There’s been a death in the family. You can tell from the faces of all present; they seem like squashed fruits, and the juice of sorrow teased down their eyes. Tears of pain, palpable like the corpse recently ‘lodged’ in the morgue. Like tolling bells were a practical joke; perhaps, an ‘April Fool’ ruse that had become eerily true, and that now had even the jesters looking down in the mouth.
My earliest encounter with death was when it struck my mother’s heel. She lost her brother, a bud in the garden of success. He was a man of potentials, and at his base in London, had become a household name. ‘Prince’, though his royalty was not English. And he knew that being called a prince did not automatically bestow regality upon him. He knew the worth of hard work and he provided his services in several directions: working no less than four jobs to amass ‘sterlings’ that would make his young family, six younger siblings and aging parents smile.
It had been two years since he left home, and he had chosen to return in grand style. He had sent a car by boat to precede his arrival. He returned to his hometown on the four legs of an automobile, a town he had left in sullen sandals. Now he had become a man, a real man. His paunch must have seemed like an ominous sign of his wealth. And he had arrived laden with gifts for all. Whispers filled the air as to his being eligible for the throne when the incumbent king joined their ancestors.
My mother, his immediate younger sister, was equally joyous. Happily married and recently delivered of a bouncing baby boy, me, she received her brother in the austere house she lived in with her lecturer husband. She fed him, her brother, a meal, his favourite, and watched with consanguineous admiration, how her brother leveled a sumptuous bowl of pounded yam and vegetable soup. She reiterates, till date, that her brother was so well-fed that his belt had to sink below his abdomen to the borders of his waist. She bade him farewell. But never knew that was her final. That the farewell was to be eternal and her brother was going to ram into a stationary truck at high speed before he returned to London. Perhaps if she had known, she would have said a better good-bye, clung harder whilst she hugged him, cried even. But she had not known; death played a fast one, like always, not a respecter of persons or status.
My mother returned home to throw herself exclusively to mourning her brother. I was but a child. I had no inkling as to what was going on; I cannot even remember my late uncle putting money into my diminutive palm when he visited. My father tells me I was bewildered by the amount of tears shed and I was only too eager to follow his elder brother home when the offer surfaced.
Sometimes my mother talks about her brother, even though more than two decades have passed. I remember her fondly remembering him; her face suddenly becomes animated as she recounts events of yesteryears with such precise details. Her memory recalls all the good times and even the bad, but the anticlimax is always his untimely death, and then her face creases, a drape of sorrow.
Perhaps my mother is quick to tears. Perhaps, because she is of the said weaker gender, or she is more in tune with her emotions, but I have also seen my father cry once. The events, though a decade ago, bubbles into my consciousness with fresh effervescence.
His mother had been sick. An octogenarian, she was admitted in the hospital and like a good son, he had monitored her progress with land phones; cell phones were still extravagant luxuries then. He even took time off his job to pay her a visit with his wife at his elder brother’s base, several hundred kilometers away. And on their return, they were sure Mama was convalescing. My mother had even done Mama’s hair in six cornrow plaits.
That fateful Sunday evening, my brother and I played catch with a plastic ball outside our house, the last flat in a block of four flats. An elderly man walked into our midst and asked after our father. We went in and called him out. My father, mostly an introvert, was puzzled by the visit, especially one from someone we could not identify as one of his friends. But the eagerness of his curiosity took the better of him and he sprung from his recumbent position, out the house, to meet this strange visitor; we returned to our game.
My father returned soon, but the spring in his stride was broken. He even had his hands on his head, his face was creased in pain, like a child recently spanked by his mother with her slippers. He took time to jam his feet into the floor, one leg after the other as he said something in our dialect, something that I still can’t comprehend till date. He walked into the house in tears; his initial sobs had morphed into full grade tears. I watched my father sitting on the floor of his spartan living room, his legs spread out as he mourned the death of his mother, Mama.
My three siblings and I couldn’t help but join mummy and daddy in their lachrymose states. We all shed quality tears that evening and forfeited our usual Sunday deli. Even the last of us, barely three years, knew how to be quiet. We sat around the settee in a half oval, our pain couched on the seats of our hearts. The pain was palpable; it was obvious from our blank stares after we had brought out the family photo albums and cried into the many pictures of the woman who had acted as nannies to all her grandchildren. Even sympathizers, our co-tenants, had been roused by our incessant cries that had lasted, as they said, beyond the limits of a child’s corporal punishment. They had braced themselves for an uncomfortable task of intervening between a responsible father and his errant son, but had met both in tears, over the death of a family matriarch. They seemed amused. They even tried to laugh. But they knew it was no joke, we were serious in our pain.
A week or so later, my father attended a meeting upstate with his older siblings to discuss burial arrangements. I had been rummaging through the house and had found some old cassettes of my father which I was eager to show him on his return. He held the cassette with animated interest, King Sunny Ade’s My dear album. We slot it into the deck of our multi-purpose rechargeable lamp and soon, the opening symphonies of Sunny’s plangent rendition wafted into the air. My father swayed a bit, he even mimed a few lines, listening like a true music lover, smiling through the whole experience. I felt like a good son, my head swelled a little, it felt soothing especially after my spanking the previous night.
