We had to use a photo from your 40th birthday. The one you had on expensive black and green lace fabric. You were happy in it. Your gele arrogantly spread wide on your head like a satellite dish. Gold sparkled elaborately on your neck and wrist. We did not know that your sparkle would soon dim. No one takes photos intending to use them for their own obituary.
Everyone else has aged a little since 2007, except you. There’s only one picture of you in my memory and it causes me so much anxiety that I am forgetting what you look like. I don’t know how to handle that. It is perhaps the worst bit of what the process of grief is about, so I’m doing my best to hold on to that one picture. I have beaten myself up about this so many times. A few other times, I have tried to forgive myself when I consider that it is at least a good picture. In the picture, your hair is still long, shiny black. The curls cascade all the way to your back. There is a name for your kind of luscious curls now. Black girls on youtube call it 2b. I think it is a bloody sham of a fabrication, but you would have said shey 2b la tun pe bai? Iyen na da. So, I’ll just go with it.
There is no grey in your strands. How can there be any grey? You are still only 43, the age that a few people I know are turning and it frightens me that life can be snuffed out at the beginning of life. I realised a while ago that my fear of the prematurity that can happen to life is why I have never had the courage to drive despite taking first lessons at 16.
In my memory, your skin is still the yellow of egg yolk, the smoothness of it too. It has not yet muddied from the cloudy effects of chemotherapy. Your voice, I can still make out in a crowd thankfully. It is a living thing, moving through DNA, reproducing itself in your granddaughter’s measured laughter; sometimes concealed perfectly in her once in a while sudden but familiar quietness. I recognize it in her and in you before me. The guarded quietness of you I remember from my childhood. A funniness that people did not know you had until you had them laughing hard, nearly choking on your delicious cakes. The melancholy that you many times slipped into but had to drag yourself out of hastily, because of us. I recognize it now because too many times, I find myself in that rut and I can’t come out. I don’t want to come out. Depression does have a horrible habit of reoccurrence. I do not have your strength but very much like you I have relied on books, lots and lots of them, to escape the chaos.
Until I saw your grainy green and yellow framed Obituary, I did not know that trauma was a thing that caused an uproar in the throat then settled in the stomach like sediment waiting for the next opportunity to be stirred.
A lot has happened in 10 years, it has sped by so quickly, except my grief hasn’t. I have experienced it in sudden waves of apprehension and fatigue. A shutting down of my body; aches here, pain there. An unexplainable tightness in my legs, a momentary blindness of my eyes, heaviness in my head and a desperate need to just sigh, very deeply.
Even after all these years, it is still the most difficult thing to think about. Unlike they say about pain going away with time, time for me exposes you to what could have been, which I find a continuous horror. Like packing my daughter’s lunch box and thinking that if you were here, she would have a slice of grandma’s vanilla cake in it or wondering if you would have been the type of mom to send me unsolicited broadcasts on WhatsApp or the fact that you would have been 50 in 2014 and perhaps we would have had a big party or the fact that you may have actually gotten a PhD. So, the pain doesn’t quite go away, one just finds ways to deal with it. Like running. I think after completing a 26mile race, you find you have a new level of mental strength.
And had I known that all of my time with you was an actual dress rehearsal, it would still have been difficult.
We do not hold yearly memorials or take out pages for remembrance in newspapers but we remember you all the time. We remember that your favourite colour is peach, that you would never drink any malt that’s not Amstel. That you drank tea like water. That you were raising four primary school aged kids while also getting your Masters’ degree, that anyone who chose to visit you after 8;30pm would need to come back another day because you would be unapologetically asleep. That you were up at 3am praying. That you ran away to Aunty Adama’s house when you wanted to escape from us. That you had an insane stash of nail polish. That if you were speaking in your Ondo dialect, clearly, you were abusing us and we never understood. I remember that you baked and iced somebody’s 5 tier wedding cake laboriously over night after she had come by the house to give you so much trouble. I remember that she did not pay you. I remember that you charged her 60k back then. (By the way, no body charges 60k for wedding cakes anymore.) I remember that on the vendor’s list behind her wedding program, she wrote the name of her own bakery instead of yours. I remember that you went into a bathroom at the reception venue and cried then came back to the table. I remember that it may have been the first time you let me see your vulnerability.
