By Akìgbógun Olúwatúnmiṣe Michael
“Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
— Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha.
Truth be told, a lot of things have changed. My life, our lives, everything that made our lives steady, it all changed swiftly. Ọsịsọ ọsịsọ.
Daddy no longer comes home in the evening, when the sunset is in its final moments, casting golden flamelike rays all over Aba, in his deep teal Volkswagen, smiling like he used to, asking us how our day was.
Chibundu no longer speaks with that fulfilled spark in her eyes, switching between Igbo and English, about the Kingdom of God, and how vain the world and all it offers is. She no longer goes to Bible study or Sunday services. She no longer sings “Ekwueme” loudly when she’s in the bathroom.
Mummy no longer has her hair done in shiny weave-ons or her nails fixed and painted in glossy colours. She has burnt all her wigs and she must have wished, as she added more kerosene to the leaping flame and stepping back cautiously, that the past was this easy to burn with a flick of a matchstick and lots of kerosene so we could have that stable life we once lived.
She no longer sobs as hard as she did when it first happened, she hardly talks at all nowadays. She just stares into emptiness and until two weeks ago she had buried herself in a thick layer of silence, in the madness of grief. She only replied in tired monosyllables.
And myself, I no longer dread going to church like I used to. My stomach no longer tightens as taut as can be when I’m in church. My mouth no longer feels void of saliva from anxiety and a senseless fear that Mummy once suggested might be a demonic attack. I no longer force myself into believing in God, I just go with the flow: I pretend to know, love, and believe God, like almost everyone does.
Nowadays, when I think of Daddy, I see the face of a man that was always smiling; his cheekbones ready to rise. I see that man that laughs heartily even at my failed jokes, that man that coughs up laughter randomly, that man that used to be so familiar, so present and I wonder how our lives will go on in his absence, in the strangeness of the awkward silence that has now enveloped our house.
There he is, deep beneath the earth at the overcrowded public graveyard, his brown body rotting away. That face of his would no longer break into a warm laughter.
That thought alone, of remembering his laughter yet realizing quite suddenly that I would never hear it again except in haunting hallucinations and nightmares that refuse to leave my mind, makes my eyes burn with tears unshed.
And that is probably what haunts us all. No, it is not the fact that he died from brain cancer. No, it isn’t because he left so many things unsaid, undone. Not because we all thought we had time, that death was a vague ravaging thing that killed other people but not one of us. Well, maybe partially so.
Rather it is how quick he left. It is because of the personal properties he left behind; the photographs, the Volkswagen parked under the dongoyaro tree collecting dust, his rain-smelling cologne that still floods the house, his clothes that are in his wardrobe never to encounter his touch again.
And the devastating memories he has planted in us, the nightmares he has plunged us all into, the memory of him teasing Chibundu for being a holy Mary.
“This one will be a Sistah o,” he mused.
The memory of him scolding me for talking back to the Sunday school teacher.
The memory of him, leaning against his Volkswagen, his head thrown backwards laughing, as Mummy told him something about relatives and their unending wahala.
The memory of him, sprawled on the hospital bed like a pole felled by an angry wind, while the thin-lipped doctor told Mummy in hushed tones, that they were not sure he was going to make it.
The wistful memory of him in a hurriedly made coffin, the only one Mummy could afford after we had spent all we had on tests and the surgery, dressed in a black, slightly rumpled suit. His hands on his stomach, thick buds of cotton wool were fitted into his nose and ears, his eyes were clammed shut and for the first time in a long time, Daddy’s face was unsmiling.
The devastating memory of watching the coffin being lowered into the earth, of feeling as though my legs had become akamu and I would fall into the deep grave as I moved to scoop wet sand on the coffin, of watching Mummy sobbing and tearing at her unplaited hair, throwing herself to the ground and ignoring the clucks of, “ Ndo maka di gị” and “Poor woman, ka Chukwu bụrụ nkasi obi gị n’oge niile” and “ Kwusi akwa, Chineke agba gi ume.”
Of waiting for Daddy to step out of that miserable coffin, saying in his slight Aba accent, “Why would you put me in a coffin? Imagine! You people thinking I am dead-a. Kwụsị nke ahụ, my friend.”
And all of us would laugh this nightmare away, we would return the coffin and get a refund and all go home, triumphant, the same as Jesus’ disciples, when he resurrected. And everything would swing back to how it used to be.
