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Me, at Thirteen
I have just returned from school. I check Blessing in my parents’ bedroom where my mother has stationed her, to keep a close eye on her. She is writhing in pain and sighing once in a while. I sit at the foot of the bed, offering silence and nothing else.
“Sorry.” I say when I become uncomfortable. Embarrassed as I lock eyes with her pain cold and naked.
“Hmm.” Her fists clench and she turns, holding her leg, crying. “Pray for me. Deborah, pray for me.”
I sit up slowly, amused by her request: what will my prayer do? How can I be the one to pray for you, and you’ll get well. Just like that? No, no, you can’t be serious! I nod my head slowly and slip out of the room, maybe I’ll pray for her when I am about to sleep; a rushed Lord, Heal My Sister kind of one.
I do not know that prayer when placed on the same side with love, on one side of the tongue, yields healing. I do not know prayer is the master key.
Blessing died two days after I refused to… Two days after.
When Blessing came home from school that Monday, I noticed frailty in her usual deliberate and precise walk. She looked older than my mother when she knelt to greet her, eku’le ma. Their bus was detained for the whole day because a bridge close to Minna rent itself after the heavy August rains. She and other passengers had to waddle across the water for hours. It was too much for her. A journey that should not have been more than forty-five minutes took close to seven hours.
Her cornea had never been clear-white like mine (Or other people’s), but today, they were a darker shade of lime that had my father worried and rushing to the junction to get her glucose and folic acid. The eyes that always spoke louder than her voice: a quick drop of the eyelids was a final warning. A swift sideways look was a-mind-yourself. A long deliberate look was a contemplation of what punishment would best suit your present state of foolishness. Today, those eyes held no light or vigour.
I didn’t sleep that night. I sat by her bed and checked her temperature. I told her I was now a Children’s Sunday School teacher, I told her my result in school, that I was a prefect now, and that I had been good since she left for school. I used aboniki balm on her legs and talked her to sleep
My parents could sleep because they thought well, this is like one of the others. She will be fine. She was not fine. She died three days later.
“How do we forget her now?” We are running home. Auntie, our oldest sister asked Comfort and I to get something for our mother at the junction. It is about to rain. The wind raises sand and pours it with relish on us. I spit as I speak. “If I didn’t follow you people there, I wouldn’t have believed it.”My words are broken as my feet pound hard on the ground. Abandoned train cargos appear like spectators, watching me and my sister run home.
Ever practical like our mother, Comfort replies, “we don’t. We can’t forget her, let me not lie to you.”She is sixteen.”Do you know my plan?”
We take a turn and I slow down when I see two dogs considering us.
“Come, jor!” She snaps and slows down too. “Let’s not scare the dogs.” We move closer to each other and begin to take measured steps home. She continues, darting her eyes around to monitor the dogs’ movements. “My plan, enh, is to pretend she has resumed school and won’t come back for a really long time. Try it, you’ll see.”
One month after her death, I asked my mother (or was it my father?) if she would have married my father, had she known it would end this way. She understood what I meant, so she took her time before answering.”We didn’t know better, then but if we knew, we would have stopped before things got serious.”She paused and added on a lighter note, “but we wouldn’t have had you either.”
A wave of panic rose in the pit of my stomach when the weight of her words sank into me. What if I had been born into another family? When my parents offended me, I used to play a game where I would imagine a cool father I knew and picture what it would be like to be his daughter. The game flashed through my mind as I sat there with her, perhaps, it was the timing, a deep hatred welled in me as I remembered that game.
I love this family; my father with his friendship and humour, my mother with her strength and energy, Comfort and Auntie with their drama and Samuel with his music. Still, I don’t know how we are supposed to be complete without one part. Who’s going to fill this mold?
More than once, I catch my mother sitting in her room, going through photo albums and telling whoever is close by, stories about Blessing’s childhood. More than once too, we forget, and offer the family photo album to visitors. They see Blessing’s pictures and ask questions, where is this one? Who does she look like? Your grandma? Oh, where is she now? Soon her pictures start disappearing from the walls and photo albums. I see that it is too much for my mother; the burden of seeing her daughter everywhere and seeing her nowhere at all.
