My Uncle Was More Than A Coronavirus Statistic

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

A little more than six and a half years ago my father was dying at the hospital. His cancer ridden body was perforated in half a dozen spots by tubes. One of those tubes was attached to a machine that had been depositing a clear liquid into his blood through a rapidly withering arm. My dad’s oncologist at the time gave the liquid a nickname: . The doctor hoped that the chemotherapy would kill the cancer cells, but warned of possible unintended consequences.

The lymphoma proved too pervasive and powerful for the nuclear bomb to kill off. And there were new side effects that my father would have to contend with. Fluid would leak into his lungs, causing his breaths to shorten and wane. His legs and his feet became bulbous and inflamed, leaving him unable to place his feet on the floor without feeling pain shoot through all parts of his legs like bolts of lightning. The nuclear bomb solution had done so much more harm than good.

It took a couple of days for the doctors to drain my father’s tissues of the excess fluid. He returned to being himself in some of the ways that counted — he could talk and breathe without wheezing. My mom and I exulted in this small victory. Although recumbent and weak from nearly a year of fighting against a body that had betrayed him, dad was still alive.

A short time after dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, he’d made me promise not to tell anyone outside of the family about his health issues. His reasons for getting me to swear to secrecy were tied to his fear of how the people in his community would react to the news. My father was well known within the Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, and Maryland sections of the Nigerian diaspora, a “Big Man” as they would say. If news of his cancer diagnosis were to leak out, he was certain that many members of the community would create too much of a fuss over him.

“They will all say that I’m about to die,” he’d said with wide open eyes. He placed his hands on both sides of his face and let his mouth hang down. “Oh no! Oh my god. Dee Peter is dying!”

Of course dad didn’t want to die from the disease. Even as his body’s deterioration accelerated with the passage of each day, he still held out hope for a miraculous recovery from terminal cancer and kidney disease. He could not stop talking about the day he’d finally be able to leave the hospital for home.

I endeavored to keep my father’s health a secret from everyone, as did my mother and little sisters. So you can imagine my surprise when I turned to the doorway and saw two shadowed strangers step across the threshold.The man stepped into the hospital room first, and then was followed by the woman. They were an older, well-dressed, couple. I did not recognize them at first, but my instincts told me that I’d probably met them when I was younger, before forgetting them.

In the midst of my formative years, my mother and father would entertain many of their countrymen and women at the family home. The visitors would enliven a usually quiet house with conversation spoken through a language — Igbo — that I could not understand. Uproarious laughter would bounce against the walls for hours. My sisters and I would remain cloistered in our bedrooms until we were summoned into the living room by our father, where we would tentatively shake hands and enter into conversations with the strangers. Most of the strangers would marvel at how big my sisters and I had become, and then quiz us with a question: “Do you know who I am?” As I frantically searched my memory for the name, my heart would start thumping hard in my chest and my armpits would perspire, because I knew that I was going to fail at this game. I was never good at remembering the names of people, especially when they were out of sight for an extended period of time. And there so many names for me to remember back then. After I gave up on coming up with a name I would smile sheepishly and ask, “What is your name?” The person was usually gracious enough to tell me. I was good at placing faces though. But after studying the faces of the two strangers approaching my father’s bedside for some seconds, nothing about them was registering.

My father smiled as the large gentleman bent down to reach out his mitt sized hand. My father took the man’s hand in between his bony two. “Dee Peter,” said the man.

My father replied.

The wife stepped forward, reached out a hand to touch my father’s forearm, and smiled down at him. He talked with the strangers for a while, as my mother and I stood beneath the television screen that was hanging off of the white wall. I knew that news of my father’s condition would spread in the immediate aftermath of this unplanned visit. It must have hurt my father to know that his people were going to seeing him like this.

It wasn’t long before I was left alone with the imposing man and his wife. He and I were the same height, but he was still so much bigger than I was in so many ways. His head, his stomach, his hands, his shoulders, the circumference of his lengthy arms. He wore a beige suit with a matching tie; his eyes were framed by thick black spectacles. The man was older than my father, but his hairline hadn’t started receding yet. And so, he looked a lot younger than a man who’d eclipsed his seventh decade of life. The man’s wife, dressed in a floral patterned dress and full make-up, sat on the chair flanking his left side. He and I shook hands.

The man’s voice was deep, smooth, and heavily accented. It could fill the room if he wanted, however he spoke in hushed tones out of reverence for the moment in which he found himself.

“Eze, Eze,” he said, marveling at the man in front of him. “You have grown up so much during these years. How long has it been since we have seen each other?”

, I thought. Of course I couldn’t recall the last time we’d met because I did not remember the . The last time I’d attended a Nigerian get together was the summer of 2008, but I could not place him there either.

