This is easily the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I have been wanting to write it since I came out of the acute grief that I felt when he died. It’s hard to order my thoughts and feelings for my uncle Ra’ufu even today, 2 years and 7 months after he left us. His death has left a big hole in my life. Today, the grief is as fresh as on that sunny August day. Other days, I can rejoice in the good times we shared. First, I am grateful he died pre-Covid-19 because it would have destroyed me and his wife and kids not to be there with him in those last days. Thank God for small mercies.
I have decided a letter to him directly is the best way to do this. In between paragraphs, I will add names of songs that remind me of him or make me think of him now. He loved music so I am sure he would approve of the inclusion of music in my tribute to him. You’ll read it in the words below but I’ll say it now: I loved him so much and I miss him every day. He will live on forever in my heart and I am so thankful for the 16 years of consciously knowing and loving him. He was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but he was generous in all the ways it counted and he is one of the best men I have ever known. My father in all the ways it matters.
Dear Uncle Ra’ufu,
In 2000, I had a little brown address book. In it, I wrote the landline numbers, addresses and email addresses of the people in Nigeria that I didn’t want to forget after I emigrated to England. In it, I wrote in blue ink your name, phone number and address. My Mama said to call you if I was in trouble in England before she joined my sister and me. That was the beginning of my journey of knowing you. Of course, you knew me as a baby but for me, this was my first contact with you. I remember looking at your university of Oxford address and thinking ‘wow! He must be amazing to work at Oxford uni’. I had wanted to study medicine there, so it was like a fantasy institution for me. I didn’t need to call thankfully.
‘Light Up’ by Leona Lewis
We met in December 2000. Mama, Charo and I came on the Oxford Tube to Oxford and after a bit of confusion, on a cold dark December night, we found our way to Edmund Road. My memories of that night are a jumble. The sound system and shelves of music CDs, the Christmas tree, the smell of Nigerian food, the kids. Asma’u and Seyi – they were great kids. Despite the fact we had booted Asma’u out of her room (or was it both of them in that room?), they were both so warm and welcoming. As you and aunty Kate were. In the overcrowded living room, it was evident that this was a family where love resided. For the first time since moving to England, I felt relaxed and happy. My tummy was full of Nigerian food. I could be myself.
‘One Sweet Day’ by Mariah Carey and Boys 2 Men
So many memories but the singing stands out. You’d sing Barry White in your lovely baritone and the kids would groan and be embarrassed especially when we were out. You loved Robbie Williams ‘Rock DJ’ and every time it played on the radio (it was a big hit that year so they played it A LOT), you’d sing along. You pretended he wrote the song about a northern Nigerian woman called Dije (nickname for Dijatu, particularly in Fulani parts). The kids would argue until they were blue in the face that it was about a DJ. You stood your ground and I chuckled at the family drama.
‘Over the Rainbow’ by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
Hand in hand with the singing was your cooking. Your cow leg pepper soup special was blow-your-head off hot with chilli, but I could never resist it. I also learnt your efficient way of chopping okro. You took me alone to a bookstore in an ancient Oxford building one day and bought me the hardcover of the complete Lord of the Rings book. It was mahoosive. I hadn’t ever heard of it and I wondered why you chose that book. I hefted it back to London with me and it was a transformative read. That was the first of many presents you generously bought me. I will treasure that book forever. And I will die a LOTR fan. What a book! You knew me so well even in those early days. Your house was full of books and my visits became defined by how many books I could read in my waking hours. I’d stay up all night finishing book after book. You and aunty Kate never got fed up of my laying about reading. I don’t think I helped around the house as I should have, so focused was I on devouring all those lovely books on your shelves and in piles all around the house. It’s not a surprise your home quickly became my 2nd home. How could I resist a home where music, books and good food were so central?
