March 15th 2018. 10 am. A month of disappointment continues. It is a Thursday. I am away from home and staying in a room on the third floor of a historic building. New faces, new people, new culture. I decide to cook: white rice, tomato sauce with canned chicken breasts, and some fried plantain. It is a good day, I am in high spirits. Till the phone call.
Suddenly, the world is spinning so fast, in the wrong direction, and I am dizzy. I can feel it, that sense of foreboding that has been plaguing me all month, it is growing thicker and suffocating me. My heart is breaking. I am frantic, pacing the length of my room, making calls, calling in favors. Begging. Pleading. On the verge of tears. I can feel it: I am failing. I can see it but I am powerless to stop it.
My mother will die. I know this, with a certainty that is chilling. I don’t know how I know, but I know. We share a bond, maybe her soul whispered to me that it was her time. It is hard to accept, this foreknowledge and so I double down on my effort. I have duelled with death many times and won.
December 14, 2008, 5:30 am, Federal Medical Center, Owo. I am woken by a frantic knock on my door: a patient is gasping. A middle-aged woman, admitted for some severe condition, the details elude me now. I rush to her side and bark others. Suction. Ambu bag. Oxygen. CPR. I don’t know how long but she comes back. Fully conscious and talking. Vital signs back to normal. Death lost that day.
This time is different. I cannot be there to face death. I send in the cavalry. I bark orders over the phone, talk to doctors, family, friends. Death wins. I lose. My mother dies. I don’t get to say goodbye.
Monday, March 12th, 2018. 1:30 pm. I call her. She is fine, returning from a doctor’s appointment. She has some complaints but everything is fine.
Wednesday, March 14th, 2018. 7:00 am. I wake up from a nightmare. I have a test at 10:00 am. I call my mother but her phone is switched off and I cannot reach her. I try again, same monotonous female voice. Stupid Power Holding Company: her phone must have died because of the usual power outage that plagues the country. I call my wife to call my mom and get back to me. I instruct her to arrange for my mother to come to stay with her while I am away. Somehow, I know. Something is not right. I want to stay ahead of the darkness I foresaw. I am too late.
March 16th, 2018. 4:50 am. I get the call. 30 minutes earlier, I felt her spirit depart. We had a connection. I am crying already. I listen calmly and allow the voice on the other end stammer and sputter trying to string together the right words – the usual platitudes, “take it like a man” and “it’s the will of God”. I say “thank you” and end the call.
I have one more call to make. The most difficult call I have ever made. I have to inform my only brother that his beloved mother is gone. He had called her the preceding Saturday, and they had discussed her planned visit at the end of the month. Now she is gone, and I have to deliver the news. He has a job interview the next day.
We stay on the phone and cry together. I hear something shatter in the background and I know it is the sound of his heart splintering into a million shards and not the glass cup he threw against the wall. I don’t know how long we spend crying and talking and giving and getting virtual embraces or how the call was terminated. I am on the floor; my legs weakened by sorrow have given way. I experience sorrow in a new way; I am accustomed to sorrow, but this is different. I am defenceless. It is ripping me apart. I am gasping.
To cry is not the same as to wail. They are synonyms but the lived experience is different. I am wailing. When your body cannot contain grief, it spills to the floor. I roll on the floor but this makes the pain worse. I lie still. I stand. I pace. No position is comfortable. I want to get out of my own body. Sorrow begins at the point when there are no more tears left to cry. My eyes are dry and so is my mouth. I am heaving, convulsing in agony and struggling to breathe. This is day 1, phase 1 of my grief.
November 7th 2015. 4:00 pm. I am in Zanzibar with my wife on our first anniversary, we are sailing on a boat over the Pacific with two other couples. The waters are jade green and we see gold fishes swimming on the surface. It is high tide and the engine of the boat is off. We are bounding on the waves and the sail catches the wind as we gently travel towards the shore. I lean over the side of the boat and run my hands through the water. In the distance, I see the island we had just had a picnic on getting swallowed by the rising tide. I remember now because my heart is that island, and it has been swallowed up by grief. I have not left my room in 3 days. My heart is submerged beneath the ocean of pain. All my body aches. My pain has eaten up my body. Everywhere is sore.
I cannot fall apart. Everyone is looking up to me to be in control. I make calls, process hospital bills, mortuary fees. No, we do not want a public morgue – overcrowding and power outages; yes, a private one is good. Pay the fees, yes, 3 months. I answer condolence calls and messages. I call distant family members that I haven’t spoken to in years. It is the first son’s duty.
I write a lot too. Writing is how I process the world. Writing gives me clarity. I keep writing. It comforts. It is my lifeline. Writing saves me.
March 15th, 2019. 4:00 am. I have carried my grief for one year. My mother visits me in my dreams. I do not say goodbye. I do not want to. A few months ago, I stayed with an elderly woman, a prophetess, who told me she saw my mother standing over my head watching me sleep on the nights that I spent sleeping on her couch. “Sometimes she sits and just looks at you,” she added. I don’t believe in ghosts or such tales and I struggle with her words; because I want to believe it – that somehow my mother is with me, that she will always be with me, watching me sleep.
We buried my mother on May 26th, 2018. It is also my brother’s birthday. He insisted on this. I think it is his way of keeping her alive. It is how he brands her on his heart. This is the closest he can get to her now. That way, he will never forget, not that it is possible to. Every year, whenever we celebrate his birthday, we will celebrate our mother as well.
March 15th 2019. 4:30 am. I am crying in a dark room and typing through tears on my phone. I finally found words again; I have been searching for words for weeks. This is how I remember my mother today – through my tears congealing on the screen. And once again, I am rescued by words.
February 14th, 2018. 8:30 am. My phone reminder tells me to ‘Call Mom’.