“Actually, I don’t really remember,” I said. “Who are you?”

He let go of my hand and said, “You don’t remember me?”

My smile was pained. “No, I don’t. May I ask who you are?”

He seemed to recoil from the question.

“I am your Uncle Romero of course,” he said.

My eyes widened. “Uncle? You’re one of my dad’s brother’s.”

“No, no, no. I am not related to your dad in that sense. We are not blood brothers, but we are brothers. I am your uncle because I am your senior by many years, and I grew up with your father.”

“Oh okay.”

Uncle Romero seemed bullish on the prospects of my dad’s recovery: “Your father has been strong all of his life, and he is the most stubborn man I’ve ever known. And there is also our God. We will pray to God. He will see your father through this illness.”

I peeked at my father before bowing my head forward. When I felt my eyes begin to mist, I swallowed hard to prepare to look my uncle in the eye. “I think so too.”

My father passed away two months after that conversation. Uncle Romero was one of the few people that I recognized at my father’s funeral.

Uncle Romero was a member of the Amaigbo Town Union, an organization that is comprised of native Nigerians and their descendants. Every third month or so, members of the organization converge at a specified location to network, discuss pertinent issues, and consume copious amounts of food and drink — alcoholic and non-alcoholic. For those Nigerians who are members, quarterly meetings of this type are an integral piece for maintaining unity and camaraderie within the Nigerian community. My dad had been a member of the ATU for a while, but had opted out after his suggestions for improving the organization fell on deaf ears.

After much prodding — especially from my mom — I joined the Colorado chapter of the ATU. And while everyone was generally accepting of my presence because I was taking my father’s place, it was Uncle Romero and mom who made me feel the most at ease amongst a group of people I didn’t really know.

During the first few meetings, I was content to be seen and not heard by everyone who attended. Although I was in my late thirties, I felt like that young boy who’d hid in his bedroom until he was summoned to the living room by his father. I didn’t know two words of the language that was being spoken and I wasn’t familiar with any of the practiced customs. The only thing I knew how to do was eat, and so, I wanted so much to be given permission to retreat to my bedroom for the evening; let the real Nigerians handle business in my absence. But I wouldn’t be given a reprieve this time, because Uncle Romero and the others wanted me to learn as much as I could about the culture so that I could participate someday.

Some two years after I attended my first ATU meeting, the responsibility for opening a meeting fell onto my shoulders. My house served at the convening spot for about twelve Nigerians on that evening. After Uncle Romero, said the prayer, I grabbed a jumbo bottle of Verdi from on top of the kitchen counter and walked into the living room space, stopping just before the wooden coffee table. I knew I’d stepped too far into the living room area, because I was surrounded now. Uncle Romero waved his hand through the air, ushering in a swift silence. All eyes were on me.

“Brothers and sisters,” I said. I hesitated because the next words had escaped my memory. The room remained silent as I scoured my mind for the exact words, the approximate ten that I’d routinely put into a specific order while practicing a few hours before. But there was nothing. I knew the gist of what I needed to say though. “This is kola. You are welcome in our home.”

Uncle Romero, the oldest member of the group, called “The Senior”, was reclining in my dad’s old blue chair. He leaned forward as he prepared to speak: “Very good job Eze,” Uncle Romero said. “Thank you for that robust welcome. We are very glad to be here.”

The less senior members of the group looked to Uncle Romero for instruction on how to conduct themselves. They followed his affirmation of my performance with their own.

Uncle Romero was relentlessly bullied during his formative years. His classmates called him “Big Nothing” because he was a big kid who didn’t run or play any kind of sport. After the Nigerian Civil War ended in 1971, Uncle Romero immigrated to the United States at about the same time as my father. Uncle Romero got married, and had kids. He drove a cab for decades to support his family. His children went to college and graduated, got married, and had children of their own. After he retired from driving a cab, his wife started a daycare center. He was bestowed with the title “Amaigbo Number One” at the ATU inauguration ceremony two years ago. “Big Nothing” had become a big man.

When my mom and I received news of Uncle Romero’s death from the coronavirus in early May of this year, we were incredulous, shaken, and afraid. We’d just talked to Uncle at the last ATU meeting in January, and he seemed to be in great spirits. He smiled often, ate heartily, and spoke vigorously on all of the agenda topics. Four months later, Uncle Romero was deceased and his wife was using an oxygen machine to assist her breathing. To have known someone who has died from coronavirus has made it so much more real.

Uncle Romero’s body will kept in a funeral home until it is safe for his family to travel to Amaigbo, Nigeria, where his body will be buried.

I am a teacher, essay writer, survivor, foodie, and politically obsessed progressive. ep2ihenetu@gmail.com

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