‘Hey There Delilah’ by Plain White T’s
Fast forward to 2013, I called and asked if I could bring George to meet you all. As always, there was no hesitation. He was my boyfriend, so he was welcome. You validated him. You and aunty Kate might have had reservations, but I was never made privy to them. We were in the kitchen alone one evening and you asked me if I was sure he was the man I wanted to marry. I said yes. You said ‘ok!’. That was it! Without you, I don’t know how we’d have organised the wedding. I asked you to be George’s representative when none of his family or friends would or could come to Nigeria to stand beside him. You organised the religious side of the wedding in Kaduna, bore all the costs without question. You even paid the sadaki on behalf of George. I wasn’t there so you organised for a photographer to record the day for me and delivered me a beautiful album. In March 2014, you were George’s father. You did a marvellous job and I know George will be forever thankful to have had you by his side during all that. Thank you.
‘Amazing Grace’ by Judy Collins
As if that wasn’t enough, I asked Asma’u if she wouldn’t mind if I borrowed her father to walk me down the aisle. She said yes without hesitation. She figured that you could practice being father of the bride on me before her wedding day. Little did we know that I would be the only bride you’d walk down the aisle. I asked you if you would walk me down the aisle. Yes, you said without hesitation. You asked me what to wear and I asked for traditional Nigerian. When I saw you outside my bridal room on my wedding day, preparing to walk me down the aisle, I felt so proud. You looked so wonderful in your green outfit. You said something calming to me (it’s all a blur now) and you walked me down the stairs and then down the aisle. One of my best memories of the wedding was when you and aunty Kate broke into traditional Yoruba dance. I was so happy in that moment and so proud to have you all by my side as I started my new chapter.
‘With You’ from Ghost the Musical
Every Christmas or NYE I could, I spent in Oxford with you. You taught me about music, about politics and religion, about caring for the world around us and giving back. The trips to Bicester shopping village on Boxing day was a tradition I loved. Even if I didn’t have much money to spend and I wasn’t a big fan of shopping anyway, I loved it because we spent that day together. Getting out of the house was always a mission. We were never out at the planned hour. We’d then struggle to find parking but we would find a spot eventually. We always had to stop in the Bose shop and listen to their demo. We always stopped at Eat for lunch. We’d finally traipse back to the car laden with shopping bags, exhausted. Then spend the 27th recovering from our exertions. When I started working for the NHS, these traditions were invariably interrupted and I only partook in them partially. It was the only reason I minded working over Christmas to be honest.
‘Happy’ by Pharrell
In June 2014, I remember jumping into my car and driving down to Oxford to escape the house where my in-laws were staying after the biggest fight I’d ever had with George. I was so upset. I sat at the table with you and aunty Kate trying to hold back tears. I didn’t want to share it all with you to be honest. I was always mindful of the advice not to share your husband’s worst faults with parents because they won’t forget long after you’ve forgotten. I remember you seeing my red eyes and you looked angry. Angrier than I’ve ever seen you look. You clenched your jaw and you hurriedly walked away from the table. Aunty Kate and I talked for hours. She cried with me and consoled me. You came down when she had worked her magic and I was calm again. When I left the next day, you hugged me tighter than you had ever done. It helped.
‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna
In November 2016, I came for a visit a day after my birthday. I had spent most of my birthday alone. George had gone to Abu Dhabi for the formula One. I was left with my Velcro baby, exhausted beyond belief. Tete (Lorraine) and Kudzi took her off me for 3 whole hours whilst I treated myself to a child-free meal and a whole-body massage. I came back feeling better than I had since giving birth and they surprised me with a birthday meal. It was lovely. But the next day, I wanted to be with my family so I got on the train and came to Oxford (Savannah hated being in the car so it didn’t occur to me to drive down). You were at the station to pick me up. Savannah must have had the sense that you were my people because she went to you and aunty Kate and let me rest my aching arms. I had tummy issues so couldn’t have your cow leg pepper soup. I remember your crestfallen expression when for the first time ever I turned down your offer to make pepper soup. It turns out that was the last time you’d offer it to me. I haven’t eaten it since.
