought a tube, and I heard her telling my father, who was hardly conscious, that she was going to insert a tube down his nose. I asked her where the mask for the oxygen apparatus was. She told me they did not have any in the ward. This was after we had made a deposit for drugs, and other treatment, and tests.

She was kind enough to inform me, that I could buy a mask in the hospital's pharmacy downstairs. She wrote the "prescription" for me, I went to the accounts cage, made the payment, collected the mask, and ran back upstairs! One can only imagine how strange I looked, with my grey hair, motoring like an imp through the hospital corridors.

The next shocker, was the CT scan he needed to have done. The hospital did not have the facility! I was shocked. They now proceeded to compete amongst each other in recommending where we had to do the scan. Apparently, hospital staff get a cut on the referrals they make to the private facilities.

I kept wondering how this was possible, in this day, and age, at a Federal Medical Centre. If there was this level of lack here, what was the situation at state, and local government facilities?

On Monday morning, we went to the laboratory, we discovered a multitude of sick folks. It was a sleek operation run by some Indians, and their cashiers were handling bank volume-like cash.  There were too many people desperate to know what was ailing them.

We paid for the test, and were told to bring him on Wednesday! 

On Tuesday afternoon, after I could not stand the sight of the hospital anymore, I went to my brother's home to eat. And there on the chair, I dozed off.

After a while, I woke up troubled, and feeling guilty! I looked at my phone, it had been vibrating apparently. I heard my younger brother  crying, "Baba is dead! Baby is gone!

A second call came in from another junior brother"Baba is no more! Baba is no more! My father is dead! 

The poor boy was driving, when they gave him the news. So he called me, and continued driving, and crying at the same time! He must have looked a sight!

It was de ja vu! I had been roused from sleep some days before, to be informed of his stroke. Now I had been aroused again, to be told of his death!

As I made my way out of the house, there was a deep feeling of loss, and finality. I was sad, and strangely relieved, at the same time.

I remembered how I had held my father's head in the car, so that it would not bob around. I remember how, when my elder brother who lived abroad had called to speak with him in that condition, that my father who loved to crack jokes, and give a word of encouragement, could not say a coherent word on the phone. He just grunted in reply, like someone who had a ball of cotton wedged down his throat. His mind was still keen, but his body could not cope anymore.  I remembered how I had cried silently, shedding tears, as I listened to him grunt amen, to the prayers from the other side. And all the while, he kept on praying.

He was not a rich man, by way of money, but he was rich in the lofty principles that he lived by.

I believe I gave up on him, long before he died! It did not seem right to see him suffer so! I remembered when I lifted my father, by myself, from the wheelchair, on to his bed! It seemed so surreal ! This was the man that had been like God to me! I feared him more than anything growing up! And for me to now be the one lifting him like a baby, that just wrenched everything inside me out!

My father had always joked, when we were growing up then, that before he would become a burden to anyone, he would prefer to die quickly. He did not see any reason for anyone to stick around, becoming a problem to himself, and his loved ones. He hated the idea of incontinence in old age.

The funny thing was that, the nurses had informed us that morning, that we would need to buy adult diapers! So you can imagine how he would have felt, to have anyone assist him with what he deemed a very private transaction. 

And so died my father, David Umogbai. 

He suffered the stroke on Sunday afternoon, and by Tuesday afternoon of the same week, he was gone.

One would think that after his death, we would be confused! Far from the truth! We were not! His death was something he had prepared us for!

About fifteen years ago, when I visited him in Lagos, we had the rare advantage, of having my two elder brothers around. So he called us out to his beloved balcony, and declared that when the time came for him to die, we were to ensure that his body was not deposited in a mortuary. He said he hated how corpses looked, when they had frozen, and thawed.

Secondly, we were not to move his body out of the state. He was to be buried wherever death met him.

Thirdly, we were not to throw any party. The only caveat being that if we had money, and felt like cooking, we should give the food to the poor.

As the years passed after this declaration, people kept telling him it was a difficult thing he was asking. Others said he was wasting his time, that dead men do not have a say in how they were buried.

So he upped the stakes: he passed a fatwa! He declared that any vehicle conveying his corpse to the village would be involved in an accident claiming the life of whatever stubborn child was taking him home.

So we were not confused. And I was determined to ensure that he got his wish. We sent for a casket within two hours of his death, and within five hours, he was embalmed. (He did not say we could not embalm him)
Two days after, we buried him in his house in Lagos. And in obedience to his wishes, we cooked, and went to all the corners in his neighbourhood, and gave all those who had loved him, and were his larger family.

My father, David Umogbai, is my hero. He taught me that it was normal, for me not to flow with the crowd. He showed me that there was always a solution to a problem, if one looked at it long enough. He believed that if you could not find a solution, accommodating the problem, was also a solution. 

He believed that people should behave well. He always illustrated his point by saying that if circus animals could be trained to do tricks, people should be even better trained to behave well!

He told me when I was young, that the God who made the right hand, was the same one who made the left! So giving him something with my left hand was not an insult, but was just practical!

Above all, he loved God passionately! He felt he had lost out not knowing God as a young man, so he tried to make up for this, by preaching in the market place, and on street corners.

I believe I am the way I am, because of the values he instilled in me! All the good you see in me, are his successes, while the bad, is me refusing to adhere to other lessons.

I will always, always,always miss you Baba, because you are without a doubt, irreplaceable! You will always be my hero Baba!
If I have to come to this life again, I will beg to still be your son! 
Thank you Sir!

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