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B. Ańjọláolúwa | The Art of Living

Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.

—Erik Erikson

 

Her hands shake as she grabs on to the door frame, head bent down as though from defeat. And as I watch curiously as she walks gingerly towards the opposite door, as though each step she takes might break her, I can’t help but wonder what blows life had dealt her to make her react this way. I may not know her personally, but I can’t help but feel sorry for her.

Not long after, I watch the door she entered open up. She stands at the entrance for a moment without looking around, solely focused on her breathing.

Inhale. Exhale.

She does this for what feels like nearly an hour before her previously slouched form now takes shape, shoulders forced high, spine straight. She removes her glasses, cleans them with the tip of her sleeve and wears them back while forcing a smile on her face. I can tell that this is the moment she tells herself to man up in a bid to cope with the affairs of the day. I may not know her personally, but once again, I can’t help but feel more pity for her.

Almost immediately, it’s like a buzz of sudden activities overwhelms the room I’m patiently sitting in, forcing me to lose sight of this woman. Files are being pulled out and the sudden influx of patients is being directed across various waiting rooms. I quickly glance at the wall clock perched on the opposite side of me, and I smile at the realisation that the workday had officially begun.

“Are you here to see her too?” A timid voice says beside me. I turn and see her small frame become smaller as though chastising herself for speaking to a stranger. She looks pale. Very pale. It’s worrying how I’m able to tell she’s pale, especially with how dark her skin tone is and how covered up she seems, with her beanie nearly covering her eyebrows. Her eyes seem so sunken that I’m almost forced to ask her if she’s okay.

My confusion must show on my face because she clarifies, “Telema. Are you here to see Telema?”

“Um…” I look down at the initial questionnaire I’d filled when I’d come in earlier to confirm who she’s speaking about. “Oh…yeah, I am. I’m guessing you are as well?” My words come out more as a question than a statement.

She smiles and nods in the affirmative before answering, “I am. Do you mind me sitting this close to you?” I look towards the space between us caused by three empty seats and wonder why she still deems this too close. Unsure of who I’m dealing with and not wanting to unintentionally cross any boundaries, I stop myself from asking.

“It’s fine.” I turn to face the continuous activities going on in the room.

“You know,” she starts to speak up again after what feels like aeons of awkward silence, facing the direction I’m now facing. “It’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever come to a place like this. For the longest time, I’d deluded myself into thinking I didn’t need any form of help and assuming I could do it all on my own. I’d grown up that way you know? Trying to solve the problems that go on up here,” she taps her left temple before continuing, “on my own. But for the first time last week, I finally had to accept the fact that I needed help.”

I don’t know how to respond. I’m shocked at how comfortable she assumes she is with me for her to open up to me this way, but I chalk it up to the fact that we’re seated in a therapist’s office.

“I have breast cancer,” she continues speaking, and this time it feels as though she’s just speaking to herself, but I actively listen anyway, hoping I’m giving her what she needs by being present. “I just found out three months ago and it’s Stage 4. There’s nothing they can do again except make me be comfortable by dulling the pain for the next few months, so I’m just basically living out my last days. All of a sudden my life changed for the worse just those months ago and I’m angry about it, as I should be. Some days, it feels like I’ve come to terms with it, other days I’m numb about it. I mean, I’m just 28—my life has just begun, so why?” A steady stream of tears rolls down her cheeks at this point, as she continues, “I developed severe anxiety just thinking about it— about how I’m never going to be able to do so many things that I’d have loved to do, like get promoted at work, travel the world, get married, have kids. My life is already over before it even began and the mere thought just pisses me off. This isn’t fair, you know, but I’ve come to accept it. It’s hard, but accepting it is the only way I can allow myself to enjoy the rest of my, albeit short, life. Every day I get up, the only thought that runs through my mind is that it could be my last— those thoughts force me to make the hell out of the day, even though I can feel it taking a toll on me. I’m either overworking myself at work or wanting to chase the remaining passions I have so that I can leave a legacy and my footprints behind in the world. But like I said, it’s taking a massive toll on me such that sometimes, I feel like I might die from the anxiety first before the cancer eventually kills me.”

She chuckles as she turns and notices my very stunned expression. “That was a joke by the way,” she states, referring to the last statement she made as she laughs louder this time, amidst the tears, on seeing how my stunned expression morphs into more visible shock. She takes a deeper breath and slowly exhales before continuing. “It’s why I’m here today. Even though my time may be limited on earth, I want to at least guarantee a high quality of life for myself before my time is over. I want to learn how to live each day without doing too much but still doing enough so I can still leave that legacy I want. I want to learn how to take pleasure in the little things, celebrate my small wins, and be an amazing person to the people around me instead of wallowing in this cocoon of self-pity that I’ve created for myself.”

Before I’m able to offer any verbal comfort or advice whatsoever, the receptionist I’d met earlier motions in our direction. “Rukevwe?” She asks, eyes scanning both of our faces, wondering whose name it is she had struggled to pronounce.

