Forms and colours are indistinct in the morning fog as the old Volkswagen eats up the gloomy distance. Over and over again, as I sit beside the whistling driver, I read the message Tosan, my younger sister, sent to my phone:
Please sister Moju, your responsibility
Is to only come home. Do not send money again.
This is not the time for that.
God is already stuffing mamma’s bag
For the next world.
Last night, when I first pored over these heart wrenching words, I rang her immediately, but by the time she picked, her babbling lips were not able to frame any meaningful utterance. I could only hear the bitter sound of pain and despondency drip freely into the mouthpiece of her phone, before the line went dead.
“Is this all God can do, now that He finally shows up, ehn? To pack her bag, after everything?” I yelled as I shoved my happy dog away from my eyes.
“Woman, bite your tongue!’ My husband said, getting up and fidgeting in front of the dinner that had suddenly grown cold. He was stung by what he had once referred to as my ‘growing profanity’ while in his study. “What should Tosan have said? That it was cancer?” he asked gravely. “If you allow your hasty intellect to meddle with God, He shall break your neck!’
Now, I replay the rhetoric of his question and I ask myself, ‘What should Tosan not have said?’
Everything at the airport lounge makes me apprehensive and feel like yelling again. Firstly, a swarthy man who has the creepiness of a zombie barges into my tremulous space and stares strongly at my cardigan, saying “Madam, are you not feeling this Lagos heat?”
From the flimsy way he fans himself with the tourism magazine he clutches, I can tell that he has never been through any heat before. I allow myself to think of him as a cold-hearted creature, and so I edge away from him.
On my way to a place more private, I meet this heavyweight woman wailing. Her fleshy face is a rivulet of wasted tears. She tells everyone that she has just lost her jewel case to a man who looks like a monitor lizard, and who had asked her if she was not feeling the Lagos cold. I turn to look for the creepy man. Where is he? What’s with him and temperatures? He has disappeared. He is the Devil; and now, he is looking for something more precious than jewels to steal. With this thought on my mind, mamma’s sickly face flashes in front of me. Where is he? Could he have billowed to mamma? Something in me tells the wailing woman, ‘Save your tears. Wait until you lose somebody – someone very dear to you, like your mother. Only then will your tears truly hold water. Only then will they truly mean.’
As I say these inaudible words, I do not know that people are in mamma’s room interceding and letting prayers go up for the umpteenth time −those incongruous words of faith peppered with fear and professional anxiety− for a woman who is soon to be labeled as ‘late’; I do not know that a haggard man wearing a pastor’s collar is near the head of her bed, holding a big Bible and invoking the power of God, in unknown tongues.
The last time I was there, I sat on one of the foldable metal chairs we put around the corridor, and I watched all of them flock in and out like vultures hovering in anticipation of their share of the rotting meat. And I remember asking Tosan some questions:
“Where are these people who come to pray from?”
“How did they get to know our names?”
“Why do you still give them honorarium for coming to shove dust
on a grave we know has already opened?”,
“Sister, tell me, do you even believe in the loud prayers they say?”
And still, I remember Tosan with her tattered smile saying, “Sister, some things are just beyond us; what are we to do?”
Stepping into the hungry aeroplane, I feel as if I have been admitted into the belly of the cancer-crushing machine which mamma claims she is locked in − inside that room she must enter alone when Tosan takes her for radiation treatment.
The rumble of the plane bring memories of her words:
“Moju, the machine would begin to spin: gu-gu-gu. And, I would start spinning…”
When she told me this, I pictured a little mammal in a specimen bottle shaken crazily by the hands of an aggressive underpaid laboratory scientist. Then, I said, “Aw! Mamma, are your words not hyperbolic? They put you inside a spinning machine?”
I remember she inhaled deeply, hunched her shoulders, looked wildly into my meddlesome mind with anguish and said, “I pray you never have to enter that machine to know if they are hyperbolic or not.” And then, she began to sob.
Now, there is a mixture of revelation and guilt. It feels as if I am in that machine. It seems that mamma did not just want more rounds of attention. It seem that the money I have been sending has really drawn me far away from the heart of things –from what she feels and passes through. Why did I not believe her then? What on earth even made me think her words were hyperbolic? My head gradually starts to spin like a Ferris.
I look out of the window; everything is withdrawn from my eyes. I cannot carve out things from the haze below. Am I really in the machine?
One of the female passengers tells a flirty bald-headed man beside her that she misses her relatives in Lagos. As these words sting me, I enter the character of a dead person looking at the world she misses from above. Again, without speaking, I hear myself telling this young lady, ‘What do you even know? Wait until you die! It is just too early to miss your loved ones and things; too early!’
The pilot, I am sure, observes that I am verging towards psychosis and running out of air. And so, he finally agrees to drop his aeroplane. It lands in the very noisy city of Warri. I shut my ears, and I quickly enter a taxi without my knowing. I do not feel enervated after the flight like I have always felt. Rather, I feel like a correct mad woman.
