At about 2:33AM, I gave my last breath. Only one of the many times I had died. Only one of the many ways I had done it, but this time the front doorbell woke me.
I had passed out drunk from the cheap whiskey, and woke staring only at the Jim Beam bottle which now lay empty by my left foot.
It was already over half way gone when I stole it from my mothers dressing room closet. I didn’t think a few shots would kill me, but I sure as hell thought it would get me drunk enough to kill myself.
The knocking got heavier, and the sound of the doorbell, more frantic. At 11PM in a thunderstorm on a Friday night, anyone knocking on our door was most likely looking for help, I thought. I watched as a pale looking man with straight brown hair walked into my house. My mother let him in, and invited him to sit by the fire where it was warm. He was still shivering when she took his coat only to find he was only a boy, though much taller than me, and from his young looking face, he may have only been a few years older.
That night, they broke bread together. For the first time in a long time I heard my mother laugh and she spoke to him fondly. They shared a cup of tea, and kept warm by the fireplace, all while I lay helpless on the bedroom floor, drifting off to the sound of their voices, and careful not to make a sound. I shut my eyes, and waited for sleep to return, certain the boy would be gone by morning. I wanted to sleep and dream of my father, but my thoughts were filled with sad memories.
I dreamt of his funeral.
That day, May 2nd 1995, my mother said we celebrated life, but my only recollection was watching her as well as everyone else drown in their own tears. My mother told me to stay in the house. She tried to shield me from the trauma the best way she knew how, but I insisted I stay by her side through it. and at only 13 years old, I watched as they lay my fathers coffin into the ground. The choir broke into song. As the hymnal ‘we shall overcome’ echoed the rest of our voices, my mother squeezed tightly onto my hand, as if worried I would break into a sprint and run towards the coffin. I remained strong. I survived, but I thought surviving papas funeral would be the hardest part.
Things weren’t always bad. The first year after my father passed, we did pretty good. I got my first job at a local butcher shop, and at $10.00 an hour, I made ends meet.
In silence, we made it through papa’s birthday, and survived our first Christmas without him as well. My mother didn’t start drinking the following year, I just became more aware of her alcohol problem. In a matter of months, she had lost two jobs, and was finding it difficult keeping the third I had gotten her at the butchers market where I worked. It was already hard enough to get a job as brown boy, let alone get a job for a woman of her age, but I worked hard, and my reference was as good as gold. I came in earlier than everyone else, and was usually the last one to leave, all while still keeping straight A’s in school.
One night, I came home to find a crowd around our house. I remember my mother had missed her shift that evening. She was feeling very ill that morning, and so I assumed she had stayed home to rest. Cautiously, I moved closer to join the crowd. I wasn’t tall enough to see and too small to get past the neighbors who had circled around, now heavily engaged in petty gossip.
A fire truck parked at the corner told me there had been a fire somewhere close by, and I watched as two tall white men ran past us with thick water hoses, and long silver ladders. Immediately I felt panic creep in, and my stomach sink.
“Mom!” I yelled. I began to push people out of my way cutting through the crowd trying to see what was really going on.
“Move out of my way! This is my house, I live here!” I yelled as I pushed my way through the many men and women in their nightgowns.
I got to the front, and all I could see and smell was smoke. One of the firemen, walked towards us comforting a frail looking woman in a flowing nightgown wrapped in his arms. I was sure it was my mother, so I wriggled through the crowd some more, and ran towards them.
On seeing me, the woman yelled “Nnamdi!”
“Officer, that’s my son” I saw her mouth to the fireman that held her, as she pointed at me.
My eyes shifted away from her and I stood frozen at the sight of our home. Before my eyes, my worst nightmare had come undone.
All of my fathers’ photos, our family portraits, every remnant of any memory of papas existence, gone; completely burned or unrecognizable.