The Colour of Grief

Iyanuoluwa Adenle

‘I want to feel what I want to feel. Even if it’s not happiness.’ – Toni Morrison.

365 trips ’round the sun and you’re not celebrating your life but the presence of the gloom that has become second skin. It took a while to get here, but here you are, putting a name to the things that brought you down to your knees. Once, at a cake tasting event, another cake taster showed you a picture of a young woman rocking faux locs, turned out to be a picture of the one who hurt you, and while the cake became too heavy to munch on in your mouth, you were forced to listen to glowing remarks about her and you bled again. There were no words to express the tightening in your chest. You are unable to remember when you began to wear the sadness well but you remember when it became difficult to tuck it in. Then, the question hovering in your mind was:

What the fuck is this doing here?

When Eloghosa Osunde said, ‘Stop folding. Love comes in your size too’, you didn’t believe her. Since you were a child, you had always known that some things weren’t meant for you and if you eventually got them, it would be the universe joking with you or sheer luck. Love will never come in your size. Even if you made yourself small, it will probably miss you. That, you learnt from your folks.

Your mother must have taken a look at you on the birthing table and known that you were never going to belong to her. Growing up, she was the first person to show you, with the downward curve of her lips and her slightly raised eyebrows, how different you were from the rest. She is your mother, but look at how far it has taken her to belong to herself. In the years since, she has relayed the message to you because words were something she could inflict upon you effortlessly. Once your heart was as light as a thread holding on to nothing but itself, un-needled and love missed it even then.   

A while ago, you found a figment of yourself in the water when you went swimming with Debby, your almost-best-friend. The water, running amok, running into each other like lovers do and into you the moment you stepped into it, yet coming undone. Lifting you up like you were a raft to be held on to and as weightless as a straw in the same breath as it pulled you to its core. You have always been curious about how water moves. It was thrilling to see that water had its own limits at first. Then it wasn’t. Aren’t we all with our own limits? Like the water, you are a confluence of emotions colliding into each other. That is how you know to live. Like your mother, unable to sit still with whatever it was you felt in the moment. Unable to listen to the echoes bouncing on and off the walls of your mind. When you emerged from the water, you felt like one with a parched throat.

Hauwa Shaffi Nuhu writes, ‘Because to name something is to thrust upon a responsibility to live up to that name.’ Her words became a string knitting your memories into calling things as they really were before prying them apart as softly as you could. So, you start.

You found a bit of yourself for the first time in the year where love coloured your teenage mind as the brown boy with curly lashes read to you a story he had written about flowers, and the giddiness you felt rumbling below your belly button had not been named desire. Another time was in a boy’s arms in a poorly lit room in Sángo, Ìbàdàn. Before he got to your rented space, you had anticipated just how smooth your tongues would glide into one another. Like fine silk on skin. And after a number of awkwardly easing into what should be a kiss, you knew even this wasn’t meant to be. You didn’t think you belonged there. And for a long time, you stayed believing it was the universe testing you to see how patient you could be with this kind of love.

One cold windy night in Ifẹ̀, a boy, caught in the after waves of colorado, told you how much he liked the curves on you and you believed him. To you, it was a simple thing. He finds you desirable, you find you desirable. He loves the gap between your front teeth, you love it too. What would you do without this kind of approval?

One of the days at the 2018 Aké festival, you and T, your roommate and fellow volunteer at the festival, walked to Radisson Blu to resume your duties, and somehow while conversing about other things beneath the glare of the unkind sun, you arrived on the joy of kissing other girls. You marvelled at how sure T was. She asked if you liked girls too. 

“I don’t know what I am,” you said and that was the first time you ever acknowledged that truth: yours. I don’t know what I am.

On some days, your heart stays grateful to you. The sky is blue in spite of the greyness of the clouds. The yellow paint on your wall doesn’t feel too bright and the brown doesn’t look like it is fading. You are not fading anymore. It feels like you just found yourself after a dry spell. You dance and dance till your muscles cramp from too much joy. Other days, you forget how to breathe and you lose memories of the lighter days. On days like these, you tweet: ‘we move’, like it’s the new Psalms 23. You feel heavier. Your chest hurts from too much pressure. You want to break the dams bordering against your heart and leave it broken but it is difficult. And as you prepare a table to feast on the joys of your life, it delivers the dark clouds to your door. It leaves the door open so that the things you are grateful for seem trivial in that moment. To you, this is a kind of grief. Has always been. You just didn’t know what you were grieving for. Or whom? You have always known grief to be what Wikipedia says it is:

A multi-edged response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed.

Except you haven’t lost many people to death.

There’s a room you don’t venture much in your head. It’s a reminder of when your faith started to fade like the brown paint on your wall. At 14, you were curious about your mother’s side of the family. You felt invisible to them. The only time you thought you saw them was in your dreams. You had dreamt of a storey building, with a hut in front of the house. In this dream, the smell of cassava being processed was strong. You wrote a letter to them and told them you wanted to come home. This made them curious about you. Aunty D told your mom, “Sister, ẹ jẹ́ kí ọmọdé yìí wálé!” and you went home. She was your link to Oǹdó. The second night she gave birth to her second child, the call came in. She wasn’t going to make it. You shouted your prayers at God. A miracle, a miracle please.  Like your dream about the storey building and the smell of cassava being processed weren’t real, Aunty D became a dream always threatening to drift away. No revival could delay her body from going cold and your link to ‘home’ drifted too.

The next time you lost someone, it was to life and yet, you grieved. “This is a kind of grief too,” you told yourself. When you named this feeling “grief”, it felt like a performance to you. You didn’t know yet that sometimes grief can be a black hole threatening to drown you. No one told you it will grow and seep into everything. No one told you, it could be obvious as the kite riding on the wind and invisible as the string attached to the kite. V.S. Naipaul writes that: ‘We can never tell beforehand for whom we will feel grief’, and that was all you needed to truly feel whatever it was you felt. When the time came, to let go and cherish the days you are not drowning.

You tried to avoid people. From the moment you met new people, the only possibility your mind could process was their backs turned to you, them swaying out like they swayed into your life. You told yourself you could adapt. Naipaul says, ‘We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living.’ You told yourself, “feeling too much is a kind of prison.” You didn’t know what to do about that. So you wrote on a sticky note:

‘You cannot find peace by avoiding life.’ – Virginia Woolf

On another sticky note, you wrote: Do not avoid life!

The thing with navigating self is it will be completely normal to text a friend, saying:

No matter how hard I try, I do not belong anywhere.

 I feel like something regurgitated so hard and then spat out.

They will reply:

Where do you want to belong? With whom would you rather belong?

And you will have no answers. If you did, it would have been the idea of a truth. The one you have dined with for so long, the one that has brought you out of your reverie when you seem to be having a good time with friends, whispering like a petulant child sulking away at a birthday party. The idea of a truth learnt by rote from childhood.

You have never belonged anywhere. Belong to yourself first.

Iyanuoluwa Adenle is a poet and essayist from Nigeria. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kalahari Review, Africanwriter, Empty Mirror, Atelewo, Onejacar and elsewhere.


*Illustration: ‘b(g)loom’ by Sef Adeola.

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