Downstairs it was hot and smelled like sweat, flowery perfume, and food—pepper soup, fish in palm nut oil, coconut rice. The fluorescent lighting added to the calming cold sterility of the guest bathroom where I hid from the wailing. In here, nothing had changed.
I managed to steal away by pretending I had a headache. I walked slowly up the stairs, leaving the ladies to continue their observance. They sat shoulder to shoulder, crammed into our small living room. Four of the eldest, most important ones were squeezed onto the couch; two large-bottomed ones perched daintily at the very edge of each of the two armchairs; the younger women squatted on the floor or on stools dragged in from the kitchen. Mrs. Karamagi, the loudest wailer, sat in my brother’s tiny little red plastic chair, her hips spilling over the sides, her knees up by either ear as though to shield them from the sound of her own piercing cries.
Every morning for the past three days, they had arrived as the sun came up—a straight line of women snaking its way from the other side of the park. They wore colorful head wraps on which they balanced their trays of samosas, rice, and stew. I watched them from my bedroom window, marveling at this very common African scene playing out in this unlikeliest of settings: Rome in January. Men on their way for morning espresso stopped in their tracks to observe the exotic procession. Teenagers slowed their Vespas as they rode through the park, helmeted heads swiveling dangerously to get a better look.
The rules of civility required that the whole household be at the door to greet the ladies, to take the trays, to accept the ginger biscuits and condolences. But, as soon as I could, I escaped to the quiet coolness of the guest bathroom.
I hated the questions, the concerned looks. Most of all, I hated the wailing. I knew that the wailing was customary, that they were doing it out of kindness and tradition. Most of the ladies barely knew my father. In many African cultures, including the Ashanti tribe of Ghana, to which my family belonged, and the Chagga tribe of Tanzania, to which my stepmother belonged, it is believed that, after death, one is rewarded for living a good life by being made an ancestor. If a person is not properly mourned, it might be taken as a sign that he had not done enough to gain the love and respect of those around him. In this case, the dead person could become a ghost who will likely torment the living. There is no greater insult than to have your death ignored.
I decided that I would rather have my father around, even in the form of a troublesome ghost. And the theatricality of the mourning ceremony horrified me. I couldn’t grieve because other people’s flamboyant, feigned grief was all around me every second of the day. It was only when dusk descended that our guests wiped their faces with flowered handkerchiefs and, their voices hoarse, said goodbye until tomorrow. By then, I was too angry and frustrated to cry.
Once, he had been everywhere in this house, whether he was actually home or not. Even before the cancer, before he was constantly in and out of the hospital, he traveled a lot for work. When I missed him, I walked around poking through his things, rediscovering private jokes and familiar rituals. Every corner I turned, I could hear his voice, his gleeful laugh.
An old copy of The Economist , lying open on his desk in the study: “Nadia, come and read this article out loud to me. Let’s hear what’s happening in the world!”
Eggs and Nutella next to each other in the fridge: “Crêpes! Crêpes pour tout le monde aujourd’hui!”
Paul Simon’s “ Graceland ” in the CD player: “ This is the story of how we begin to remember. This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein. Did you hear that line, Nadia? Did you hear it? He is a poet, Paul Simon, a true poet.”
Soon his voice, the faint but steady whisper, was drowned out by the voices of the United Nations African Wives Association. To make matters worse, they had been cleaning nonstop as well. They picked up every old yellowing edition of the Corriere della Sera and the Herald Tribune; packed the legal pads covered in his scribbles into boxes; polished every surface, wiping away every remaining fingerprint. I was desperate to know that I could still find him if I needed him, but with them here, I couldn’t poke through his things without attracting attention. And, with attention came more well-intentioned, but exasperating, cooing and coddling: Had I eaten? Was I all right? Did I want some tea with milk?
This last time, he had been in the hospital for a month. The ambulance came to take him away on a Saturday. The arrival of an ambulance was so much a part of our lives that no one woke me up to tell me. I stumbled down the stairs for breakfast as usual, half-blind without my glasses, wearing my fuzzy slippers and pajamas.
I was startled by an unfamiliar voice: “ Buongiorno, signorina.”
I squinted to make out two men carrying a stretcher, the thin body of my worn-out father lying on it.
“Baba?” I asked.
“Good morning,” he said.
I couldn’t be sure if he said it in reply to my question or if it was a reflex of deeply ingrained politeness. I couldn’t tell if he knew that I was me and I didn’t want him to go. The tumor in his brain had taken most of his memory.
“We’re going to the hospital,” said my stepmother, Anabel, emerging from the coat closet. “He had a difficult night,” she added as she pulled on her hat.
Every night had been difficult—every night since they told us that the cancer was too aggressive, his body too weak. Sometimes he was himself, just smaller and tired. Other times, all he did was stare blankly at the wall, talking to himself quietly in Twi, his native language that none of us, wife or children, could understand.
On the fourth day after he died, the women did not make their procession across the park. It was the day of the funeral at the American Episcopal Church on Via Nazionale. The house felt strangely still that morning. I had grown accustomed to the crowds, to slipping away from them. I dressed slowly: new black dress; black tights; soft black leather shoes that I had only worn once. I preferred my Doc Martens, but Anabel said absolutely not.
