For the Shell of a Woman
You grow up watching your grandmother waddle.
Not in the humorous way penguins move with their hands plastered to their sides and their heads pushed forward, but in an arduous way – one that presses her soles deep into the rubber tiles, the veins in her hands throbbing as her fingers wrap tightly around her walking stick, her face in tight grimaces when she gingerly and slowly lifts her feet to take steps.
In the mornings, your fingers slip in and out of the folds falling over your waist as you rub in the St. Ives body cream; your breath ceases for a few seconds as your bellybutton is drawn in, waiting to be let out, waiting to stretch out the buttons your fingers struggle to fix, waiting to strain across the waist bands of your trousers and graft the wefts there onto your skin. And every month, like clockwork, you’d find a new tear drawn across the seams of your trousers, trousers you’d later lay across your laps and darn carefully because shopping for new clothes was a sordid affair your mother could only afford on Christmases.
On the day she dies from a stroke, you are sitting with your sister at the Inn in Iperu, the bed creaking with every twist you make. Babatunde walks into your room and says to you, “You must be strong for your mother, both of you; you must not lose your heads, support her as she has supported you.” Your sister collapses on the white sheets of the mattress and a loud creak joins the wails she cries into the air. But you, you face Babatunde whose spine is twice as long as the width of your chest, Babatunde whose legs take strides your feet measure in their dreams, Babatunde who has more space in his clothes than you have in the room in this Inn, and you ask, “How will they carry her? How will she get to the mortuary?”
Your sister weeps, Babatunde grimaces, and you think of your grandmother’s bed and what a year of stagnancy will do to a battered body. You think of the depression in her mattress, of the nursemaid struggling to balance her knees in the dip when she turns your grandmother over to change her; you think of the smell, the faecal burst that flies into your face when you walk into the room to greet your grandmother good morning and good night, of the savoury redolence of the antiseptic they scrub into the floors, and of the powdery richness of the sudocream they smear onto your grandmother’s bedsores.
“She’s already gone; they’ve taken her,” Babatunde replies, and your teeth sink into your lips to block your tongue from whispering its questions. Did the nursemaid clean her up, wrap up the nappies she always glowered helplessly at, before the coroners strolled into the room? Did your grandfather stand in the corner as they struggled to hold on to her thighs, or did he say to them, as he often said to the physiotherapist, “There’s too much flesh there; it is better to lift from her back. There, you’ll have something solid to push on to.” When they saw her, the coroners, did their eyelids widen in fear? Did their fingers wrap too tightly around the folds they tried to pick up? Did they smell mould on their fingers long after they let go?
Babatunde breaks the news over many phone calls, speaking in low tones as you all drive away from the Inn to the house in Ogere, solemnly chastising his in-laws: Shegs, Shegs, you’re a man o, you’re a man; Labims, I know, I know you loved her; Sholle, what will your children say if you weep like this?
When they arrive, your grandmother’s children, they come as one, as a horde. Lagos is barely an hour away from Ogere and so their cars pile up in the backyard and the stairs vibrate as they troop up. They circle your mother, and for hours, their mouths play the symphony of grief. With their guttural baritone humming, your uncles’ cries are filled with the shame of sons who have lengthened the distance between their mother’s wiry hands and the fruits of her labour. Your aunt’s high-pitched wails are punctuated with brief lamentations you find lugubrious, her cries are fuelled by the dashed expectations of a daughter whose mother will never smile upon her child’s face. Your mother, seething with the righteous anger of a child who held her mother’s frail hands while her siblings sniffled from afar, stays silent except for the occasional clicking sound she makes with her tongue.
