It was early in the morning.  Lori answered the phone and handed it to me.  My father’s voice.

“Uche…there’s been a terrible…”

“Uche…you should know…”

A pause as gruesome guesswork played through my mind.  I wanted to hear rather than continue imagining, but did I really want to hear?  He drew a constricted breath, and it came in a wave before his voice broke.

“Uche, Chika died tonight.  Imose died tonight.  Little Anya is just barely hanging on…”

Died.  Died.  Barely hanging on.

My nieces.

In early 2006 Lori and I went to Mbang’s wedding near London.  Her sister Ubu was my closest cousin.  We’d spent summers at each others’ homes.  We shared a lot of that sense that comes with being the eldest of three that life is full of responsibilities, that in these lie many trials, that in those lie many joys, with the whole caressed in deep serenity.

We both felt the same thing and characterized it differently.  Ubu was a strong, evangelical Christian who did a lot to keep that current strong within her family.  I ditched Catholicism the moment I could.  I’m a carefully-considered agnostic with a sense towards brahma—towards immanent connectedness, but in a style incompatible with the idea of spirit, which seems pathetic fallacy.  I believe having lived a moment is to have consummated a purpose.  Whatever glee or sorrow may lie in moments to come has no power over the blessing of that consummated purpose.  The arrow of time is a doom, and a salvation.

A doom.

Ubu fagged unbelievably hard for her sister’s wonderful wedding.  Lori and I knew something was wrong, but we figured it was exhaustion, despite a detail I’ll never forget—Ubu and dem sisteren surprising Mbang with an energetic, impromptu serenade of Method Man, “You’re all I need to get by”.

Lori and I didn’t join the trip to Nigeria for the traditional wedding.

Arrow of time.

By the Nigerian wedding it was probably too late for Ubu.  She died under some of the best medical care anywhere.  There are many accomplished doctors in my family.

Arrow of time.

Had anyone guessed early enough it was disease and not fatigue, Ubu probably would not have died.

Does calling it the arrow of god change anything?

Yes.  The vehicle of comfort.  Nigeria is an oppressively religious place. Mbang and brother Onebieni were surrounded by piety.  They find comfort in expecting to see Ubu again.

And me?  Considering how young Ubu died, she was a veritable ocean of consummated purpose.  Price and available flights made it impossible to attend the funeral in Nigeria.  It was probably just as well, considering my very personal, if vigorous reaction to her death.

My cousin.

❧❧❧

Later that year, on 1 December 2007, when the call came, I was just over thirty-eight.  I’d never been to a funeral.

I didn’t say much to my father.  I asked whether I could speak to my brother, Chimezie.  I had no idea what I would say.  That conversation is the part of the night I remember least.

Onebieni and his girlfriend, now soon to be wife, Tolu, had just come to visit us in Colorado. Part of a trip around the world.  He’d almost not been able to graduate, suffering from the loss of his sister, but he’d persevered to become the newest doctor in the family.  After visiting us he visited Chimezie and Roschelle in Cleveland.  They went for an evening out and left the girls at home with babysitters.  The fire started in a baseboard heater.  An unfortunate succession of events did right away for Imose and Chika.  After Chimezie I think of Onebieni.

 

Anyachiemeka, Imose and Chikaora

 

 

When I got to Akron the Children’s Hospital was choked with relatives and well-wishers.  The nurses had never seen the like.  It was a loud, Nigerian, Christian melee.  I knew that would suit Roschelle, an evangelical herself, but what of Chimezie, who’s like me except with a readier ear to the East?  Tao Te Ching.  I’m very sympathetic to Tao.  Chimezie lives it.  We were conjoined with the throngs in the hospital, bless them, willing Anya to live while mourning her sisters.

I needed quiet.  I needed reflection.  I abhorred formula.  I needed to stick my fingers, raw and dripping blood, into the jagged complexity of the whole tragedy.  I needed to strip off my flesh working for my brother.  I remembered Ubu at the wedding.

Anya succumbed three days later.  As my father put it at their funeral (yes, my first funeral was a real doozy), “I’ve been to war, and I’ve never seen a soldier fight as Anya did.”  Chimezie’s remaining child, his young son Chidi, had come from Houston with his mother and stepfather just in time to say goodbye to his sister.  Lori had come as well.  We’d given my eldest, Osita the choice of whether to attend.  He declined.  Overall, he dealt with the event with a quiet, alert reflection that perhaps reflects his father.

I’m one of three boys.  Lori and I have always wanted girls.  We have three boys.  My parents always wanted granddaughters.  Chimezie and Roschelle seemed the only ones who could provide.  Three girls by 2007.

Arrow of time.

My youngest, Udoka (“Peace reigns”) is a fireball, but even he used to find Chika a handful.  Till today he’ll often spontaneously say “Chika is always pushing me”.