As I faced the drizzly day, it occurred to me that I had barely been outside all week. The day Baba died, I was summoned to the principal’s office. My sister was already there, staring at the floor. A friend’s mother had come to pick us up and drive us the hour from school on Via Cassia to our house on Via Laurentina. She offered no explanation, except that Anabel needed us to come home. Only when we stopped the car did she acknowledge why we were at home at lunchtime on a school day, telling us that we would get through it, no matter how impossible it might seem now. She didn’t say what “it” was. She didn’t have to. We stepped out of the car, through the front door, and right into the wailing, already in session.
The church was full. The ladies, wearing fancier versions of their procession dresses, were dispersed among the crowd. They were sitting with their husbands—my father’s colleagues at the United Nations. Family and friends had flown in from Ghana, Tanzania, England, Germany, the United States, and Canada. I caught myself looking for my mother, hoping in spite of myself that she had changed her mind.
My mother left when I was two and I barely knew her. But she was my only living parent now—I needed her. Two days after my father died, I called her on the phone, my hands shaking. I didn’t know what I feared until she told me that she couldn’t come for the funeral. Arizona was too far from Rome. She had responsibilities to another husband, and other children. She left before I was old enough to grasp what the leaving meant. I had never been forced to face the rejection. Now, here it was. I cut her off in the middle of her reasons and vowed that I would never speak to her again. I hung up on her and sat in the hard ebony chair by the phone, panting.
Closing my eyes, I held my breath until my heart stopped racing. I counted my losses and waited for the cold ice of them to melt into tears, but they hardened even more. They frosted and stuck to each other, heavy in my chest. The heaviness made me keep that vow to my mother for ten years, despite her attempts to reconcile. It made me slow to love people and quick to leave them, to hurt them before they could hurt me.
My sister and I took our seats in the front row, filing in after Anabel, who cradled my sleeping little half-brother in her arms. He had worn himself out from screaming bloody murder all the way to the church. He was six, and didn’t understand why we couldn’t stop at McDonalds.
The priest gave a sermon, the details of which I have no recollection. I was too busy thinking that this wasn’t at all what Baba would have wanted. He was an atheist and attended church only when Anabel insisted, or when we were in Ghana and my grandmother threatened him. The last time that Baba and I had been in church together was for a friend’s baby’s baptism. The baby had projectile vomited over his mother’s shoulder before he could be handed to the priest to receive his blessing. Baba had clapped his hands once, a giant smile on his face, before he realized what he was doing. He quickly corrected himself before anyone noticed his enjoyment, but whispered in my ear: “That baby’s an independent thinker.”
I imagined his ashes blowing in the breeze on his beloved beach in Accra. Instead, they would be placed in concrete at a nearby cemetery. Anabel said that we couldn’t afford to make the journey to Ghana. I suspected that she didn’t want to go there because she was engaged in a bitter fight with Baba’s family. They had never gotten along. The night before the funeral, Anabel had accused Baba’s sister of stealing a framed photograph of Baba from the coffee table. When my grandfather arrived from Ghana without a winter coat, Anabel refused to let him wear one of Baba’s. She didn’t want them taking anything out of the house.
Everyone argued over things they would later throw away. Dirty laundry was aired, and accusations were launched like grenades. They were all fighting over my sister and me. Baba’s family wanted us to live with our aunts in England. Anabel said that, in his last coherent days, Baba had asked her to finish raising us. I was surprised that Anabel wanted us to stay with her. Our relationship had always been a roller coaster. When Baba got sick, we hit a steep dip and plummeted at high speed. At the moment, we were barely speaking, though when we did speak, there was a quality to her voice and a look in her eyes that spoke to a longing that I recognized—a longing for nothing else to change. We didn’t know how to live without him. But, if we maintained the world exactly the way he built it, perhaps we could survive.
I had inherited Baba’s atheism. Instead of God, Baba was my guiding force. I was afraid that I would never believe in anything again. I was afraid until Mrs. Karamagi began to sing.
Father Michael was introducing Baba’s best friend, who was to deliver the eulogy, when the doors burst open. There stood Mrs. Karamagi. She paused in the doorway as everyone turned to see the source of the interruption. Regarding her audience seriously, she spontaneously began to sing a Swahili hymn, arms reaching for the sky. The only word that I could understand was “Mungu”—God. Her shrill voice filled the room. It sounded like a feral cat that had been splashed with cold water. People shifted in their seats, uncomfortably unsure of how they were to react to this impromptu performance. Just as she hit a note so high that I was certain that the stained glass windows would shatter, I caught my sister’s eye. She smiled, I snorted, and we began to laugh, stifling our giggles in our hands, disguising them as weeping.
Necks craned in our direction. The ladies were eyeballing their fake-crying competition. I pretended to wipe away tears and was surprised to find real ones on my cheeks. Perhaps they were tears of sadness, perhaps of release. I didn’t know what would become of me when I walked out of that church. This was the ceremony that marked the end of my life as I had always known it. But, in that moment, all that mattered was Mrs. Karamagi’s horribly off-key song. Baba would have loved it. I could hear him laughing.