The book of his life
Father's Day reflections for the time of COVID-19.
I sat bedside in the Intensive Care Unit room, uneasy with all the commotion, discomforted by the beeping machines and tubes. My Dad was more alert than two days before and that, at least, was a relief.
It was then, shortly after I had landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and drove up to Milwaukee, that my mother received a call from the hospital. It was an emergency. He had been moved to the ICU to be monitored, just in case they had to put him back on the ventilator. I thought to myself how strange a word “intubate” was, change one letter and it signifies a completely different life stage. We rushed to the hospital to find my Dad in intense pain, and a resident doctor telling us that he could have two or three days left.
But on this day, things had calmed down. A specialist in charge happened to be visiting when I arrived and told me not to worry, that they were only using the ICU as an extra precaution. I relaxed a bit, for the first time in over 48 hours, and believed that this visit was to lift my Dad’s spirits, to get him through this fight and out to the other side. I also knew that the other side meant a period of aloneness for him, as the hospital was closing itself off to “non-essential visitors,” so as to protect its patients from the looming COVID-19 outbreak headed our way.
We talked about my family, my wife (that I should take her to Jake’s to eat corned-beef), my three year old son (take him to explore the woods and the creek in the back of their house), all the plans he had for us. I asked him what he wanted, what he needed, a visit from my brothers? Anything to help give him the strength to fight?
He said, “Boima, I’m tired, and I’m not sure there’s anything left for me to accomplish in life.”
I said, thinking that this would be an encouragement, “Yes! Now is the time for you to relax a little and be a grandpa, enjoy this less stressful stage of your life.” Thinking back, it pains me a bit to think that we were on different pages of the book of his life.
My father did in fact live an extraordinary life.
He was born in Bonthe, Sierra Leone, and spent his early life on Sherbro island off the coast of British colonial Sierra Leone. He lived as a typical West African country boy, fetching water and fire wood in the mornings with peers, making interludes to forage fruit and seafood from the forest and sea. In his later years, when he was in a storytelling mood, he would tell us about when he went to New Orleans and saw all the seafood food people were paying top dollar for, and would brag: “lobsters and oysters were what I used to eat in Africa when I was poor!”
At school age, he was sent to a Catholic school in Bo, a hundred or so miles “upline” in southern Sierra Leone. Christ The King College was a Catholic boarding, school set-up as an alternative to the British founded Bo School, and run, at the time, by an Irish priest. He excelled and would become one of the school’s first top students and assistant teachers (senior prefect), and was a star athlete (track, soccer, and cricket). Upon graduation, he would spend a brief time in Freetown, a city at the time steeped in the spirit of independence. It was through the government of Sir Milton Margai, the first president of Sierra Leone, that he would receive a scholarship to study in the US as part of a program to place Sierra Leonean students at historically black colleges and universities (for me, a surprise pan-African gesture from that era).
He landed at Fisk University in the American state of Tennessee, just as the Civil Rights Movement was hitting its stride. He would tell his kids stories of cultural misunderstandings between him and Americans, both black and white, and even about an encounter with the KKK (he had initially thought one of their processions through downtown Nasvhille was a parade). Political upheaval back home would cause him to loose his scholarship, and family misfortune would leave him abandoned in this new, strange land. He would then move into a friend’s apartment in Washington DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood (he told us he slept in the kitchen with the roaches), and worked nights at the front desk of Sierra Leonean Embassy and other odd jobs, trying to navigate America as an undocumented immigrant.
My Dad always used hard work to get ahead, and from the margins of American society he would work his way up through the system. Embodying the American immigrant dream, taking advantage of its social mobility through education, he would jump at every opportunity that crossed his path. From teaching Krio and Mende to Peace Corps volunteers in Kingston, Jamaica, to getting back into college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, eventually entering Medical School at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and becoming, for many years, one of the only (the only?) black doctors in Milwaukee, a majority black and brown city.
He came to be a very proud Wisconsinite, and found unquestionable success in the United States of America. He believed fully in the American Dream, all the way through the Obama Presidency. But, in recent years he started to question if that dream was past its expiration date, even encouraging me when I started to seek a life outside of the country.
That afternoon I was visiting with him, he told me some of the observations he had been making in the hospital—how the racial discrepancies bothered him with all the doctors and nursing staff being white, while the assistants and cleaning staff were black. This bothered him, seeing something broken in a society that had allowed him to rise up.
One of the last things I told him was that Trump was mishandling a pandemic, and because of that he wouldn’t be able to have visitors at the hospital. He chuckled. He looked at the clock, signaling that he wanted to rest. I expected my mother to visit in the afternoon, and throughout the rest of the week as his care-taker. She did visit that afternoon, but came back telling me that the hospital had closed itself to all visitors while he was in the ICU. A couple of days later he was transferred back to the cancer wing he had been stationed in for the past three or so months. We were relieved, he seemed to be doing better. That week my mother celebrated her 69th birthday, and we took time to relieve some of her stress. Later in the week we were able to get the nurse to answer my dad’s cellphone and have a video chat with him. He seemed ok, but still tired. I called for my son to talk to him but he wasn’t in the house and my Dad didn’t have the energy to wait for him to come back. I showed him his house and his yard, then we hung up.
The next day another phone call like the one the week before. “Your father is not doing so well,” my mother told me. They allowed her to go to the hospital “to increase his morale,” she said. A few hours later another call, “Boima, come now.”
My mom, my sister and I saw my Dad that evening. He was in bad shape. It was time to say goodbye. He had refused treatment, and now it was just about comforting him for the rest of his time on this Earth. He passed away the next day—from what they told me, when I was parking the car in the garage underneath the hospital on my way to see him.
My father didn’t have the coronavirus (we think), but he had a very similar condition which caused comparable suffering. I felt compelled to write this essay after reading about the many people who also have died in the hospital these months, whose spirit was damaged by a lack of visitors, whose family are haunted by the specter of “what if?” It isn’t a great feeling, but it is perhaps made less sharp being a collective one. So I write this for my Dad, and for anyone who needs this.