It was time for the eulogy to be given by the prodigal son, as my father once called me — it was after I’d come back home after having spent three months traveling through the country, accruing expenses on a credit card, which contributed to my decision to file for bankruptcy a little more than eight years before. I approached the lectern, then took my place behind it.
Dad was encased in the glittering silver coffin to the left of me. He’d been kept in the funeral home’s freezer for six weeks as a means to prevent his body from desiccating. It looked like they’d put some sort of concealer on his face. His blackening fingers were interlaced atop his sternum. He was still handsome. My heart was pounding as I gently placed the three paged document on top of the lectern.
In writing this eulogy, I’d broken a long-standing rule. Eulogies were supposed to be short expressions of praise, a one-page document that contained about five-hundred words or so, but I didn’t care about that.
There was a lot that I needed to say about the man who’d raised me. And I was eager to educate and illuminate the people in the audience, especially my father’s countrymen and women — my dad had been born in Nigeria — , some of whom were still skeptical about the son who struggled to adhere to long-standing traditions.
Not since my days as a New York stage actor had so many people been captivated by my presence at one time. My eyes fell on the three women in the front row, my mother and my sisters, their faces as somber as the black clothes that they were wearing. All right, Eze. It’s time to buck up. Speak now.
I began the eulogy with a short story.
The setting was twenty-two years in the past. I was a pimply faced high school freshman who hated mathematics with a passion. Dad was forty-eight, and working as a food coordinator at Continental, a job that he despised.
I was trudging through geometry class without being too overwhelmed, as I was earning a wavering “B” average. My father was not satisfied with my progress though, for mathematics had been his favorite subject in school as a child. And how could a man who excelled in mathematics produce a son who was just average in the same subject? This particular dynamic perturbed him to no end.
As he was leading me through a hypotenuse problem one evening, he clicked his tongue and spontaneously said, “I’m going to come to your classroom and observe your geometry teacher in class, and then I want to talk to her after the class ends.”
I gulped down all of my available saliva, and then came the sensation that my body had been drained of something essential to its continuing survival.
“Oh,” I said. “Um, why dad? Did I do something wrong?”
“I want to know what is going on in the class. See what the teacher is doing.”
“Everything is good dad,” I said. “You really don’t need to come.”
“What time does your geometry class start?”
I let out a exasperated sigh. “It’s my first class of the day.”
“Good, I’ll be there.”
Of course, a school visit from my father while I was inside the building was the last thing that I could ever want. It wasn’t because I acted like a delinquent when I was not in his presence. I was generally a docile son, attended school every day, and I’d accumulated a healthy 3.5 grade point average. But I was still a fifteen-year-old boy, a freshman who was trying to find his niche in the treacherous world of high school. Anxiety was a part of my everyday experience.
When a teenager’s parents are intent on looking into an aspect of their teenage son’s life sans invitation, the son with something to hide will panic. I was afraid that once he stepped foot inside the halls of George Washington High School, Dad would somehow learn more about the secrets that I was keeping. I wanted to tell him, “No. No You can’t come to my high school!” But when I looked into his wide-open eyes, I saw that they would brook no resistance from me.
The next day he walked into the classroom and introduced himself to my geometry teacher. Miss Waller extended her finger in the direction of an empty chair and desk combination in the middle of the room. I was aghast. Dad was wearing his plaid black and blue blazer and brown pants. His clothes don’t match. Why don’t his clothes match? His eyes were roving the classroom, looking for me.
I slid further down my wooden chair.
Dad’s appearance aroused the curiosity of the students. Who was that strange man who was encroaching his way into our classroom? I squeezed my eyes shut and attempted to relay a message to all of my classmates. He is not my father. He is not my father.
I was eventually able to pry open my two eyes, but I remained slouched in the chair with my arms folded to dissuade my geometry teacher from bringing me to the front of the classroom. Miss Waller was stationed at the front of the blackboard, scrawling shapes and letters with white chalk. However, my focus was on my father.
I could only see my father’s back, but I could guess the look on his face. His eyes were those of a hawk who was surveying his prey before it swooped down to pick it up in its claws. He was looking to catch any error; it would be easy for him to do so because he’d been math teacher himself when he was in Nigeria. Gross imaginings were swimming through my head like thousands of little fish, the worst being of my dad screaming criticisms at Miss Waller as she was lecturing. But he didn’t do any of that, which I was thankful for.
When the lesson ended and everyone had left the classroom, dad and I remained in class for a conference with Miss Waller. He peppered the teacher with some questions about content and was also fierce in his advocacy for me, calling me a “brilliant” boy. I felt myself blush. The geometry teacher smiled and concurred with my father, and said that I had great potential. But she also said that I would need to work harder to get a better grade in her class. At the end of the conference she stood up and reached her hand across the desk. My father received it.
“Thank you for coming,” Ms. Waller said. “You are welcome to come back anytime.”
No, he is not, I thought. No. No. No.
“Thank you,” said dad. He turned to me and nodded. “I look forward to observing your class in the future.”
“This story was just one example of many which encapsulates what type of person my father was,” I said to the audience. “Dad regarded fatherhood as a sacred responsibility. So, he made sure that he showed up and stayed even if his child was horrified by the sight of him.”
The audience laughed.
“He’d made sure that his family was clothed and fed, offered me advice when he thought I needed it, and he was always there when I needed help with my homework. He offered criticism if he believed that I was not living up to my potential.”
I wiped away a tear.
“Compliments from him were hard earned, but when he gave them, I knew that they were genuine.” I paused. “And he loved me. He loved his family. He put us before everything and everybody else. I know he did.”
“Yes!” yelled someone from the audience.
There are millions of adults and kids out there who wish they were raised by a father like mine. I’d taken him for granted when he was alive, sometimes dismissing him outright when I was a young, invincible, know it all. I should have treated him better when I was younger. I should have listened to him. Perhaps I would have been a lot further along in my life if I’d heeded his advice.
I took a moment to look to my mother and sisters. Was I doing well? I thought. Mom’s head was tilted downward as she listened intently. I saw that tears were streaming down the front of my sister’s faces.
My voice became a bit shaky during the last third of the eulogy, but I managed to slog through to the end. I was rewarded with applause.