‘All of Me’ by John Legend
My tummy issue turned out to be a treatable condition called microcolitis which when it was finally diagnosed was treated. I didn’t admit to you and aunty Kate that I was worried I had cancer. I had lost more than 10% of my body weight in the 6 weeks since onset of symptoms, I was exhausted and felt very unwell. I was worried about dying and leaving my infant without a mother. When aunty Kate called me 3 weeks later to discuss her concerns about your reflux, cancer was already on my mind. I remember telling myself not to be stupid even as a corner of my mind became anxious. Aunty Kate called back the next week to say you’d gone to your GP and were on anti-reflux medications only but your symptoms were worse. I remember talking to you then, urging to go back. You were reluctant as it was over Christmas with reduced GP hours. I had a bad feeling in my gut, it didn’t go away. Still there a bit now. You went back and they put you on the 2-week wait pathway, confirming my fears of cancer were reasonable. I had a heart to heart with aunty Kate and admitted to her that although other things were possible, cancer was the most likely and for her to prepare you for that possibility. Now looking back, I wonder how she bore it. She was so calm in the face of the turmoil she must have felt internally. I remember coming off the phone after one of those talks and crying. I knew then that you had cancer.
‘You Make Me Wanna’ by Usher
It was confirmed on histology weeks later but the appearance of the ulcer and description was quite conclusive and I told you both. I was devastated. I hadn’t been able to see you during this time between working and trying to get some rest with the Velcro baby. I regret not coming down anyway. I should have been there in person. For you and aunty Kate. I should have come with you to the appointments to ask all the questions I felt weren’t being answered. Relaying my questions via aunty Kate felt inadequate and cruel to be honest. I was working hard to keep your hope alive whilst I was losing all hope myself with my medical hat on. I had seen this story play out with my patients. Little did I expect to be on the other side, living the nightmare.
‘We Are Here’ by Alicia Keys
Eventually, we realised that the cancer had spread more than we first knew so it wasn’t a curable cancer. We started looking into trials for you. Things didn’t go so well clinically and chemo was recommended by your oncology team to slow down the progression. Once chemo started, you went downhill. I think I was afraid to see you in person so I put off seeing you for months. I saw you in February 2017 and the change in the 3 months was shocking. Aunty Kate had been kind in her descriptions of you. You were clearly gravely ill. The chemo rendered you ineligible for trials. Aunty Kate and I talked about trials in India but by April-May, it was clear you were too weak from the chemo. I cried and raged when I was alone. One day, it was just me and you sitting down on the dinning table and you apologised to me about not making my biological father step up and be a father to Charo and I. I was so sad at your words. I remember saying you had nothing to apologise for. He is an adult and it was his failing and not yours. You insisted that you could and should have done more. I was angry that you were taking on his failing as a father. I remember lying in bed that night angrily wishing that it was him with the cancer and not you. It is not a charitable thought I know but I still feel that in moments of anger that I feel for losing you.
‘Castles’ by Freya Ridings
At this point, you were in and out of hospital as your vomiting and poor oral intake was becoming an issue. I was at a loss for words to make it bearable so I took to sending you videos, jokes and photos of Savannah. You always replied and that reassured me that even if physically things were bad, mentally you were with us. On another visit, I sat with you and you admitted the worst thing about the chemo was your mouth soreness and how dry and tender your hands were. Asma’u gave me some Vaseline intensive lotion and you let me massage that into your hands. You smiled at me and it felt good to give you some comfort, even if temporary. In May or June, you called me out of the blue and in your weakened voice, you asked me directly if it was time to get your affairs in order. It was the first time you and I had talked about your death. I remember closing my eyes as my heart broke once more. After the longest pause, I said yes.
