Sister, Sister

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu

On the day my sister got married, I found myself occupying an emotional space similar to the one I felt years ago, when I stood over her fresh-out-of-surgery body; panicky, sad, wanting desperately to keep her safe and well.

She had gone sick and had to undergo surgical operation to have fibroids removed. I was away at school and despondent when I heard. Last I knew, she had been on medications and the need for surgery hadn’t yet arose. It came quite suddenly. As always when something sad happened at home, my father had warned everyone not to tell me, to wait until after the surgery and everything had gone well. “Because of her anxiety,” he told them.

But the night before, the treachery of that decision wore heavy on him even though it was born out of love. He saw how loving, if not checked, could very easily turn to harming. And so he took his phone and called me. He fidgeted, talked aimlessly, and I knew from how apologetically soft his voice became that he was searching for the right language to say something unpleasant. “Your sister goes into theatre tomorrow,” he said when he found it. “The fibroid. They have to take it out.” And then in a rapid, hurried pour, “I told them not to tell you because I didn’t want you to worry. Don’t worry, she will be fine, we have a good doctor. He’s great. Allah will see us through, she will be fine.” 

I recalled speaking with her twice that day, and she not saying a word about her health. She had called, first while I was on my way to school, to keep me company. And then after my class as I made the trip back home. She told me stories of the funny things that had happened within the neighborhood that week, and then updates on her relationship. Reconsidering our conversations again that day and her silence about her health, I was so stunned by the betrayal of it all, I immediately started to cry.

The next morning, I was on my way back home. I hoped to see her before she went in. I didn’t arrive early enough. My father came to pick me up at the park. Though my heart was bruised and I wanted him to know, all anger melted away when I saw him. He looked stressed. I might have had a sister who was about to go under the knife, but he had a daughter who was about to go under the knife. I was humbled by the sudden reality of that. He took me home, and I dropped my luggage, then hopped back into the car. We drove down to the hospital to meet the rest of the family in the waiting hall outside the theatre.

“Sorry,” my younger sister said when she saw the hurt on my face. She was trying to hide a laugh. “It was Daddy that told us not to tell you.”

I said, “Do you remember the very first day I left Minna for school, Maryam?”

She nodded.

“Do you remember what I said to you that day? That if anything bad happened and you were tempted not to tell me out of protection, you should banish that thought and call me immediately?”

“Sorry. It was Daddy.” She still had the mischievous smile. She didn’t understand my anger nor pain. “What could you have done, though?” she asked. “Now that you are here, what could you possibly do to help?” She was fourteen at the time. We are Nupe people; teasing is our love language. Still I said, “I hope you know you don’t have head.”

She laughed.

We went over to sit on a chair. She tickled me, and I started to laugh, loosening.

We waited for hours.

“Why is it taking so long?” my mother asked, her eyes twitched and her face no longer had its fiery.

“Exactly. I was just going to say that. The woman that they just wheeled out now went in after her. So, what is happening? Does she have two heads?” my baby sister asked.

“When they operated on you last year for your appendicitis, did it take this long?” I asked her.

She gave me a look, her eyes dancing in that way it does when she’s trying not to laugh. “How am I supposed to know, bebe? I was unconscious.”

“Oh.”

About forty minutes later, a nurse emerged. “Who is for Amina?” she asked.

My parents had gone to the mosque for Maghreb prayers. My baby sister and I sprang up. We followed her in.

My sister lay on a wheeled bed, her eyes closed, her breathing heavy and laboured, each sounding as though it would be the last, as though it had teared through so many obstacles to be able to emerge. I had never seen anything like that before. She looked as though she was on the thin line between life and death, and whatever was tethering her to life was incapable. It was the first time I became aware of how so like death, life can be. I choked back sobs.

“She kept asking about you before the procedure started,” the nurse told me. “…wanting to know if you had arrived safely. She said you were traveling from Kano, and the roads aren’t good.”

I started crying. Because it was so typical of her. So typical of her to be worried about other people even when her own life had been in danger. She was the sort of person to jump into a burning house to save family, the one who responded to stories of misdeed by family with, “What can we do? When someone is yours, they are yours. You can’t throw them away.”

“Why’s she breathing like that? Can you make it easier for her?” I asked the nurse.

“It’s normal,” the nurse told me.

“Why is she frothing at the mouth lightly?”

“It’s normal,” she said again.

I was required to sign some documents on behalf of my parents before they wheeled her down to her room.

“When will she wake up?” my baby sister and I asked at the same time.

“In a few hours. Not later than tomorrow morning.”

I nodded.

