My heart has become accustomed to this raw, sharp pain; it cuts me into fine shreds and leaves resentment simmering hot beneath my skin. The first time I felt this pain coursing through my heart was after I graduated from nursery school. It was the day my father came back home with slouched shoulders and watery eyes, sat me on his lap, and told me that Aunty Lizzy was gone.
Aunty Lizzy was a firm woman whose lambent skin was crude oil – that deep black colour – and whose small head sat on a slender frame. She had a small, compact body, but her commanding and easy voice lengthened her and filled the air around her. She was affable, graceful, and kind. She had this sweetness to her being that was cherished and esteemed by everyone. I often imagined a halo hanging over her head as she walked, a halo that got brighter whenever she smiled.
On the first day of school, it was Aunty Lizzy who took me from my father’s arms and said, “I am his form teacher. My name is Elizabeth, but everybody calls me Aunty Lizzy,” while flashing that big-hearted smile that exposed her black gums and drew wrinkled lines at the ends of her weak eyes. She was old, but she carried this beautiful youthfulness, like bright coloured petals along the fence of a garden. It was Aunty Lizzy who nicknamed me Lover Boy, a name my mum now fondly calls me at times, a name that now cramps my throat with emotions, stifling me. It was Aunty Lizzy who inducted me into the culture of reading at an age when I didn’t care why black letters danced in a white sea. She would hold me on her lap after class and tell people, “O kwa nwa m ka-obu.” He’s my son, oh. I remember the proud wink she always gave me when our results came out. I still have one of those results tucked away somewhere in my drawer, creased from excessive handling. It was Aunty Lizzy who ran from the staff canopy to the canopy where I was on Prize Giving Day, when my name was called as the first overall in nursery school. I remember how she threw me in the air and attacked my face with cursory kisses.
That was the Aunty Lizzy my father said was crushed to death in a car accident with her husband. Aunty Lizzy, who seemed untouchable – too powerful, too important, too good to be equaled by anyone – was dead. Gone. I might not have fully understood the weight of my grief then due to my young age, but I knew when Aunty Lizzy died, something in my heart went with her.
I grew up a loner, surrounded by a wall of pain and scepticism. Distrust and fear sat on cushy chairs in my heart. I had lost too many people. I was terrified of life’s ephemerality, terrified that life, so dark and hollow, would contain you and then, without blinking, give you up to death whenever it came knocking. The way life flourishes, flickers, and disappears all in a thin slice of time startled me. I couldn’t even keep relationships with people. I had just three people I could call friends. Among these friends, Agashi Uchenna Franklin was the closest to me and the one who sat heavy on my heart.
Mostly, Agashi is who I remember when I think of my secondary school. I first met him in JSS1, but we got close in JSS3 when we became corner mates. Agashi had a beautiful build, but his face cast shadows on his features. He had tiny eyes that disappeared into a thin line when he laughed. His laugh was blaring, and it rumbled earnestly from his throat and exposed his too-large incisors. It was as if too many teeth had been achingly jammed into his mouth. He also had an annoying way of sticking out his tongue and making croaking sounds when he laughed. His ears were tiny too and hung as if hiding shyly behind his head. So his face wasn’t that ravishing, but who cares? I believe that the concept of beauty is merely socially constructed in societies, and it is being used as a motivating element for everything. You are permitted to show up with no substance, no challenging outlook; just arm yourself with a pretty face and the world crumbles before you. There should be more, I think. And Agashi had more. His words were weighty and insightful. He also had this ingeniosity that was particular to him. His accent was heavy – English that made love to the cadence of Igbo. He always spoke too fast, each word rolled onto the next, making it difficult to understand him. Agashi was a warm and thoughtful person. I can’t count the number of times he brought me food whenever I didn’t go to the refectory. He also never missed buying me a gift on my birthday. The first gift he bought me was a chain wrist watch that stopped working a week later, but I cherished the thought of it, not necessarily the gift. I also remember the short congratulatory note he wrote me when I won the Second-Best Art Student award in my SS2. The note was written in his quite hideous handwriting and ended with: Congratulations, you’re the best. That letter was cute and felt warm in my hands. It’s still neatly placed in my drawer, along with other memory-invoking items. Everything in this world always has its beginning, growth, and end.
Agashi’s end came too soon.
