My earliest memories of him are of a gentle, warm soothing presence, with a slightly distracted air. He would peer at me through his spectacles perched on the tip of his nose, providing some warmth and security in what was to my then six year old self, a very scary appointment at the local medical centre. Getting up from his swivel chair, he would come over to where I was perched, scared on my mother’s knee and remove his stethoscope to listen to my chest. All the while I would be praying that he would not recommend any injections and my young eyes would search his face and my mother’s for any mention of the dreaded I word, which meant that I would have to repair to the small nurses room along the corridor from his office to keep an appointment with the dreaded needle. Sometimes my fears were misplaced and we would be sent home with a clutch of syrups, some pleasant like the golden vitamin syrups, other less so like the sickly smelling and tasting Phernegan syrup.
I also knew him in a different context. Sometimes in the afternoon, if we had been good, we were allowed to accompany my father to the University Senior Staff Club where he played tennis almost every day. After several sweaty games of tennis, we would repair to the clubhouse where my father and his partners would quench their thirst with ice-cold bottles of beer. Sometimes I would see the doctor there engrossed in a game of draughts, again peering over his spectacles, sometimes whistling as he worked out the next move. He always gave us a cheerful if somewhat distracted greeting, and in many ways was the archetype of the trusted family doctor.
Last week, the news came of the death of Dr Umelobi Ihekweazu, retired physician and former Deputy Director of Medical Services at the
At the service of songs pulled together by Chikwe’s friends in
There were other stories, other tributes- of how he had excelled in his academic work at Christ the King College in Onitsha; of how he had helped many people from Amaigbo to acquire a university education; of how he had taken an active interest in the welfare of his people; of how he had left the University of Nigeria to set up the medical service at first the Federal University of Technology in Owerri, and later as a consultant, the medical service at the Imo State University.
It was however Chikwe’s tribute that was perhaps, unsurprisingly most moving. Chikwe said that he had tried to examine his father’s life and to pick out what he felt were key lessons that could be of relevance to us today. He spoke of how as a young man, his father left Aba to Port Harcourt to board a ship on his way to Canada for a university education. Chikwe asked us to imagine what it must have been like to leave the warm climes of south eastern
His stay in
As soon as the war was over, in 1971, nineteen years after he first left
Chikwe then spoke of his father’s relationship with his mother- of how he always put her first; delighting in her academic successes especially after she became one of the first female professors at the
The final lesson that Chikwe said he had learned drew not from his father’s life, but from his mother’s tragic death. Recalling how his mother, who had renounced her German citizenship for a Nigerian passport had died in a tragic accident, soon after having organized Eagle on Iroko the internationally acclaimed festival to celebrate Chinua Achebe’s 60th birthday, he spoke of how at the time he had thought that he would never be able to speak in public about his mother. But he said he had learnt that time was a healer and so he drew strength from that. His mention of that sad time reminded me of one of the enduring memories of his father that I have- of him standing grief-stricken in the casualty department of the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, receiving condolences from a Swiss woman who was married to a Nigerian and saying to her in a soft voice “When people like you make the sacrifice of following us back home, things like this shouldn’t happen”
Chikwe’s final lesson from his father’s life, he said was of the importance of balance. He spoke of how growing up, his father was always the tough one, the disciplinarian, contrasting with his mother’s much softer approach. Following his mother’s death, he said, his father showed them a new, much softer side of himself. It was then that they realized that he had wittingly taken on the role of the hard man to complement their mother and that once she was no longer there; he adjusted his parenting style accordingly. In spite of his “hardness” Chikwe said, that unlike many of his generation, Dr Ihekweazu was always able to express his love for his children physically and verbally, always ending his telephone conversations with the words “Your Papa loves you, okay”
Other speakers at the service of songs praised Chikwe for his fortitude and said that he and his siblings were in themselves a living tribute to their parents. Citing their respect for and knowledge of the Igbo language and culture and Chikwe’s active engagement with Nigerian health issues, speaker after speaker paid tribute to their parents for their achievements. As one of the speakers said in conclusion, even though Dr Ihekweazu is no more, he lives in Chikwe, Adaoha and Edozie.
As he is laid to rest in Amaigbo on the 27th of July, my thoughts and prayers are with them.