AUGUST 30, 2017 – It’s 4pm, Wednesday. He had taken his lunch and was about to complete a bout of exercise, as prescribed by his doctors for good health. As an elderly man, he preferred to do brisk walking or a milder form of exercise inside his walled compound: No. 5 Azebo-Ozalla Street, Ezimo-Uno, Udenu LGA, Enugu State, southeast Nigeria.
On a regular basis, he exercised for 30 minutes each day. Seven years before, he almost had a stroke at a time he was managing his blood pressure. But he soon regained his health after receiving treatment at a highbrow hospital in Enugu.
Exercise over, he called his wife Augustina and she responded. The next trip to Elele, Rivers State, for the monthly Christian pilgrimage was to begin in two days, and he wanted “Mama Stan” to go and get an update on preparations for the journey including transportation arrangements. A few minutes later, she was walking out of the compound while “Papa Stan” was relaxing in a double-seater sofa at the veranda.
Someone came to a store by the gate to buy something, but no one was there. Papa Stan called his ward Nkechi, who was at the backyard then, and drew her attention to the customer in front of the gate. Nkechi passed him by on her way to the store.
A few minutes later, after attending to the customer, she returned and saw him still sitting in the double-seater cushion at the veranda and seemed to be taking a nap. Nkechi called him “Papa”. She called again and said, “Papa, you have to go inside. It’s getting cold outside.” He didn’t respond. She went closer, lifted his arm, but he did not move it or wake up. Nkechi picked her phone and called Ifeanyi who had gone to a playground nearby. She didn’t understand how Papa was behaving anymore, she said.
Nkechi stood watching him still “sleeping”. Two or three minutes later, Ifeanyi walked in. Nkechi and Ifeanyi persuaded him to get inside because of the cold weather. No response. They called neighbours, and many soon gathered. And they decided to do the expected: rush him to a hospital.
A nurse at a community hospital just opposite the compound was called in. She examined him and recommended that he be taken to another hospital. Ifeanyi was not emotionally stable enough to drive the Peugeot 504 SR car his father had bought in 1987, so his cousin Chika brought his own car. They rushed to a private hospital at Orba. The doctor on duty used the stethoscope on him, and recommended that he should be taken to Bishop Shanahan Hospital in Nsukka.
At Shanahan hospital, doctors and nurses were on hand to welcome their new patient. But they had no treatment to give him: he was brought in dead! Both the nurse and the doctor at Orba knew also but just didn’t want to shock the family – they wanted him to be taken to a hospital that had a mortuary.
And so that’s how the end came for MATTHEW Eze UGWUOKE [B.A., Unilag; M.Ed, UNN], a principal of schools for many years, a distinguished teacher and moralist, a lover of literature, and one of the original benefactors of the Christian Pilgrimage Ministry, Elele, who was born in 1939. He quietly left the stage in his sleep – no sickness, no anguish, no goodbyes – to be with his Maker.
The curtain fell. The prayers ceased. And the angels took over with hymns welcoming him to paradise.
The family later heard from a reverend father at nearby town Imilike, where he used to go for confession and Mass at times, that he had accosted him after confession a day or two before that fateful August 30. He was said to have told the priest to tell his [Matthew’s] blood sister who lived at Imilike that he had completed his mission on earth and that no one should weep for him when he’s gone.
The news of his sudden transition spread far and wide. Soon, his relations and friends were wailing in all directions – from Ezimo to Onitsha, from Enugu to Abuja, from Lagos to Elele, and from Imilike to Abakaliki. Most shocked was perhaps his first daughter Chioma who was with him in the village three days earlier. When she returned to Abuja, she had spoken of how healthy her dad looked. His face glowed, she said, and he looked healthier than he had ever looked.
All the mourners were to meet on Friday, Orie, September 29, 2017, at St. Theresa’s Station, All Saints’ Parish, Ezimo-Uno, Udenu LGA, for a funeral Mass. During the Mass, encomiums continued to pour in, as even the officiating priests had testimonies to give: one explained how Matthew and his spouse had helped to train him in school.
By 1:30pm his body was lowered into a grave in his compound. The funeral continued with songs and dances, eating and drinking, prayers and blessings.
It was the end of an eventful life – one devoted to the worship of Almighty Father, to the veneration of the Blessed Mary and the saints, and to the service of humanity.
He left behind his wife Augustina, five biological children [Stan, Chioma, Chinenye, Ifeoma and Ifeanyi], eight grandchildren, two sisters, several nephews, nieces, cousins, sons-, daughters- and brothers-in-law, an uncle, several other relations and friends.
Now, the tears have dried up. No more mourning. No new lessons, except that of the uselessness of life: “Vanity of vanities…All is vanity…”
On a poster announcing his demise was the title “Home Call”. Printed in bold characters, on a larger flex, was “Forever in our hearts”. The flex is still displayed on a wall, in the family compound, to remind visitors of the legend who once lived there.
Next page: Extracts from a few tributes