The sun was torrid the day Agashi’s illness started. That Sunday afternoon, Agashi was pressing his clothes in the hostel when he suddenly started screaming that his stomach was burning. I was in class when this happened. The people who were there rushed over and called Uncle Sam, the skinny Yoruba computer teacher that lived in the school. He hurtled to the hostel and told some boys to carry Agashi to his car while he kept praying in tongues. By now, I was already there, my face contorted with confusion and fear. Agashi was making guttural sounds, so unusual and louder than anything I’d heard come out of his mouth. He was taken to the hospital. Some other people and I stayed with him for the few nights he was there. Our nights at the hospital were filled with a sullen gloom and furious disorder. Agashi’s incessant screams crushed and dampened our spirits while the doctor, who looked confused as to what to do, tried to hide his nervousness behind his expansive smile. The air was dense with the uneasiness that sat in the room. When Agashi wasn’t screaming, he was crying, and with each bout, my heart broke into unsized pieces. His parents came later and took him home.
After a few weeks, Agashi came back to school, bubbly. I was excited to see that face of his. Everything and everybody seemed happy. Later that night, he told me and some of our friends that it was juju they wanted to use to kill him. He showed us a wide, brown, rectangular line that started from one end of his navel, encircling his abdomen. It stopped at his spinal cord. He said that if “the stupid line” reached the other end of his navel, he would die. But he was already being treated traditionally. Three days later, Agashi went home to write his JAMB exam. The day he left, I escorted him to the gate, and he asked me to keep praying for him. His voice was as soft as ever. I said, “Of course, I will.” We shook hands and hugged before he left through the huge black gate that looked like the ugly face of death. God, I always hated that gate! I later went home for my JAMB exam too.
When I came back after a few weeks, I asked about Agashi. Chimaobi, the swarthy boy I asked, told me plainly that Agashi was dead, that he died on the Monday he was meant to write his JAMB exam. I wanted to scratch blood out of Chimaobi’s face, but my hands had gone limp. The air was charged with unreality. I wanted to say something, anything, but I could feel a huge ball I couldn’t swallow in my throat.
To me, Agashi didn’t die. He was stolen. Stolen from his ambitions, stolen from his bright future, stolen from his friends, stolen from his parents. If after all these years, I can still feel this sore tear in my heart whenever I think of Agashi, then I can’t imagine what his parents are feeling. Their pain must be something thick and uncertain, something inexplicable. You can’t compact what they feel into 26 letters and call it a description. There’s a name for a man who loses his wife, a name for a woman who loses her husband, and a name for a child who loses both his parents. But what do you call parents who lose their child?
I never wanted to write this. I didn’t want to remember these things, things I’ve locked away, things that pull me away from my body and take me to a place where darkness and depression rule. I didn’t want to remember. I wanted to leave the waters as still as they were; to trouble them would be to drown in them. But who are we if we don’t remember? Our life, our being, is just a conglomeration of memories. The thing about memories, both good and bad, is that they break us. They break us and leave us as we are: broken pieces of a collective kind.
My insides have been a construct of shattered fragments and empty, sullen rooms decorated with hysterical laughter that easily turned to acrid tears. Grief has an incredible way of marching into your heart, ridding it of all its contents, and leaving it an empty, lone street where pain and anxiety take evening strolls. I used to tell people then that death had done its worst, and I couldn’t be surprised anymore. But no, it surprised me again when it came and greeted my father.
My father’s names, Obioma and Sonma, were precise descriptions of who he was. He had a big, beautiful heart that could accommodate the world and still have room for more. He was tall, handsome, dark-eyed, swarthy, and had killer looks that sucked people in and left them breathless.
