As we pass through the Third Mainland Bridge on the way from the airport, my father asks if we are on the bridge. I answer yes. He says, as he has said before, that the bridge is an abiding reminder, that Nigeria can do anything it wants to, once it sets its mind on it and sees into the future. He smiles out the window. I wonder what he sees. I remember old, black and white pictures, me aloft in his hands, him smiling widely, his eyes shining with joy into the camera.
Growing up, I remember waking up early in the morning before the rays of sun pierced through the curtains to see my father sitting and reading and listening to the BBC or to the Voice of America. Always reading. He would pull off his glasses slightly and peer above them at me and respond to my “Good morning sir” with a good morning, emphasizing the ‘ing.’ Sometimes I would stop to chat, other times I would go downstairs to my chores. But always, he spent time early in the morning reading and listening to the news.
Our house was full of books. In the early years of my life, we had a wide shelf full of books in the sitting room downstairs, one of those wooden wall dividers that separated the sitting room from the dining room. Ours held books on every subject, from religion to philosophy, from the Bible to the Koran, from politics to economics and statistics, my father’s areas of expertise. Every other day or week, my father bought new books to my mother’s chagrin. I recall my mother teasing him often and saying he could spend all his money on books and not mind if he was put out of house and home so long as he had his precious books. It was funny imagining it – my dad with his bare, round, potbelly that looked like a small round traditional pot, his legs covered in wrapper, tied with a heavy knot across his waist just under the belly, in sitting on the floor as he was wont to do, reading a book, surrounded by his precious books. Except that this would be out on the dusty red earth of Enugu.
I remember getting my first glasses at age nine. School children in navy blue pinafore looked ordinary enough until they wore glasses – then they looked foreign, exotic, smart. I longed to wear glasses so much that even when I had begun to have symptoms of myopia, I secretly agreed with my parents that I might be feigning my squinting, that my imagination was strong enough to create the little needles that took long walks around my eyes, and the tears that poured out of them when I strained to see too far. Until my dad took me to see the ophthalmologist who prescribed glasses and ushered me into the world of the foreign, exotic, and smart-looking children. My dad must have been surprised. He wore glasses but not for everyday life. He wore them for reading and, even then, had only begun to need them after his doctorate and several years of a career in the civil service. He often misplaced them, causing my mother to wonder if I had picked up my carelessness from him.
As the years went by, his glasses got thicker. I do not think he questioned why. But even then he did not need them for everyday use. He still drove without them, except at night. One day though, he complained that he could not see well at nights when he drove to his Rotary Club meetings. From then on, my mother would drive him to the meetings and then wait to bring him back afterwards.
Years later, when I had moved out of the house to marry and pursue graduate studies abroad, he came to visit. I had not seen him in a couple of years. But he did not seem much different. He could stand to lose some weight, I thought, and he could do with new dentures, but my dad seemed just like himself. I still remember the call that told me all was not well. My mom called to ask if I would take him to see a doctor for his eyes. His driving had becoming slower. That was not surprising. My dad was good at many things but had never been the greatest of drivers. And, now, he was older – good reason to become a slower driver. He seemed fine to me. He had read my graduation program, and was going to help me work on a research proposal. He was jittery about crossing the quiet roads of Halifax, but I put that down to old age.
I took him to a doctor, an optometrist. That was my first inkling that something was seriously wrong. He missed whole letters in the middle reading those letters that every spectacled person is made to read at the optician’s. It was almost as if he had forgotten his alphabets or had no idea that the letters were there at all. Worse, he did not seem to notice anything was wrong. The doctor asked if he still drove back in Nigeria and my father said yes. The doctor said if he lived in Canada, his license would have been pulled. It was serious, the doctor said, but he needed more specialist care to figure out what it was. He sent the eye scans to a retina specialist, who would not give a definite diagnosis but said that he had to see a retina specialist when he got home to Nigeria. The specialist he saw in Nigeria told him his best bet was to go to India.
In India, he was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration. He got some eye treatment to slow the progression of the disease. This meant going to India every few months, which he did, until a center offering the treatment opened up in his city in Nigeria.
He has kept up with the expensive treatment, but the march of the disease continues. He can no longer read. For a voracious reader who used to read all day and night, it is a huge loss. I remember him on the table, early in the mornings, reading or writing, listening to the BBC, and I feel the loss almost as keenly as he must. He can’t see to sign his checks, he can’t see money denominations or even faces. He has had help steal from him and give him the wrong change. He no longer drives, whether slowly or without changing gears, as my mother would say accusingly years ago.