There are many things you think we did not know, things you did your best to shield us from. Unfortunately, since you’ve left, it is still largely a shitty world, but God is just.
Nkan ti iya ba ni lo n fun omo e je.
Those were your famous words to me whenever I refused to eat yam. Whenever I refused to eat anything. I still do not eat yam but I remember thinking in those first few days that if you came back to me, if my eating yam would bring you back to us, I’ld eat them forever, I would not hide them in my cheeks and spit them into the bin when you weren’t looking. I would confess to all the malaria drugs that I forced down the sink and lied that I had swallowed. If wishes could bring people to life, you’ld be here.
This has taken me so long to write, actually I have never quite been able to string any words together, perhaps because I was initially unable to deal with it; couldn’t process it. For a long time, I remember being desperate to want to go back home to Abuja because clearly, if you were going to return, Abuja is where you would have returned to and I needed to be there ready, waiting for you to come back. Not in Ile Ife, the dingy town where the news was broken to me. Death happens every day, but it is not your passing I wanted to hear about on a bunk bed, in a poorly lit student accommodation, the smell of stale beans and used towels interfering with my thought process, authorising the heinousness of the moment that needed all of ten seconds to change my life forever.
Every year, I have feared that I would be unable to do you justice. Afraid that I would make a mess of memories of you, that I would be failing if I couldn’t do this one seemingly last thing right, so every year I shoved writing anything aside, certain that if I gave myself another year, I would have more time to gather enough to write that would make you proud. I’ld play all of the information I ever gathered of the morning it happened in my head, back and forth, desperate to find a loop hole. Did you wake from sleep to pee then die? Was it 4;30 or 5;30? Did the final moments before dying take 1 hour? Was there pain? What were all the people there doing in that hour? Did they do their best? Because I couldn’t piece it all together no matter how hard I tried I wanted so badly to to keep whatever I had left of you alive, but it was so hard, even in the littlest things, like being too tiny to fit into any of your clothes or shoes, or still being unable to bake a cake to save my life.
Over the years, I have slowly come to understand that you would never put me under such pressure. I do not need to desperately make you proud. That if I waited another year, I still would not piece everything together successfully. That you died, and you have been buried and you are not coming back. This horrible cloud shifts everytime I remember the day you told an Aunt that even if almighty Mrs Smith, my school principal were to call to tell you I had stolen or fought or been badly behaved at school, you would wait till I got home to ask me about it. You were already proud of me. You don’t have to come back to be proud of me. Instances flood my memory now to make me realise you were always proud of me but for all the times I’ve needed confirmation or validation, this one stands out.
It is hard to imagine that 10 years have piled so quickly. Every one has processed this over time only the way they can, mostly with help. You are not here but we have not been left motherless. I always think of daddy, and the fact that I only know what it feels like to lose a mother but I do not know what it feels like to lose a wife – of twenty one years. Must be an entirely different ball game.
I have come to terms with the fact that processing grief leaves you with memories, that many times, these memories are rather intrusive. Memories of perfect Sunday mornings that smell of your marvellous doughnuts and jam and of meat pies too, of 7pm sharp dinner times and perfect, well dressed, well-mannered children, family photo ready at all times. My mind prods my body constantly, wanting it to come full circle and replicate these memories. Knowing what I know now, my picture of you is not one where you are in perfect balance. It is slightly lopsided, but it works. I do not hold you to outrageous standards that you did not hold yourself to.
You are glowing in the last picture of you in my memory. You have kind brown eyes. They say to me to take one day at a time.