The journey from the airport races swiftly in my mind, even though there is a heavy traffic jam that pins us down for an hour. In the dirty cab, I think of the last time I was here, in Warri. Then, mamma’s words were drying up pretty fast; it was just that shout which impairs hope that she painfully gave in response to your greeting. And when she mustered enough heart to speak, all she said in her weak voice was “thank you”. But, what was she thanking us for? That we were helplessly watching her evaporate?
‘Mamma is strong, mamma will not die’, I repeatedly thunder these words and I also remind myself of the Amazon women in the Greek mythology who cut off their right breasts so that they could draw their bows more easily, and so that they could fight better. The driver looks at me carefully from the rear-view mirror, he stops singing Majek Fashek and shakes his head pitifully. Oh boy, he thinks I am mad!
‘Driver, she will fight and fight very well; she will not die!’
I tell him this, more loudly. And then, he nods slowly like an agama. Was he standing up for mamma or was he trying to make me feel normal – that I was worth listening to?
When we reach the gate of the hospital, he does not collect any naira from my outstretched hand. Rather, he says “Madam, God be with you”, and I tell him gustily that God has been busy stuffing mamma’s bag. He does not understand this. He thinks I am appreciating his kind gesture and also praying for him because I mention ‘God’, and so he nods and says “Amen!” as he pulls away with Majek back in his mouth.
The first person I meet in the hallway is a deaf aunt who makes a clucking sound with her tongue. Something has turned her head; something has killed her cordiality. Why are her arms crossed the way they are? What does this portend?
I mumble a greeting to her and she looks at me with furtive eyes. Her chest heaves heavily but her massive breasts stand still. Something is wrong.
‘Where is mamma? What are you hiding? Is all well?’
I rap at her with force, even though I know she is deaf. I raise my hands to describe these questions but she gives a sober sound that looks like a yes or God knows what.
‘Submit all your knowledge!’ I say in a frail voice.
As I turn away from her more frenzied, she spits on the cemented floor and gives a rattling sigh, ‘hem!’
The conversation has been on for more than five years. It has been a running commentary of expenses upon expenses –emotionally, financially and otherwise.
At the alpha stage, we watched a heavily accented Ghanaian doctor explain mamma’s suffering and the risk to us after poking his stethoscope deep into our family history; test results in his hands.
“What killed this yer aunt Alero? How did Nana, yer Great Grandmother die?” We were at a loss. We doubted if he was really asking us those obituary questions.
“It es cancer; breast cancer.” He said, between a hard breath and a hard time.
I remember Tosan looked back to see if he was addressing another person behind our seats, but found out that there was nobody else in his office.
Also, I remember seeing a naked mannequin with a squashed left breast later that day, as we ghosted home, and it made me think about all the women in the world.
“There es ah tendency to be watched”, he told us, and then he continued, “Please, Moju and Tosan, have ah plan for regular check ap because this thing es -uh hereditary”, and then, he held our hands with too much pressure, as if he was pressing into them his condolence, in advance.
We keep it from our extended family and the world −this crippling black news. We do not tell anyone. We fear we would be discriminated against, or even called evil like aunty Alero was called. And so, we use her name to exercise our faith in God:
“Oh Lord Our Father! Help our mother. Oh Lord! Save mamma’s breast from the surgical knife!”
Then, when her condition took a nosedive, we started saying:
“Now, that her right breast has been plucked out by Dr. Kofi, Lord, if only You will normalize her breath and stop the copious growth festering on her chest; on her right shoulder…”
Then, we watched the cracking of her body under pressure; and then, when Dr. Kofi told us that her brain had stopped secreting endorphin –the hormone against pain, we began to only cry, ‘God!’ yes, only God. And when God did not theatrically appear as a burning bush or as a mist or as a dove, or at least, as an owl, we look for friendlier divinities in the village, beneath the stream, inside a talking drum, everywhere.
A tall nurse bumps into me and tells me welcome or its equivalent in a sane world. Why is she so tall? Something must be wrong. I watch the sliding away of her watering eyes, and also observe her fingers as they dance, as if to a choking dirge. She reaches out to me by placing her clinical palms softly on my shoulder before making a start to disappear. Was her palm really sweating?
That loud noise, where is it climbing out from? Is it coming from the door five inches to my nose –the door the ambiguously tall nurse came out from? It is like the ugly sound a wounded beast makes when it screeches from the depth of its parched throat. I brace myself, count up to one and then, I fall upon the door.
The noise becomes piercing and communicative as the door bursts open. From the threshold where I stand, I do not look at my mother’s younger sister who owns this tragic sound, or my elder brother who bites hard into a large blue pillow, perhaps because he is an African man, and an African man is not supposed to cry out even when his heart is being hacked away by an irreparable loss. I do not even see Tosan who has just fainted without anybody noticing it. Rather, I drop my dazed eyes on the still bed. It looks like where death had just orchestrated a hideous act. I see the still form of her length covered in a white muslin sheet and it makes me think of burial mounds.
I step back and then, slightly, I close the door. All of a sudden, Warri falls strangely silent and I begin to feel the Lagos heat and cold.