Grief, in your culture, is a histrionic tragedy of improvisation, a melodrama of expression. Like tribal marks motifed onto toddlers’ faces with hot knives, or languages whispered into the ears of babies, the grief of loss, for your people, is like an heirloom passed down from father to son. The mourners are free to grieve as they please, as long as it is noisy, as long as there is a show; for how will people know you have lost a loved one if you do not wear their grief like a shroud? Women must throw their bodies onto the dirt, they must hurl their fists up into the sky in defiance of god’s will; friends must hold them, they must cry themselves into lasting hoarseness and there must be a headtie left billowing in the dust. Men, men must be reminded, “This is the time to be a man. Don’t act like a woman.” They must stare into the walls and let their minds wander so far away they have to be shrugged back into reality.
Your grandmother’s children do not play it well, this dance of grief. They play it like migrants who pretend to find difficult the language of their people, like children who have forgotten that there is no way to eat their mother’s stew without staining their lapels. Theirs is a private affair, a dress rehearsal only the producer – a god – can mock, dramatics that stream on until the mortuary calls to ask, “When are you people coming, we need to discuss price o.”
Your mother refuses to drive her siblings across the winding roads of Sagamu to the mortuary of the Olabisi Onabanjo Teaching Hospital where they have stuffed your what is left of their mother’s body into a freezer. “I will not go. If you want directions, ask around. I was with her throughout her life, I was with her as she slowly rotted away. Can’t you people at least be with her in death? Can’t you?” she asks quietly. And so you find yourself stuffed in the back seat, your uncle’s pudgy hands gripping the steering wheel and your aunt straining to press the tongue into the buckle of her seatbelt.
At the mortuary, the rubber sole of your uncle’s walking stick squeaks on the tile floors, and your aunt fiddles with the arms of her boubou which strangles her limbs, a red ankara print you’ve seen your grandmother wear too many times. They check you in at the front desk and point to a room and as you enter, you hear a dripping sound, measured plops, ringing out. The attendant is squeezing out a loofah sponge as you all approach the table where your grandmother is laid out. When you reach her, when you can see the flaccid wrinkles on her skin clearly, your aunt begins a lachrymose dance with her head and your uncle lets out a loud wail. You, an effigy of stolidity, walk to the table and see your grandmother’s remains. On the coroner’s easel, her body seems to have deflated; her stomach splayed out above her thighs, neck indistinguishable from chest, breasts falling into underarms like wilted flowers. Her corpse makes you wonder how much life weighs, if the thing keeping your chest up is breath alone, if those with more flesh on their bones simply take heavier breaths. The rotundness of her torso, now spread across the width of the table, glistens as the attendant’s sponge swipes across the blubbery surface.
“You must be joking,” your uncle begins. The grief of loss begets guilt and guilt is a weight the soul yearns to shrug off, even on those with clean hands. This is what you think of your wailing uncle as he points to the sponge in the attendant’s hands. “That’s what you’re using to clean her? My mother? You’re using an ordinary local sponge to clean her? Do you know how much we’re paying for this? How can we be spending so much for this nonsense?” His lamentations are broken by your aunt’s wail and his fingers turn away from the attendant to pick up his sister and lead her out. The dripping sound steadies as the attendant continues to wipe the remnants of your grandmother’s last days away, his movements unbothered by the outburst.
“Ignore him. They don’t know her body. She would have liked that,” you say as you run your palm across her cold face. “It was what she used every day, and I’m sure she would have preferred it to plastic sponges.”
Your words meet the attendant’s silence and he continues to swipe at your grandmother’s skin. You find that both your emotions mirror each other’s: his, a tight-lipped smile for the careful routine swipes across yet another body; yours, a blank stare for the shell of a woman you have been mourning for a year.
There is nothing more celebrated in your culture than life; even when that life comes to an abrupt end. Burials, for your people, are belated apologies by children, make-up tests for live examinations, replays for adults waylaid by the rat race. There will be a race to bring the best caterers – one that will end in a compromise where one sibling’s caterer brings the finger foods while another sets up various casseroles. There will be many important meetings where daughters will glower at one another as they gamble on which (and how many) fabrics will be used: if batik boubous would wilt in the evening glow at the wakekeep or if customised polo shirts with Adieu Mama printed across should be used instead, on if heavy Swiss laces should worn at the early morning church services, and plain velvety guinea brocades at the after-parties.
