For Nana, basketball was a seasonless obsession. He went to basketball camp in the summer, played on the high school team in the fall and winter, and practiced in the driveway year-round. When his friends came over, they’d yell and get animated watching games on TV. But when Nana was alone, he would watch (and take notes) in intense, silent concentration. As a sophomore, he’d already broken state records and attracted the attention of college recruiters. And he stopped going to church, so Gifty started going to “big church” instead of youth group to show her mother that one of her kids still cared about God.
As Gifty remembers Nana’s approach to basketball, more and more hints surface that, perhaps, the seeds of his addiction had been planted in his brain long before his first dose of OxyContin. He throws himself into the sport with a silent, monomaniacal obsession that suggests an inability to control the reward seeking behavior in his brain. At first, this doesn’t seem to be a bad thing for him, since it’s opening doors for an education that his family otherwise might not have been able to afford. But his absence from church also suggests his increasing distance form his family and isolation within his own obsession. In response, Gifty steps into a caretaking role, trying to show her mother that she is still important by making a show of going to church with her.
Gifty doesn’t remember much about “big church” except the altar call. At the end of every service, Pastor John would invite anyone who was ready to come to the altar to be saved. After a few months, Gifty became aware that her mother was expecting her to go, but she wasn’t ready for the attention or to relinquish her childhood and her sins.
Gifty’s unwillingness to relinquish her sins or her childhood happen in the context of what she calls her “good years”—that time after the day when Nana quit playing soccer, during which she came to believe that obeying the rules and making her mother happy would protect the remnant of her family. This raises the question of what sins she’s unwilling to give up, and emphasizes the trauma that she endured by being thrust into adult roles and responsibilities at a young age.
Gifty remembers a later time when Nana was trying to decide on a college. They had recently learned that the Chin Chin Man was remarrying. When he called, Gifty would talk to him for a few minutes until he asked for Nana. But Nana usually got Gifty to say he was out and their mother never chastised either of them for the lie.
Not only does the Chin Chin Man abandon his family in America, but he goes on to remarry in Ghana, which only serves to reinforce the message that his children and Gifty’s mother aren’t important or meaningful enough for him to keep. This also further traumatizes Nana, who refuses to talk with his father any longer. The pain of being abandoned seems to lie beneath their mother’s willingness to look the other way, even though she knows that the children are lying to their father about Nana’s unavailability to come to the phone.
The day of the Ridgewood game, their mother was at work, so Gifty sat alone in the bleachers working on her homework. As she tried to draw a perfect picture of the anatomical heart, she heard a loud shout: Nana was lying on the ground, injured. She rode with him to the ER, not holding his hand (because they weren’t that kind of family) but praying over him. Nana had torn ligaments in his ankle, for which he was prescribed OxyContin, rest, and ice. Gifty can’t remember going to the pharmacy to pick up the pills. Or how Nana spent the rest of the day. It was an ordinary bad day, and she can’t remember it well enough now to “pinpoint the exact moment we shifted away from ordinary.”
The Ridgewood game is the pivotal moment in Gifty’s young life, because it is the beginning of Nana’s path through addiction to his untimely death. At first, it’s such a mundane experience that Gifty isn’t really paying attention to the game, nor can she remember what happened after the family left the ER. It’s only in retrospect that the day gains its significance. Her ambulance ride with Nana also gains significance only in hindsight, as the moment at which she and her brother began to shift roles, as he transitions to becoming the needy sibling and she starts to become his caretaker.