The girl beside me stands up and straightens her skirt. “That’s me. For what it’s worth, thank you for listening to me. It’s the first time since my diagnosis that someone has just allowed me to pour out my thoughts and feelings without trying to fix me or give me unsolicited advice or prayers. I needed that, plus I’m hoping I get it in its entirety in Telema’s office.”

“I’m glad I could be of help,” I say simply and honestly. “And…good luck with everything.” I don’t know how to frame my parting words to her, so I make a general statement.

She throws me a weak smile. “And you too. I didn’t catch your name?”

“Oh, I’m Anrolaoluwayo. But Rola is fine.”

She nods. “Anrola. Thank you for being a friendly face. And I hope you live a life without regrets,” is the last thing she says before she walks into Telema’s office.

I must confess, she stuns me to silence. My mind is in two places at this moment, with the unifying thought being that this isn’t fair. It isn’t. It’s the first time I’ve come close to seeing death on another person and it scares me—this idea that you can be here today and gone the next. It’s not something I’d given much thought over in the past seeing that I’d never lost anyone close to me before. It’s the first time I realise the finality of death—that there’s no chance for a redo with life. As a child, death was a topic I could never fully grasp—it had just always felt like the person had gone on a very long journey that I couldn’t go on with them, no matter how much any adult had tried to explain it to me. It wasn’t a concept I could ever fully understand then—it just seemed so abstract.

I can’t help but get a broader sense of clarity after my conversation with Rukevwe; it’s another reminder of how complicated growing up is. Death is ugly no matter what, and the knowledge of it more painful as you mature in life’s journey.

My heart bleeds for the life Rukevwe would have wanted to live out before her diagnosis, but is now unable to because death came knocking much too early. With us being in the same age group—her being 3 years older— I’m forced to come to this understanding that death is no respecter of persons, age groups, or whether you think you haven’t lived life fully enough before its advent.

It can come at any time.

I feel a single tear drop from my right eye, and I take a moment of silence in Rukevwe’s honour, silently praying she learns everything she wants to during her session with Telema.

“Rola?” A familiar voice piques up beside me. I turn and learn why that voice is too familiar.

“Remi?” My tone conveys my confusion at seeing him here.

“How far now? How’ve you been?” He drops on to the seat beside me and scoots closer in a way that is not only a reminder of the little regard he has for other people’s personal spaces but also deeply contrasts Rukevwe earlier.

“I can’t complain,” I respond, moving stylishly away to create some semblance of space between us.

It seems he notices and gingerly sits up, creating more space while apologising, “Sorry…I forgot you had a thing about people crowding into your personal space.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I lie. “You’re here to see Telema too?” I ask, attempting a conversation.

“Yeah…” He looks around us shiftily before turning wary eyes back to me, “But I’d like it to stay between us, you know?”

I ignore this statement and turn ahead because such statements had quickly become Remi’s modus operandi. Remi had been the first ‘friend’ to look down on the idea of me going to see a therapist—even in this 21st century. And because he was the first to vocalise his opposition to it, many others soon followed after. Every time I’d brought up my declining mental health, and the need to speak to a professional about it, he’d always been the first to demean it—vehemently.  But I didn’t care. Instead of letting their reactions get to me, I’d decided to stop speaking to them about it and forge ahead and come here this morning, as I’d long ago acknowledged the fact that I did need help.

“I thought you said therapy was beneath you…” I state quietly, staring ahead of me at Telema’s door, in a bid to avoid eye contact with him.

“Rola, please,” He interjects almost immediately, as though he had been waiting for me to bring this up. “I said a lot of things because I was ignorant.” He faces ahead in a way that mimics me before continuing, “But…I need to do this. The demons in my head? I need to find a way to manage them or completely banish them. I’ve tried a lot of things, believe me. What haven’t I done? Which family member haven’t I spoken to? But they can’t understand it. The way my demons are eating at my mind? They’ve become a cancer.”

“You don’t have to explain anything, Remi,” I respond, internally cringing as his flippant use of the word cancer brings up memories of Rukevwe.

“You’ve never really liked me as a person, have you?” He bursts out angrily, sharply turning to face me as his eyes blaze.

“Remi…”

“No, Rola. Answer the bloody question. I’ve noticed it, anytime I’m around you lately, you’re closed up and easily dismissive. What did I ever do to you that was so wrong?” Beneath his anger, I sense a hint of desperation for my answer, and so I give it to him.

“You’re so insensitive,” I whisper, as though speaking to myself, but still loud enough for him to pick up on. I turn to him and confidently sit up, “The month I needed you most as a friend, you championed my mockery. Remi, we’d been friends the longest out of everyone, so I thought that even if no one would understand, you would. You Remi. Not even Tseju or Funmi. You. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when you were the first to demean my mental health. You made me feel so insignificant and small and yet you kept trying to still be friends with me and kept trying to still unburden your problems onto me through it all—I didn’t understand. And because I no longer know how to manage my emotions and reactions where you’re concerned, I just decided to take myself out of the equation entirely.”