This they play well, your grandmother’s children. Your uncles bicker over many phone calls on how much each sibling should bring till they agree that everyone should contribute equally, an agreement that is broken when your mother asks, “Did we contribute equally to her welfare when she was alive? As she died? Did we take turns changing her diaper or feeding her akamu?”
The men scour the town for the best venue: the backyard will be too small for the burial of a woman whose children want to bridge the gap they dug while she was alive; the town hall is confining, roofed – how will the gods know the children have righted their wrongs if they cannot watch the show from the heavens?
The women tread Eko markets to find the best bargains for bales of ankara, snickering at their siblings’ choices, waving samples with shouts of, “This is what we should pick. You know this was Mama’s color.” The battle for fabrics ends when everyone has their way, the end result being a line-up with clashing colours and conflicting designs. For the wakekeep, a svelte patterned brown ankara; for the procession, different coloured polo shirts; for the church service, heavy glittery stoned laces and for the after-party, plain white guinea brocades.
This, the burial line-up, is how you find yourself once again being groped by a tailor.
When your grandmother had fallen and the doctor announced that it would take many miracles for her to move freely again, your mother forgot herself and threw her energy into comforting her mother. Her siblings took to praying, speaking to their paralysed mother through phone calls. Her father, your grandfather, woke early to spray blessed lofinda in all corners of the house. Your own siblings prayed and smiled with everyone each time the physiotherapist announced, “There’s improvement o. At least this month, she didn’t groan too loudly when we moved her.”
You, you mourned. Your mother spoon-fed her mother oatmeal, you mourned all the recipes that would never escape that mouth; your mother washed your grandmother’s hands, and grief washed your soul when you realised those fingers would never again teach you how to use pinking shears; they brushed her teeth with pako in the mornings, and your soul sank with the thought of never again hearing Risikatu’s voice again.
By the time the day of the burial arrives, when the programmes are finally printed with her name body embossed in purple, when they lay her coffin out in the main room for people to observe their last words, your mourning is complete and you are left with the satisfaction that Risikatu is no longer in pain.
The grownups congratulate you on that day, pacifying taps on your shoulders and back, accompanied with, “You’re so strong, you’re a man now. It’s good you’re not crying, you’re showing them how it’s done.” You smile and turn away for these people who have just begun mourning a woman who died many months ago; you turn away from these people who shed tears for the shell of a woman who craved for death.
There have been many times you have stared into the mirror and wondered what you would look like if your cheeks didn’t threaten to swallow up your lips, if your belly wasn’t wider than your waist.
For you, there are a few things as humiliating as a tape measure sliding across your thighs as the tailor chortles, “Oga, you na big-big man o.” After they hand you your share of the burial wears, your mother carts you to the seamster’s where they size you up with their tape measure and joke about joining two to get the best measurement; where, for the first time, you laugh at a tailor’s joke on your body.
In the five years after her burial, something follows you – the image of her in that coffin. With her hands plastered across her stomach and her face relaxed, the final vision of your grandmother you hold is that of a person who tried to enjoy every morsel of happiness and peace life offered her, even as her shell threatened to weigh her down with sadness.
When your hands run over your body in the mornings to rub in cream, you think of the portly women who wake before dawn to fry seasoned milled beans; the leery men with rotund paunches whose fingers are scorched from handling the grills at their wives’ pepper soup parlours; the people who live life as full of joy as they are in body. You think of Roseline Risikatu Awosanya.
Timi Odueso is a law student who enjoys reading anything other than his law books. A Content Creator at She Writes Woman Mental Health Initiative, his short stories have been published or are forthcoming in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Nobrow Press, Punocracy, TSSF, US Embassy Missions and On The Premises.
*Image by Amisha Nakhwa on Unsplash