My father died twelve years ago and it is testament to the power of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichi’s exquisite and dignified account of losing her own father, that I recognised the emotions she describes as if feeling them just yesterday.
I am writing about my father in the past tense, and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.
In the summer of 2020, when the world was in lockdown, Professor James Nwoye Adichie, Chimamanada Ngozie Adichi’s beloved 88 year old father, died. Despite his age, she calls it a ‘malicious surprise’ having talked to him on a Zoom call just the day before. What follows is an emotional yet austere exploration of her feelings of grief over the subsequent weeks and months as she tries to come to terms with the thing she has most feared, with the added pressure of it happening during a global pandemic.
Adichie traverses the land of sudden grief with a sensory and lyrical touch. This is not an abstract or elusive mourning, but a visceral, physical sensation. Loss has made her hurt, she feels pain throughout her body.
Why are my sides so sore and achy? It’s from crying, I’m told. I did not know that we cry with our muscles. The pain is not surprising, but its physicality is: my tongue unbearably bitter, as though I ate a loathed meal and forgot to clean my teeth; on my chest, a heavy, awful weight; and inside my body, a sensation of eternal dissolving
She describes too, a questioning anger about losing her father. Anyone who has undergone a similar experience, will recognise her moments of rage, against platitudes and having to make plans about funeral food – the minutiae of the trappings of death making one feel not only helpless, but resentful of steps that must now be gone through.
While Adichie’s experience is heightened by the pandemic, she does not allow this to be the centre of her book. She details the painful consequences of the timing of the loss of her father – having to view his body virtually over the internet; being unable to travel to be with her mother at this most difficult time, and the inability of the family to plan their father’s funeral due to the fact that Nigeria cannot decide on when they will reopen their airports. All this is difficult, making a heart-rending situation all the more stressful, but for Adichie, it remains secondary to her loss.
At the heart of this book is Adichie’s father and she offers up an exquisitely written portrait of a man who was accomplished, thoughtful, wry and, above all, loved. James Nwoye Adichie, was Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, and her words bring to vivid life the man whom she called “the original dada”.
“Never” has come to stay. “Never” feels so unfairly punitive. For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for the things that are no longer there.
Notes on Grief is a beautiful tribute from a daughter to a father and an honest and raw account of the devastating finality of loss.
Most of Notes on Grief was originally published in The New Yorker and you can read it here.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!