It was in the house I had always known as “Bode Thomas” that the news was broken. First I saw my dad’s older brother and then his younger sister and suddenly there were several familiar faces around. I heard someone say gently to my grandpa, “Taiwo ti s’alaisi”. Minutes later I heard my mum making her way up the stairs, screaming, “Toyosi, daddy is gone”. I didn’t fully understand what she was saying but I burst out crying because hearing her cry that hard was upsetting and all the people who had appeared from nowhere looking pensive, not quite sure what to say or do, had frightened me. I was 11 years old.
I had gone to my paternal grandpa’s house after school as I almost always did. A normal day at his house was one where I told him about my day, then had lunch which the cook always served without meat- I got that after I was done eating the “main food”- then did my homework, had my grandpa check for errors, had fried plantain as pre-dinner, waited for my dad to get me when he was done from work, got excited when I saw him, kissed my grandpa goodbye and went home with my dad.
June 23 1998 was not a normal day. Death visited my family and left with my dad.
I remember the events like they happened yesterday. 5:30 pm and he still hadn’t shown up to get me. I was fidgety and convinced that he had forgotten about me. How could he forget about me? I was his only child! Where did he go? Who made him forget about me? These were the questions going through my head and I couldn’t wait for him to show up so I could ask them. As I sat with my grandpa flipping those thoughts in my head, he was told he had a visitor- the Provost of our church Very Rev. (Dr) Segun Okubadejo. It wasn’t strange that the provost was visiting but I remember thinking why so late? I was happy to see him though. His white beard reminded me of “Father Christmas”. He hugged me, asked me all the questions that 11 year olds are asked and then began to speak with my grandpa. Nothing major. Just the usual, “how is this person and how is that person?” and then it got really quiet. His excuse was that he was waiting for someone. I went back to thinking “how could my dad forget me at Bode Thomas?”But I remember wondering why it was so quiet. It felt weird.
Moments later, I didn’t have to wonder any longer. All those people came in and I burst into tears. Someone held me but I don’t remember who. People were crying, some were whispering, some sighing but it all sounded like one sad hum. Above that hum though, I remember hearing clearly, my mum’s voice over and over again saying, “daddy is gone”.
My dad was my first love. What I felt for him was love, fear, awe and reverence all mixed together to form one powerful emotion. He was a quiet, unassuming man whose favorite spot in the world was his house. I learned to understand his looks; looks that put me in check whenever I misbehaved. My stories (and I had lots of those) were shared with him. My singing, dance moves, cries of injustice, ambitions… everything was shared with him. He was the first human I felt any sort of connection with, the first human I loved and in my little eyes he could do no wrong. Taiwo Olawale Phillips was perfect.
After he passed away, people kept telling me that he had lived long and I should be grateful for the time I spent with him, grateful for how long I’d had him around considering that for the 44 years of his life he had lived with the dreaded Sickle Cell Disease.
I knew he was often in pain but the concept of Sickle Cell was something I couldn’t grasp. I just saw the bloated feet, the puffy face, the off-white eyes, the struggle to walk and act normal when he was in pain and I didn’t even know the pain was referred to as “a crisis” at that time. All I knew was that my little body would have shared that pain if it could. My bones would have gladly relieved his of what they were going through; but all I ever did… could ever do…was stand by, while others tended to him, and quietly say, “Sorry daddy”.
One thing I’m truly grateful for is the memories I have of him. Amazing memories! I remember times I made him smile and feel very proud like when I got the lead role in “Annie” and when I won those birthday “dancing competitions”. I remember him smiling the hardest though, when I said something he deemed exceptionally intelligent. The day I said, “NEPA is just for destruction and not for construction” must have been one of the happiest days of his life. 17 years later, I remember this statement and day vividly because he took me to my grandpa and made me repeat it with a huge smile on his face.
I look back at the days I attended “grown up” parties with him; the days he came running to my room because I’d woken up screaming… afraid of the dark. I remember the walks to get Suya at UTC and ice cream at “HighStreet”, the Sweet Valley books he got me reading, the Kids Praise songs he played as he dropped me off at school, the stories he made up to get me to keep my hands inside the car while he drove, the songs he made up just for me, his laugh, his frown, his ruler on my knuckles as punishment, him starting every chastisement with, “Toyosi, Toyosi, Toyosi, how many times did I call you?” and my response almost always being, “I didn’t count”.
I look back at everything and I am grateful – grateful that the memories I have of a father who truly loved me and proved it in his words and deeds. A father who let me express and be myself and never made me feel like anything was impossible. He let me climb trees to get apples at our family friend’s house. He let me put on my one-man shows, let me run, let me dance, let me pull up the handbrake when he parked. He let me be ME, and for this I’ll always be grateful.
To everyone living with Sickle Cell, I want to say Well Done! You continually handle levels of pain beyond what regular minds can comprehend. You are the true epitome of strength and resilience and I pray for continued grace and strength for you.
To everyone else, especially those not familiar with Sickle Cell Anemia, it is a preventable, inherited blood disorder and you can read up on it here http://www.sicklecelldisease.org/index.cfm?page=about-scd. There are also tons of organizations and foundations looking for cures and catering exclusively to people living with the Anemia; two of which are the Morak Children Sickle Cell Foundation and the Sickle Cell Foundation Nigeria. Feel free to show them love and support.
To Taiwo, my first love and personal angel, I miss you and I love you.