Chimezie and Roschelle have persevered heroically. They renewed their vows and had another daughter, Ngozi (“Blessing”).

I sometimes wonder whether tragedy could strike my own household.  I live what I’ve shared with Ubu: My responsibilities today are consummated purpose that will survive any tragedy, even when it takes the young.

Paradox?

Purpose can work beyond a self into others, thus cheating the arrow of time.  This doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s a salvation, however you frame that word.

Beatitude beyond all time and all understanding. Such a gift from four people departed so young.

 

✄ ✄ ✄

29 Comments copied from the former TNB site »

Comment by Ducky |Edit This
2009-09-15 09:12:00

Uche – I’m so very sorry for your loss. Such a tragedy. Thank you for sharing.
That arrow of time can be a bitch.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-15 16:35:11

Thanks. Yes it can be, but it is also inspiration for everything beautiful. One occasional benefit of religion is to inspire poetry, so here, form an agnostic, is the well-known Ecclesiasticus 9:11 (my translation from the Vulgate):

I looked about and saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise nor riches to the learned nor favor to the skilled, but that time sets upon all.

Comment by Ducky |Edit This
2009-09-16 09:10:02

Yes, time does set upon us all. I don’t know what is out there, but I hope that whatever is past our own life is as beautiful as life.

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Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-09-15 10:19:21

Oh, Uche.
I am so sorry.
What beautiful and cheeky girls. And what a monstrous thing to happen. I’m glad to read that Chimezie and Roschelle have the blessing of Ngozi.
Thank you for writing this and my heart goes out to all of your family.
Kia Kaha.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-15 16:16:58

Thank you. O di kwa mma = It is quite well.

Comment by Rob Bloom |Edit This
2009-09-15 10:36:13

Truly sorry for your loss. Beautiful girls.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-15 16:36:50

Thanks. They certainly were.

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-09-15 10:41:03

I’ll never forget that call from the airport.

People say the one must be so strong to survive such tragedies. While this may be true, I think it is more the result rather than the prerequisite. And if the resultant strength is proportionate to loss, then you are hands down the strongest person I know.

What a blessing those girls were in their moment.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-15 16:40:10

“I’ll never forget that call from the airport.”

I imagine. I’ll never forget your friendship, then and ever.

“People say the one must be so strong to survive such tragedies. While this may be true, I think it is more the result rather than the prerequisite. And if the resultant strength is proportionate to loss, then you are hands down the strongest person I know.”

Very kind of you, especially since that’s precisely how I measure my brother.

“What a blessing those girls were in their moment.”

And it amazes me the extent to which my family has carried their moment forward. Blessings are the ultimate superpower.

Comment by Dana |Edit This
2009-09-15 10:58:12

Heartwrenching, Uche. I’m so sorry you’ve had to endure so much loss.

And that was wonderfully put Erika.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-15 16:44:23

Thanks you, Dana.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-09-15 13:06:35

Uche.

These facts you have told us are unspeakable.
I wish I had not looked at the picture.
Beautiful people/horrible death
Whatever philosophy or religion you espouse, there is no solving that math.
I, also, am deeply sorry for your loss.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-15 16:47:26

Thanks. Yes, the important bit is to recognize that it’s not something that should be solved. It is beyond all understanding, and that’s the only home of true peace.

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-09-15 14:44:46

Uche – I join the others in being sorry for your loss. Time’s arrow, indeed.

The two paragraphs below the photo are quite wonderful. You distilled a universe into those few sentences.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-15 16:48:45

“Uche – I join the others in being sorry for your loss. Time’s arrow, indeed.”

Thank you.

“The two paragraphs below the photo are quite wonderful. You distilled a universe into those few sentences.”

That makes my day.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-15 16:15:42

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to respond to these comments.

First of all, thanks to everyone for their condolences. I can well imagine that hearing of such a tragedy it’s hard to even think beyond it. I suppose somewhere deep down I thought it might be the case that the tragedy would defeat my purpose in writing the piece.

Paradoxically, the entire point of my piece was to deny the tragedy such power; to forbid it from sucking all the life out of any discussion. It’s perhaps the hardest assessment I’ll ever try to make in my lifetime, but I think that on balance, my family has succeeded in wresting that power from the tragedy. Clearly we’ve had to bleed every drop from our veins several times over before any such healing. Perhaps it’s impossible to share the resulting, transcendent peace. Perhaps it was foolish for me to try.

I do want to say that it was not intended as a sympathy piece. Farthest ever from. That much said, I repeat my appreciation. I do want everyone to know, with the disclaimer once again of the difficulty of any such assessment, that my family is well.

Thanks.

