21st May 2015
I knew it was coming, so I waited for it.
Then I could not wait any longer so I called.
“Mama ta tafi” My sister said quietly.
I choked back a sob and ended the call.
Then I spent the next few days like a zombie, refusing to feel anything.
I kept it tightly closed in my chest. It was bottled in a jar right there between my breasts and above my stomach. I screwed it tighter each day.
When I told Bunmi, my neighbour, I was without emotion. I was matter of fact, just the way I wanted to be.
A few friends came to visit, I was the perfect host. I have always been a showgirl. When I am in the spotlight, it kicks in. I try to understand the audience and seduce them. So it was a performance every single time.
At night when it was time to sleep, I would wonder aimlessly and mindlessly on Social Media distracting myself from the thing that was lodged deep within me.
How does one live without a mother?
When I travelled to Jos for the burial. The first test was to enter the family house. There would be plastic chairs in front of it and of course, someone would have selected a framed picture of her and opened a condolence register. I had done this before, when my father died.
I got out of the car and my aunt hugged me.
The jar started to open as a felt the sting of tears close by threatening to fill my eyes. I quickly screwed it on tighter. I was a class act. I made beautiful speeches, thanked people graciously. I accepted the hugs and stared at different curious eyes trying to pry through my guard.
I was not mourning. I couldn’t. She wasn’t supposed to leave so soon.
People said a lot of things. Sometimes really ridiculous things to comfort us.
“It is an honour to bury your parents, this is the way it is supposed to be, what if they had buried one of you….”
She was only 65! I wanted to scream out. But I nodded, I cooed and I thanked them.
Sometimes, I would not even listen to them. I was like a robot.
My siblings were more human. They cried, they got angry, they got moody. I did not.
“I know it is partially pride…” a good friend said.
I blinked. He was right.
I could not crumble before everyone. I was the strong one. I did not want anyone to hold me and comfort me. I did not want anyone to see that my life was over. I was too proud to grieve openly. And when I was alone, I still stayed in character. If I removed the guard, it would be difficult to wear it back on.
I did not want to see her body. But they said we had too. It was supposed to make things easier. It was to help us accept it.
My older sister broke down. My brother in law sobbed quietly in the corner.
I looked at her dispassionately in a wooden coffin wearing a white gown. She looked small and dark. It was a body but my mother was not in it.
I did not cry. But I had to screw the jar tighter.
The service was beautiful. I made a speech and even cracked a joke. I sang for her.
Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely?
And long for heaven and home
When Jesus is my portion.
A constant friend is he
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches over me
But I could not sing the chorus. The chorus had to do with happiness. Though I had held it together, singing that I was happy was sure to break the jar. I did not want hundreds of pitiful eyes watching me come undone. I was too proud.
My baby sister cried all through. She made me want to cry.
As my mother was lowered into the tiled hole, I did not cry.
I wanted to but each time I raised my head, people were looking at me. So I selfishly squared my shoulders and refused to mourn for my mother.
A lot of people still came to visit after that day. Some few spoke of personal loss. That was easier to listen to than the usual platitudes.
When I came back to Lagos, I locked myself in the room and struggled to remove the lid on the jar. It would not move.
It stayed there lodged between my breasts and above my stomach.
It was heavy and it was tight. I gave up and began to live life carrying my sadness everywhere I went.
Then one day, I could not catch my breath. I went to the hospital in a fright. And they could not see anything wrong.
They gave me pills to relax.
But it kept happening.
This thing within me that no one could see was taking my life away.
This grief that I had refused to grieve made me sick.
Who does not grieve for his mother?
I love her so much, why could I not just cry it out?
No mother deserves to be un-mourned.
But this jar just wouldn’t open.
And then one day, when I did not expect it to, the lid shifted. Just a tiny bit.
I was in the hospital to see a doctor for my seemingly phantom ailment, then I saw a lady wheel out her mother from the cardiologist’s office.
She was shrivelled with age, possibly in her 90s but I saw her feet. There was no wrinkle because it was taunt and swollen with sickness. The kind of sickness that took my mother.
I remembered my mother’s feet before the heart failure.
My mother had small feet with long toe nails she always painted. Those feet that swiftly carried her through life. She was always in a hurry. When she sat down on a chair, her feet rarely touched the floor and she had this habit of kicking the ground with her heels. Her feet had prominent veins that crisscrossed to her big toes. But when the sickness came, it hid the veins under an unnatural puffiness.
The lid shifted when I saw the woman being wheeled away obviously to a room for admission. Then I saw her daughter carrying papers around and making phone calls.
There, in her, I saw my sister Ronke, alone in the hospital with my brother in law and nephew Ayobami waiting outside. I saw her talking to doctors and to us in Nigeria asking her questions and holding papers.
I looked at the woman and wondered if she would leave the hospital alive and then I wondered if my mother knew that was it for her when she had been wheeled into the hospital.
The lid shifted and tears filled my eyes. I waited for Festus to come and pick me up but he was struck in traffic, so I walked 3kms back home hoping that this was it. The jar would be rid of its contents.
It did not happen.
Some days I don’t feel it, other days it takes my breath away and sends me to doctors. A doctor I saw, listened to me as I described what I had been battling with. I wondered why he was not taking any notes. He then had this look in his eyes as he watched me.
When I finished speaking. He fiddled with his pen and leaned forward.
“Ehmm….” He cleared his throat from the false start. “Would you consider seeing a behavioural specialist?” he counted his words carefully as his tongue tip toed around what he was trying to say.
“A shrink you mean.” I said in a matter of fact voice.
“I am not trying to say something is wrong with you mentally, but I think that there are people better trained to walk you through this issue that seems to be manifesting physiologically.”
My teeth started chattering. Is it possible to go mad with bottled grief? My hand on his table vibrated uncontrollable and I began to sweat.
He saw my fright. He could probably see that I could see myself in a strait jacket babbling nonsense as people were trying to hold me down.
“Ehm, we will do an X-Ray, just so that we can rule out the possibility of something happening in your chest.”
I relaxed. An X-Ray would see whatever was taking my breath away.
But it did not. There was no jar there.
It was a normal set of lungs and a normal heart and a normal ribcage.
“Let us do an Echo cardiac scan…” Another doctor suggested. I did it and my heart was perfect.
“You need to stop having these anxiety attacks” he said.
“Doctor, have you ever had an anxiety attack?” I asked him quietly.
He shook his head.
“I did not choose it, it chose me.” He looked at me and then he looked away.
I can still feel it there, between my breast and over my stomach.
I did not cry M.A
But I miss you so much and I am sorry I did not bring the boys for Christmas. I had no idea you would be leaving us.