‘ABC’ by the Jackson 5
You stopped replying to my phone messages shortly after this conversation and couldn’t speak on the phone so most of our communication was through aunty Kate between visits. She and Asma’u told me about how hard it was for them to watch you not eating. They told me how grumpy you were about taking the medications. In July, with the agreement of the oncology team, most of your medicines were stopped and palliative care started in earnest. You enjoyed lying on the lounger in the garden, soaking in the sun. You were cold despite the heat of the summer sun. You barely spoke. Your words were few and far between. The most alive part of you were your eyes. Sunken into your face. I couldn’t look at you mostly because when I did, I had to face the reality of your impending death. Still I remained fully at work. I should have taken time off at the end of July. Why didn’t I come for your birthday? Even if it was a full house? I could have driven down for the day. I knew it would be your last with us. I didn’t come then. The next week, I woke up one morning and the feeling in my gut was stronger than ever. I called George to ask him to pick Savannah up from nursery. That I needed to see you that day. I spent the day with you and I knew your days were numbered. I tried to warn aunty Kate. I think she knew anyway. I sent George down to see you that weekend and say his goodbyes. I didn’t want him not to have the chance.
‘Alive’ by Sia
On the 7th of August, I came down again, without Savannah as I wanted my focus to be you and you alone. You were bedbound by then. I sat downstairs chatting with aunty Kate and Asma’u about the funeral and where you were to be buried and how to navigate the conversations with your family in a culturally sensitive way. We all knew that the end was nigh. Seyi left us to it. I guess he wasn’t ready to talk about it. Selfishly, I argued for you to be buried in Oxford so I could keep you close. I had to concede your preference was probably Ilorin even if you left the final decision to aunty Kate. Aunty Kate was due at the Nigerian High Commission the next day to apply for her emergency visa so she could come with you on your final journey home. I went up finally, alone, to sit with you. That morning, my intention was to thank you for being my father and to reiterate that you weren’t to carry the guilt of my father’s failings. I even practised what I would say to you on the drive down. When I sat next to you, you roused yourself to answer my formal greetings in Hausa. You were breathless and so weak. I couldn’t say my practised words to you as it would mean admitting to you and me that I was saying goodbye. Instead, I held your thin hand in mine and told you about Savannah. When you started to drift off to sleep, I whispered thank you and I love you. I stood in the doorway composing myself and watching you snooze.
‘Perfect’ by Ed Sheeran and Beyonce
I planned to be back on Thursday with Savannah. As I left the house, I didn’t think that would be the last time I saw you or touched you or spoke to you. The next day, I got a message from Idris asking me to confirm the news. It was then I realised you had left us. I text aunty Kate: ‘is it true?’. She text back ‘yes’. You had left us. The rest as they say was history. I came on Thursday with George. We helped aunty Kate prepare to take you home. We talked. We cried. We listened to Josh Groban’s Take me home as per aunty Kate’s request before they got in the car without me and accompanied you on your final journey. I was on-call that weekend and the NHS doesn’t give leave for non-immediate family member. Aunty Kate hugged me tight before she got in the car and said, ‘I will look after your father for you’. I should have told the NHS that you were my father. I didn’t. I should have gone to Ilorin with you. I will regret that forever.
‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child
I hope you knew how much you meant to me. How much I love you. How much I valued your love and all the time you spent with me. I hope you know how much you have helped shape me. How I am planning my hospital because you inspired me with the philanthropic work you did. I don’t know if a part of you is here. I hope it is. I feel you here. Whenever I see okro or cow leg, whenever I hear a deep belly laugh like yours or hear someone speak with your accent. I feel you whenever I see the Bose logo, when I hear 70s and 80s music you introduced me to. You will be part of me forever. You will never die fully as I hold a piece of you in me and it will live on as long as I live. When I show her a photo of you (which I do often), I asked Savannah ‘who is that?’. She always answers ‘Uncle Ra’ufu, your father’. Right out of the mouth of my baby. Rest well my father.
‘Missing you’ by Puff Daddy