Comment by Aaron Dietz |Edit This
2009-09-17 19:51:55

Uche, this comment of yours is nicely done, as is your piece of course. To not allow an event its voice is to squash parts of a person in unhealthy ways. I like the brave manner in which you dive into the material to let it out.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-18 04:01:18

Thanks. I’m reminded how at the very first (over the phone) I was terrified of speaking to Chimezie, and I now have no idea what I said. I had the same terror coming to see him and Roschelle at the hospital for the first time. Watching Anya helped a great deal because she was so obviously fighting until the last minute. I didn’t get to mention it in the piece, but Anya, the youngest of the three girls, gave a lot of us unnatural strength. When I speak of consummated purpose, Anya’s last days are the superlative example. I think there is a lot of that strength borrowed from Anya in what you read above.

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Comment by Lenore Zion |Edit This
2009-09-15 20:58:24

this was a beautifully written tribute to them, and they were beautiful girls.

whatever the topic, uche, i am always drawn to your writing. you work sentences together so beautifully, and i’m glad those lovely girls have you to write about them.

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-16 02:22:44

Lenore says what I would like to say, but much better than I would have been able to say it.

I was also quite taken with the below, which is likewise something I would have great difficulty articulating:

“I believe having lived a moment is to have consummated a purpose. Whatever glee or sorrow may lie in moments to come has no power over the blessing of that consummated purpose. The arrow of time is a doom, and a salvation.”

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-16 05:57:04

Thanks, Duke,

That is precisely the center of what I wanted to communicate. I’ve always felt that we could use more discussion of how people cope with tragedy and loss from a more generally humanistic perspective. There is plenty in academic philosophy, but I think it would be nice to have more from a visceral, personal perspective. I was hoping to do my tiny part, and I was hoping that doing so would be a fitting tribute to those I’ve lost.

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Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-16 22:32:41

You more than succeeded, Uche.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-16 15:38:20

I also extend my condolences to you and your family. I can’t even imagine something like that happening — it’s literally unthinkable.

And that is a great line you’ve written, as Duke pointed out…it’s almost a beatitude itself, something to meditate upon.

Peace.
Greg

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Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-16 19:37:55

Thanks. The firemen visited the assembled family just before the funeral to tell us the results of their investigation. I’d been pretty stoic until then, even in saying goodbye to Anya, not because I was trying to be so, but because I think I was just stunned. Throwing myself into all the work that needed to be done on the family’s behalf was not much more than a series of nervous spasms.

As the firemen laid out the time line it became clear that if several events had happened just a bit differently, the scale of the tragedy could have been lessened. It remined me of how easily Ubu’s death could have been avoided. I pretty much collapsed right then and there and let all the grief overpower me. The course had been set, and even though budging it a millimeter would have meant the world, time’s arrow was the ultimate barrier, doom. I pondered that for a long time, and it came to me how it also served as salvation. Those are not two easy thoughts to keep in one’s head at the same time, but doing so made all the difference to me.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-16 06:05:47

Thanks, Lenore. On re-reading it did strike me that I wrote this piece a bit differently. I’m usually a spasmodic explosion of ideas and allusions. I suppose it’s natural that I’m so much more constrained and somber this time.

I wrote a lot about personal philosophy around serenity through reflection in the days after the funeral. I hope to organize those notes and make something of them some day.

Comment by Megan DiLullo |Edit This
2009-09-16 13:05:44

This is a beautiful tribute, Uche.

You are a strong and thoughtful person and I’m thankful you shared this with us all.

My thoughts are with you.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-16 19:46:18

Thanks, Megan. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that the torrent of outpouring, from family friends worldwide, from the very large African community in Cleveland and beyond, from Chimezie and Rochelle’s neighborhood (Lomond), from churches and charities all over, from numerous worldwide members of the profession I share with Chimezie, to many unions in Cleveland who donated almost all the labor for rebuilding the house, and many many more. So many people shared with us, so sharing has been the default state. And that itself is a tribute to the girls.

Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
2009-09-17 23:07:57

Your nieces were so beautiful. And this is such a gorgeous, heartbreaking tribute to them. And to your cousin.

My heart goes out to you and your family.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-09-18 04:05:38

Thank you, Marni.

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UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards.

To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

2 responses to “A Thousand Words: Cousin. Nieces.”

  1. Kim H. says:

    Uche –
    Just reading this today for the first time. I, too, will reflect upon this:
    “I believe having lived a moment is to have consummated a purpose. Whatever glee or sorrow may lie in moments to come has no power over the blessing of that consummated purpose. The arrow of time is a doom, and a salvation.”
    I’m going to share this with my father who just lost his true love of 43 years….
    Kim

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Wow, Kim, that means a great deal to me, because I have a sense of what you’ve been through recently. My best to you, your father, and your whole family.

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