I went to the funeral of Iffioka Nsek on Saturday, a guy I’d never met. I know his sons through bike racing, but not well. I met his youngest son at this year’s Belgian Waffle Ride, where Ama finished first overall on the Wafer and obliterated second place by almost six minutes. The elder son, Imeh, is a similar force on the bike and a familiar face at the races.
Our cycling community is relatively small, and Iffioka’s death at age 51 affected me. There is a time to forego your oh-so-important Saturday bicycle ride for things that actually matter. This seemed like one of those times.
We drove up to Walnut and the campus of Mt. San Antonio College. I wondered why the memorial service was being held there instead of a church or funeral home.
The things in front of you that you don’t see
The on-ramp at the 405 and 110 was shut down, which delayed us. Then, the off-ramp from the 91 to the 605 was shut down, so we got delayed again. We were some of the last people to arrive at Mt. SAC, and we ended up in the wrong parking lot. There were only a few cars.
We walked through the campus to the performing arts center. A few other stragglers were signing the guest registry. Then a moment later we entered the auditorium. I blinked. It had a capacity of about 500, and except for a handful of empty seats towards the very front, was standing room only. We hurried down and sat, even as people continued to arrive, cramming the aisles.
I looked for familiar faces, expecting to see an audience filled with bike racers, and there were quite a few, but by far and away they were people from the “other,” non-racing world. It began to dawn on me that Iffioka Nsek, this guy I’d never met, was more than the father of two nonpareil young athletes. How had I never met him?
I’ve been to many memorial services but never, ever to one like this. The first handful of speakers on the program spoke with a grief and intensity that had the entire audience in tears. But what was more incredible was the long line of people from the audience, almost two hours’ worth, queued up to share their memories and their gratitude and their grief.
What was incredible was that everyone told the same story. Iffioka had come from Nigeria to California, graduated from high school in Culver City, gone to Mt. SAC on a track scholarship, gotten a job with the college after graduation, and never left. He had built their IT department and computer network, and for twenty-eight years had been an institution within the institution, not just because of his genius, but rather because of his character.
The people who spoke were varied beyond belief. Co-workers, high school teachers, people he’d only met recently and people he’d known as a young boy. What astounded me was the way Iffi had maintained so many relationships over decades, while continually building new ones, each friendship as deep and sincere as the other. He was the guy who would answer the phone in the dead of night, send you a 200-line code solution to your problem in a matter of minutes, and go back soundly to sleep. He was the guy who you’d call asking to buy a bike part from and wind up in a 3-hour conversation about life.
Iffi had answers, and when he didn’t have answers, he had laughter and happiness. He was joyful, overflowing with love, and always so eager to see YOU. One of countless moving stories was about how Iffioka had sold a server to a young man on Craigslist, then worked with him over a period of months to get it set up and running properly, then guided and mentored him into a successful IT career.
Or the story told by his college track coach about how he’d recently gone over to the former coach’s granddaughter’s house, completely set up and installed her home network, and in four hours had formed such a bond that when the girl found out about Iffi’s death she had collapsed in tears.
These and stories like them were the tip of the iceberg. Iffi who had helped a young man start racing. Iffi who had helped an old man start racing. Iffi who knew everyone on the bike trails. Iffi who only had words of encouragement and love for those who tried, and acceptance for those who didn’t. Iffi whose life was passionately devoted to his wife of 28 years. Iffi who doted on and lived for his sons. Iffi who drove the boys to school without fail. Iffi who demanded intellectual rigor and hard work from his sons. Iffi who on the day of their birth recited their lineage to his sons. Iffi who immediately and forever earned the love and devotion of his in-laws. Iffi who laughed at success, who laughed at failure, who met each day with a brightness and brilliance that challenged the sun itself. Iffi, a giant among men, distinguished not by great wealth or worldly success, but distinguished by devotion to family, devotion to work and those around him, devotion to the human race.
I am hardened to death and the words that people conjure up to deal with their loss and grief, but through my tightly shut eyes and achingly bowed head, I wept, thanking this man I never knew, thanking him for his life, thanking him for the gifts he had, in passing, left for us all.
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