In her hospital room, we sat by her, talking softly to her, even though she couldn’t hear us. Trying to lure her back to life. We sang. We prayed. We played her a recitation of the Qur’an by Abdulrahman As-sudais, because he was her favourite reciter. All in low tones, because she was sharing the room with another patient, who looked at us with both amusement and admiration. Whenever we got tired, we reminded each other that had it been our backs on the hospital bed, and she sitting beside us, she would not get tired. Her love ran that deep.

Later in the night, we all went home.

By 6am the next day, we drove down to the hospital again.

She had a big smile, my sister. As always. My sister. My dear, dear sister. We hugged her for long minutes.

Later, a nurse would ask, “Who is Waasi? It was the first thing she said when she woke up,” and I would cry again.

*

Years later, when she was getting married in our hometown, we lay on the cold floor in the room, waiting for the old women who ran the family house, to come get her for the rites that would declare her married. It was 4am and they would come any minute. One of them was my grandmother, one was my step grandmother, and the other two were my great aunts.

We had imagined this night so many times, and each time, we speculated that we would be sitting up and talking far into the night, reliving memories and embarrassing moments from the past which time had now given humour. But the night was here, and we weren’t chattering. We weren’t even talking. We were just two sisters, sprawled on the floor in anticipation of a life changing occurrence, sad and happy at the same time. Silent. Unsure what to do with time. Listening to the world sigh and hum and pass. I could feel her tension as we waited for the women to come for her. I moved my hand into hers and held it as firmly and reassuringly as I could. She turned to me and tried to smile, she failed. Her hand held mine as though hanging on to life. Minutes later, we started to make out footsteps of the women approaching our side of the building. We had been waiting for this sound.

My sister’s hand began to shake. It increased as the footsteps grew louder, closer. She was trembling. This was a version of her I had never seen before. She was always the strong sister, the efficient, strong sister. When finally, they knocked on the door and said: “Amina, it’s time,” her body stilled, as though holding itself in a breath, and then she started to weep. She was filled with so much dread. If anyone had asked then why she was crying, it might have been hard or even impossible to articulate, because she was getting married to a man she loved deeply, and who loved her back even more.

The fear that filled me then was exactly the same as the one that ripped my heart apart as I stood over her that day after her surgical operation. And though I couldn’t name it then, I could now: the fear of losing her. I was so terrified of losing her, and scared for her safety.

Where after the surgery, I was afraid of losing her to death, here, I was afraid of losing her to another kind of life. But both fears had the same texture. I wanted so desperately to know that she would be fine in the hands of a stranger. I had no way of knowing, no way besides trust and faith, which isn’t really knowing. Anything rooted in trust or faith is at best, a prayer. Prayers sometimes go unanswered.

The women took her to the middle of the compound, while someone rendered a loud prayer to wake the rest of the house up. It was now 5am and there was a thin film of darkness hovering around the air.

She was sat on a stool, and her headscarf removed. One of the women, my great-aunt, approached with a bowl of water, while we formed a ring around them. My sister was still crying. She took a smaller bowl and began to pour the water on my sister’s head slowly, while muttering some prayers and ululations.

In some instances, the water was usually collected from ablutions made by the bride’s parents, and then poured on her as blessings. In other instances, like this, the water was just plain ordinary water, meant to wash away her single status.

We all chorused another string of prayer-songs around them as the water went over her slowly, methodically. We did this throughout the process. When my great-aunt finished, she asked, “Where’s the bride’s best friend?”

I stepped forward from the circle. She smiled.

“It’s time to break the pot.”

I took the clay pot sitting beside her, which had been brought by her husband’s people days ago, and the crowd moved back a bit. I whispered a prayer under my breath and smashed it on the floor, took a larger piece and broke it further, then another, to make it thrice, as was required. I had waited for years to do this for her. My sister intensified her weeping then. She was now married.

We took her back into the room, and helped her out of her drenched clothes. Almost immediately, the women would come asking for them. I never learned what they did with it, though they most likely discarded it. She was handed new clothes to wear after she had her bath. Slowly, as dawn came, and guests started to pour in for the other festivities, we entered into a celebratory mood. Less depressing festivities followed throughout the day.

When the time came for her to leave for her new home, she knelt by our mother and wept. My mother held her, rocked her, crying, and repeating over and over, “I wish you luck. I wish you success.”

When she held me afterwards, her face in my chest as we both cried, I said: “Sister, you are not dying.”

It was a prayer.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu is a poet and essayist from Nigeria whose work has appeared on Popula, Ake Review, Jalada Africa, The Republic, African Arguments and elsewhere.