“I didn’t know—” He responds soberly.

“Of course, you didn’t. You were too busy tearing me down and invalidating my emotions at any given opportunity.”

He hangs his head low in response to my accusation and after a brief moment of silence, he speaks up, “I messed up. I know I did.”

Once again, the secretary from earlier calls out before allowing me to speak, “Anrolaoluwayo?” As she had previously done with Rukevwe, she all but butchers my full name.

“Rola is fine,” I repeat for the second time today as I stand. I look down to see Remi looking back at me with expectant eyes. I don’t know what to say to him at this moment. Do I tell him I accept his apology and we can move past it? Do I tell him I’m going to be petty and hold a grudge? Do I ignore him and pretend I never saw him here today for the sake of our now deteriorating friendship? Amidst the myriad of thoughts going on in my mind, it seems

I’d subconsciously already made a choice because the next and only thing I mutter to him is, “Bye. And don’t worry, I’ll keep this a secret. But…I genuinely don’t think we can be friends again like we once were.”

Choice three had been made I suppose.

The minute I enter the famous Telema’s room, I quickly come to discover that she was the same woman I’d seen coming out of the toilet earlier in the day.

“I saw you earlier. Coming out of the toilet. It was you, wasn’t it?” I blurt out while still standing.

She smiles at me as she stretches her hand to direct me to take the seat in front of her.

I continue speaking as I lower myself to the seat, “Why did you look so defeated?”

She removes her glasses and lays them on the table before looking up at me, “Because that’s what my job is like. Day in, day out, people unburden to me. And for the most part, I enjoy it. I like sifting through their minds to find the root cause of their challenges and then working with them to create a viable situation that caters to their needs. But the human part of me? The part that still desperately wants to cling to her innocence? That part is suffering on a daily basis. I hear and see things that I can’t believe, things that make me question the whole essence of life. Sometimes after a session, I hold myself from shedding tears for that person, because why are human beings so evil? Why do parents have children only to inflict more suffering on their child? Why do people see another person and just decide to inflict pain on them, pain that they know would take years of undoing before the victim can ever reach a degree of normalcy? The only question on my mind sometimes is why.

But amidst the whys and the bouts of confusion I have, the most prevalent thought in my mind is that these people are coming to me because they need me. They need my help, my advice, or just someone to listen while they pour their minds and hearts out. I want to be that person for them. Every day, when I think about the horrors I may be hearing from patients for that day, the thought of offering at least one person comfort and solace supersedes the thought of quitting, because I know even if it’s one person that day, I’ve made my mark. And that gives me utmost satisfaction.”

Her words strike a chord in my heart. Her job is simply representative of how much we need people in our lives; people to listen to us, people to comfort us, and people to just generally be there for us. But it also points me to the fact that sometimes, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we fail to be there for those who are there for us. In reality, many adults bring childhood traits into their adulthood and such traits end up causing rifts in their adulthood friendships. Her words force me to rethink some of the things that I thought I already knew these past couple of years, especially concerning friendships and relationships. My mind wanders to my earlier conversation with Rukevwe and how much I could tell she appreciated the fact that I just listened. Sometimes, we fail to recognise the importance and power of this seemingly mundane act. It’s how in that same light, we sometimes fail to appreciate the magic and glitter other people bring into our lives when we let them. Her words remind me that although the world and its inhabitants are intrinsically selfish, there are people who are naturally selfless; who spread glitter across the world, one attempt at a time.

They remind me that we need more people like her in the world.

She shifts into a comfortable position as she opens her previously closed notepad. “But anyway, let’s begin. Can you start by telling me a bit of what’s going through your mind and what brought you here today?”

 

————

Image: Rosy / Bad Homburg / Germany Pixabay (modified)

B. Ańjọláolúwa
B. Ańjọláolúwa
B. Ańjọláolúwa was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and is currently a PhD Researcher at the University of Leeds. She studied Law at the University of Leeds, and has an LLM and MSc from the University of Leeds and the University of Law, respectively. Keen to develop her writing skills, she completed an online Creative Writing Specialisation at the renowned Wesleyan University, a top liberal arts college in the US, and a Transmedia Writing Course at Michigan State University, paving the way for innovative storytelling techniques and expanding her creative horizons.Her fiction and non-fiction short stories appear in The Three Boats Magazine, Brittle Paper (forthcoming), and her blogs. Instagram: @anjolaoluwaa_ Twitter / X: @theanjolaoluwaa

1 COMMENT

  1. This is one important story fr the whole Africa to read, B! As mental health is still not taken serious on the continent. Many respond with mockery and disdain like Remi did with Rola. Thank you for this, B.
    Hongera sana na aksante!

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