Side B was a full track that extolled the virtue of a mother and I watched as my father’s animated countenance fell, dying a slow, painful death: the crowfeet at his lip first, his left-sided dimple next, then his forehead acquired a crowfeet. I watched him contemplate tears till a bold phalange pressed the STOP button and he reclined in his seat, his palm cradling his joys as he repressed memories. I can imagine his memories: memories of good times with his late mother, perhaps his graduation, his marriage, the several occasions filled with bubbles of joy, the kind of bubbles burst by shutters of cameras, burst in an attempt to capture them as evergreen images. I felt guilty, having brought to fore the man’s recent memories of loss. But now a decade after, I watch him refer to his mother in loving memory, there are no tears and I wonder, where is his pain? Where is that pain? Perhaps bled away as tears, by the Leech called Sorrow. The tears that were shed with such reckless abandon at the graveside as we returned Mama to earth. It was now absent, reduced to vestige of earlier memories. And I safely concluded that in the realms of death, very contrary to Jumoke Verissimo’s verse, “Time hasn’t changed/Pain has…, rather Pain hasn’t changed but Time has.” Time had happened to my parents’ pain. The Pain had been worn down by the salts of loss in the washing of brine, the ebb and flow of sorrow. It had preserved the hurt in the recesses of their memories and had sealed it hermetically. It had economized their loss.
More recently was my own firsthand experience with death’s grisly grip. It was about a year ago and I had just completed my first M.B examinations, reputed as one of the most difficult exams ever. We were awaiting results at home and I had become a fish farmer in the meantime.
So that morning just as I began to throw food pellets into the ponds, my thoughts went to my friend, Deji. Deji was also my classmate; we had prepared and written exams. Deji had plunged himself totally into the exams, knowing fully well that this was his last chance at making his grades good. His in-courses had been terrible, and he had gone so far as to put off his usual frequent business trips to focus on his exams.
Deji was a business magnate; he ran his own automobile dealership, travelling to neighboring countries to purchase first-grade fairly-used cars for a good fee. He read business books—Warren Buffet, Adam Smith, Bill Gates, Donald Trump and the likes—and he applied the snippets he ripped from those pages into practical business actions which paid off his business. He was a first child, and if I was his father I would have been exceedingly proud of him.
So I remembered that we hadn’t spoken in a while and I was quick to dial his number. His voice came through above a raucous environment. There was buzz of loud music in the background and also louder sing-along voices. The details of our conversation are a blur. But I remembered asking him about when our results were to be released, for he was still in school. His father worked on our campus so school was his home. He said something about it being released later that day.
That put some pressure on me. Although I expected the best, angst sat on my throat and every phone ring surged adrenaline into my blood pipes. At about noon, a call came through. Just as I prepared to pick it up, it died. A ‘flash’ from another close classmate. I knew the results were out and I called Deji to get firsthand information about my results. Deji said he was in town, tidying up some business deals and he would call me back with news of my result.
Later that evening, he called to congratulate me, and when I inquired about his results, he said he had a resit. I was happy for him, knowing his efforts were fruitful. The next morning I got the shock of my life. A call came through saying Deji was dead. I was perplexed, I stared at my phone, he was my last dialed number, last missed call, last received call. And that he was dead? So I tried his number. Your guess is as good as mine. It didn’t go through. Deji had really died. Deji, the first child of his parents, a Doctor-to-be.
He was buried on April fool’s day. So if not for that earlier death-tolling call, if someone had informed him about Deji’s burial, I would have thought it a practical joke, albeit, one in extremely bad taste. The hurt that gnawed in my heart was surmounted by disbelief. The credibility of it all I still question. That someone that hitherto existed was no more and whatever was left of him had been hidden under the earth. I found it surreal. I found my tears on the day of his candle-light procession.
School resumed a month afterwards and life resumed. My classmates paid a one minute silence and it felt as fleeting and routine as a one night stand. I even found that my pain was receding, I was surprised that even his father had resumed at the office. Whatever of my emotions I mustered into a poem. And still after I had written the poem, I felt like I had sponged out more of it.
Where is my pain?
That which bore my soul,
When news tolled déjà vu’s demise
Dreams dying at twilight
Void engulfing bright light
Where is my pain?
The bitter aftertaste of victory
A clammy feel of death’s grasp
The stump from dread’s axe
After a strike so apt
Where is my pain?
Rivers of tears flow,
Destiny dealt a dire blow
Death, the hideous executioner,
Snatched morrow’s millionaire
Though primary intentions absolve scars,
Sutures emotional ulcers,
Leaves with us dear mere memories
But still I ask where is my pain?
A year has passed and I sometimes remember my friend, in loving memory. I remembered the funny way he called me with an altered intonation. The way he walked with a spring, sporting a particular white short-sleeved shirt and leather sandals. I remember his astuteness as a business man and his bargaining prowess. And I smile, for time has happened to my pain. Though the gnawing hurt of the pain has dulled, we still carry the scars in our hearts, but Time has reserved the good memories. Time had also happened to our loss.