There is no feeling sorry for him, however. Not because he pushes away sympathy. Not because he resists the disability that has visited without invitation. But because he appears wholly accepting of it. He asks for help easily when he needs it, is open about the disability, and does not make it difficult to talk about. When I visit, or when he comes over to my home, he has me read him important information from the tv screen or from a book, and he nods vigorously and asks me to repeat when I mumble my words. When we wrote tributes for his eightieth birthday, he had someone read them to him from an early copy of the program booklet. When a football game or some exciting news is on the television, he moves closer and puts his ears closer as if listening to a radio, just like he did those early mornings of my childhood but now without book in hand, glasses perched on his broad nose.
Yet he insists on living as independently as possible. I am still surprised how, after a period of adjustment, he has continued to chug on, determined to live as fully, as self-reliant as possible. When he needs to drink, he gauges where the middle of his glass might be, and with shaky hands pours himself a drink. He has a sense of where things are. He walks, sometimes feeling the wall. He goes for his walk every morning, though he once told me it could take him fifteen minutes to cross a short street. I imagine a reckless driver slamming into him as he walks back home and in fright. I have said he should walk around the compound and he laughs as though I am crazy. He has changed his signature, that scrawl that I had become so used to from childhood and can still visualize even now, to something easier for someone who cannot see what he is doing to reproduce. He has a system for managing his medication schedule, and can tell by the box what medication it is – whether it is aspirin or a diuretic. He can guess at distances and still gives his drivers directions from memory.
He still goes to many meetings – the village meetings in Enugu where he lives and in Nanka our village, his school Old Boys meetings, his Rotary Club meetings, his Gideon’s Bible Fellowship meetings. He smiles at whoever is hailing him by his title ‘Ochimba,’ or ‘Onyemelukwe,’ holding out his hands for his handshake and asking who it is. He hums while others sing out of hymnbooks at church as he has always done.
He now has a different way of seeing, I observe. His expectations are lower, and he lives life as much as he can with this disability. He once told me that his only prayer about his eyes was to retain some sight before he dies. Grace, resilience, courage are all words to come to mind when I am with him.
I wish I were as accepting. I wonder if he still sees my face. Probably not. Can he see my children, his grandchildren, how much they are growing? Probably not. But he is still very keen on how they are doing, whether they still practice piano and who is coming tops in their class. In my more reasonable moments, I know it does not matter, that it is being here, loving, being loved, that matters. But I am not always reasonable.
My father is not the only one with this disease. There are others, with this, or other kinds of visual disability. A couple of years ago, I googled “macular degeneration in Nigeria”and, to my surprise, research articles came up. As I have discovered since we found out about macular degeneration, there are many, many people suffering the ailment, particularly the elderly. But amidst many health care challenges, visual disability in old age or, more accurately, old age does not make it to the list of pressing policy issues.
Much money has gone on treating my father. The eye injections are very expensive, and with the recession and the skyrocketing exchange rates in Nigeria, the situation is getting worse. My siblings and I do our best, but it is a struggle. I wonder often how people with fewer resources manage. There is little or no public assistance or support for visual or other kinds of disability. There is little support in the way of visual aids in public offices. I went into the Canadian Institute of the Blind, and they had all sorts of information and tips on how a person with vision loss like my dad, can manage. But, to my knowledge, there is no such place or organisation in his location and in many parts of the country. Disability is still very much a back burner issue. Disability in old age is a given.
There is a selfish side to this. I spoke to a close relative recently, and she complained about her eyes. I was scared that she might have the same thing even though her symptoms are different. I worry now that one of us, his children, might have inherited it. When I remember I eat raw spinach and kale, eggs and tablets of supplements, and try not to imagine being unable to read. And yet I admire my father’s tenacity and his insistence as living as fully as one can. Without pity parties. With a full appreciation for life.
As we stop at a traffic jam in Ikoyi, a child leading a blind beggar taps at the wound up window of the car, asking for money. All my life, I have seen blind people begging on the streets in Nigeria. I consider myself to be as humane and charitable as the next person, but there is an otherness, a nonchalance that is present, even when you are sticking out a hand and handing money to a blind beggar. ‘It is not my portion’ as we often say in Nigeria. Yet now, it is my portion, my father’s portion. They walk away from our car to another. I look at them differently, and I see them more clearly than I have ever done. My father, the smart economist, is not so far from being that man. As I read the slogan on a politician’s campaign billboard to my father at his request, I think how, I think that as with most things, once you experience it yourself or this close to you, you can’t look at it quite the same way.
Cheluchi Onyemelukwe is a Nigerian-born writer and lawyer. Her first novel, The Son of the House, is due out from Penguin Random House South Africa in January 2019.