No Longer Thirteen
I have tried to use all the Behavior Modification techniques and coping mechanisms of psychology I know on myself. Perhaps, if I tried hard enough, I would find a reasonable explanation or even a relief for what troubles me. For years, I have lied that I am okay, that I do not see her in her friends and the children they have now, that I do not see her in every pointed nose and tiny lips I pass, that I do not see her in myself when I look in the mirror. And every time I see her, her eyes tell me she is not happy she died. I know this because I was the one she shared dreams and thoughts with. We would sit on the threadbare brown cushion in our sitting room and talk about what we would do and places we would visit. How we would raise our children better than our parents were doing. (Not that our parents are bad parents, we just knew that if we were in their shoes, we would do better.)
The threadbare brown cushion chair is still in our house, offending me. Reminding me. Mocking me every time I sit on it.
From her, I learnt a Yoruba version of Avocado’s Law. A secret weapon that made me shine for a minute when in chemistry class, I was the only one who knew Avocado’s Law and the formula representation! But other laws came up and I sank into myself, searching for her notes, hoping she would appear and lead me on. Assignments came up and I imagined how I would have bribed her with a foot rub while she solved away the misfortunes and problems of Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Soon, the weight of living her dream became too heavy for me. I became the science student who passed her SSCE in one sitting and decided to re-sit for literature to study English, but ended up studying Psychology.
In 2018, Auntie’s sonwas six, sitting on a chair in front of his cake, and dozing. The party was set for 4 pm, but he was already dressed and waiting by 3pm. I told him to sleep for a while. He laughed at my stupid suggestion and said softly, “if I sleep, how will I be six? My birthday will pass!” He was sure life would not hold any meaning if he didn’t hold his party, sharing with friends, the cake his mother had baked, specially for him. It is then I realise that he is happy to be alive. To be born into this family filled with love. Like Blessing was. She may have died at nineteen, but she would rather choose that life than no life at all.
When the news of Blessing’s death came to me, it ran to me like a rushing wind on the lips of my mother. My mother who is ever strong, rarely ever showing a tinge of weakness, walked home, crying from Gilead hospital. A fifteen or so minutes walk from our house.
I heard her voice and ignored it, that cannot be my mother; ever dignified and practical. I did not know then that grief is the mother of all madness. A friend’s mother followed her home, trying to hold her. She burst into the sitting room and ignored all the chairs. Her legs were splayed in front of her, her back to the wall. She began to sing Unquestionable, You Are My God, a song that held no meaning to me then, since we all suspected she would die before the rest of us. She was the only one always falling sick.
I was angry at the mourners who turned our house into a help center, finding comfort in the gravity of our loss.
Oh, my own sister’s daughter died before she was nineteen, Blessing even tried. That girl was a fighter.
Oh, wouldn’t it have been better if she had died in Primary or Nursery School?
Oh, University girl. Very brilliant. They said she topped her class.
Oh, ah, eh!
And like a sound record player, my mother’s voice did not fail to give their talks a solemn soundtrack.
When you lose a thing, you don’t blame the thing for being lost, you blame yourself for being careless among other things. Like the day Auntie’s son, at three, tricked his mother and me. He made me believe he was with her, and made her believe he was with me. One hour later, I returned to my sister and ask her where Israel was. She jumped up and we began to search for him for close to four hours. When I see him trailing a group of children to our side of the camp ground, I do not scream or scold him. I do not remember any of the harsh words I had rehearsed in my head. I was overwhelmed with guilt: how could you? You know how smart he believes he is, why didn’t you make sure? How could you allow this fine boy go missing? What if and what ifn’t?
On this eleventh year of her anniversary, I still feel guilty, knowing if I had prayed, I could have bought her more time: one day, two weeks, three months. Maybe three years, but certainly, she would not have died the following day.
Today, I tell myself that when you have carried a thing for too long, you either get used to carrying it or you get tired, and let go. Today, I tell myself I am letting go. I forgive me.