Hepatitis B was the illness that took his life. That illness has a way of dragging down every inch of one’s being, pulling the soul and will to live too. I recall how Uncle U broke the news of his death to me, how I was tricked into coming home. The house wore a solemn aura and different people with lugubrious faces hung in corners. I remember how my mother lay slumped on the coffee-brown cushion. Her eyes looked so weak and heavy and carried the colour of sleeplessness. I sat beside her, and her delicate, frail hands, in which my father had died, held me tight while Uncle U, a distant relative, stood up to speak to me. He spoke in a somewhat flat, somewhat arresting tone that wavered with coarse emotions. His voice was thick with the tension that surrounded us all. He told me how everything has an end, how one lives and goes when God says it’s time. As he spoke, all I could think of was how worn out his neck must have been from carrying that gigantic head of his. His head looked big enough to eclipse the sun. My mind came back to what he was saying when he said my father was dead. I wanted to stand up and push those words back into his mouth, slap that head of his, and tell him to have a little respect and not say things that were untrue. I turned to my mother and searched her face as if to confirm what my big-headed uncle had said. She was crying and nodding. When I stepped into the house, I didn’t exactly know what was wrong, but I knew something was amiss. A shadow hung over the house – maybe an aunt had died, or an uncle, or a cousin, or my grandmother. But not my father. He was not meant to be an option for death. I felt a watery queasiness in my stomach before the numbness spread over me and stopped at my feet, thick with curdled blood. Everything started spinning a little too fast, or was it my insides spinning because everyone seemed still? There was a painful ringing in my ears that brewed a migraine at the base of my skull. That wrenching pain bounced in my heart. The tears came, and my eyes swam in them.
My father, an excellent work of art, has become someone I remember – a memory. Death does this by reducing those for whom your heart beats to shards of memories here and there. My father’s memory has become an old building with many rooms in which I live, a path through which my thoughts travel frequently. I miss him terribly. It still astounds me how a single event can reverberate across time and space, leaving scars that can never be erased. How could this world spit out a beautiful man like he was poison? Why do we exist? Just to make a painful exit? Why are we born just to burn right after? How unnecessary that the necessary end brings such unbearable pain and void.
When my father died, depression swallowed me whole. It was as if he took the sun with him when he left. My days were filled with dark gaps in time. I tried to find succour in different things: in my hurting mother, in writing, in books, in religion, in music. In a bid to make sense of life, I wrote a number of stories. I read so many books about loss and death, just to fuel my grief. It was then that I read Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. I wanted to slip into the pages of that book and wrap myself in every word. Each letter held and hugged me tight. I wanted to write like that – masterfully. The book explores the question: what would you do if you could spend one more day with a lost loved one? There is so much I want to do with my father, but all I yearn for is to go back in time, sit beside him, and document him in a video, so my eyes can spend the rest of their lives watching a gem.
It was also then that I got addicted to Sam Smith and their songs. Their music at the time was a bus I commuted to visit places where angels live, where my heart wasn’t breaking nor my world crashing. Their voice was what always caught me, the soft pitch and the fineness of it. I was always lost in their intonation, lost in the curve of their throat.
I know Death – the old man in the black overalls. The gates of my heart are used to his darkness; the grass on the field of my soul knows his putrid smell. He came in, ripped my heart in two, and left his son, Grief, in me. Grief is much more ruthless. Death comes and goes, but Grief never goes – it remains there, a hoary, faceless thing that hangs over you and rounds your throat like a tie. It’s like an oil stain that never dissolves, a permanent dent on the soul. I’ve tried to describe what Grief does, but it’s an inexplicable thing. I think grief is the inability to accept reality, the unwillingness to believe that what was is no more. Or is it the acceptance of loss and the inability to do anything about the situation?
Loss is a painful process that births chaos, chaos that comes to stay. To love is to embrace the possibility of loss, to embrace the fact that one day a permanent scattering will settle in your being and draw narrow cracks, like ripples, along the walls of your heart. And I have embraced this. I have embraced the fact that this pain might never go away, the fact that this unremitting chaos might never end. I have accepted that these threatening, dark clouds gathering over my head may never stop brewing. Knowing this, I have learnt to live in the present, letting go of what has happened and not being anxious or edgy about what might happen. I’ve also learnt to value and appreciate my loved ones better. How does the saying go? Give people their flowers while they can smell them?
But the thing is that this acceptance does not, in any way, quell the anguish that death brings. I’ve fought with death, I’ve battled it, I’ve screamed at it, but still, it persists in its perpetual course.
These memories dipped in vinegar unsettle and make me. They fill me with dread most times, and laughter other times. The emotional gymnastics are exhausting. Dear Death, please take a break.
Munachimso Ochiabutor is a writer who resides in Nigeria. His work has appeared in Kalahari Review, Kenga Mag, Crater Library, Barristers’ Mag, and elsewhere. He was one of the finalists for the Crystal Wilkinson Writing Prize, 2021; and was the winner of the National Entertainment Law Essay Competition, 2021. He holds a first class law degree from the University of Nigeria Nsukka.
*Image by Josue Michel on Unsplash