But Daddy lingered in the coffin. Nothing happened. And as dull scraps of shovels deftly filled the grave with sand, I knew our lives would never go back to normal. We would be stuck in this limbo of loss.
Not with that haunting memories that evades my mind and makes me cry behind closed doors. Not with Daddy’s rich laughter that echoes in the house, ringing with a crushing finality: a reminder that we shan’t be seeing him ever again.
On that day when he was buried, something died inside of us. Every one of us. And quite suddenly, grief began to gnaw us all. Soon, we forgot how to live.
Yet there were other things that remained unchanged in my life. Take my name and the look it triggers, for instance, it just never changes. The annoying questions that follow too, are familiar now and I’m not supposed to be irritated anymore yet the irritation never goes away.
“Are you sure that is your real name, okwia?” Or something drier, like, “How can someone bear Jesus? That one no be name now.” Or “Jesus kwa, abeg no follow me play nonsense play. Make you tell me your real name.”
And I have to go into the painful, clichéd process of explaining to them that Jesus is my real name, that it’s my first name, in fact, that the guests at my naming ceremony had gasped and called on God to come see the blasphemy. That Daddy made sure that no one called me by my native name, Ugochukwu. Sometimes it makes me wonder why I got a name I’ll never use.
So here I am, the Nigerian Jesus without miracles. The Jesus without wonders and a purpose (at least, none that I know of). The Jesus who gave everyone trouble. Yes, it’s me, Jesus Ugochukwu Ndukwe.
Only then would they be satisfied that it’s my real name. Once in school, someone wrote my name as Wahala Jesus on the list of troublemakers and everyone found it funny. On days like that, I had this weird feeling that my name was a costume bigger than me, a colossal shadow that overwhelmed my little self and I wished I could peel it off as one would take off a damp cardigan.
The name makes people expect more of me—I should read The Bible more, I should be more responsible and quit being rebellious—and as usual, they end up disappointed.
“How can you fail your CRS test like this? Yet you claim you’re Jesus.”
“Who even named you Jesus? Of all the names in The Bible, of all the names wey dey dis world so, na the name wey no fit you at all dem give you.”
“You say you’re Jesus, but you won’t even step a foot in church because it gives you panic attacks. Does that even make sense ehn?”
“What kind of Jesus are you? More like the Jesus that works with Satan. Imagine young boy like you saying you don’t think God exists. Nawa o.”
Most of the time I don’t care, though their remarks get to me sometimes. Yet, on most days, all I ever want to do is stuff soiled diapers in their lousy mouths. Every one of them.
Sometimes, this name seems like a fitting shoe that promises nothing but comfort and I never want to take it off. Years ago, when Daddy was still alive, only he set high standards for me, expected me to scale them and was hardly disappointed.
Like the day I won a Bible quiz and got Daddy beaming, reminding everyone who cared to listen that was his son, that he named me Jesus because he knew I could live up to the responsibilities that came with the name. It felt so normal, so natural to be Jesus.
But that was long ago, when Daddy orchestrated a steady hum that made our lives fall into place and even the weird things felt familiar. Not anymore.
Not with how everything came shattering on that day. The evening he was buried was a bleak one and everything seemed to come to a standstill. The wall clock that has a man with distracted eyes intended to be Jesus Christ holding the Sacred Heart, stopped ticking that evening. The sun stood still for long, as though it was there to sympathize with us like everyone had been doing since the day Daddy stopped breathing.
That evening, no one said a word to another. Each one of us was trapped in a grief, in varying dimensions yet to the same degree; and even though the silence was ominous it soothed us more than words could. I soon learnt that in grieving, words fail at times. Only silence came close to comforting us.
Mummy, in her black attire, sat down on the brown three-seats sofa and kept crying, muttering, “This is not how we said it, Azubuike. You didn’t tell me you’ll leave us alone in this world, like this.”
Her eyes were puffy already from sobbing and her voice was husky from all the yelling at the burial. She had kept shrieking at the sympathizers that invaded our flat like locusts when it first happened, “My own husband is not dead, it’s all of you that is not alright in the head,” and “Azubuike cannot die now, all of you should stop weeping like children.”
When she finally took in the blistering truth, she crumpled like folded paper on the floor and kept wailing for hours, sprawled on the flora-patterned carpet by this soul-crushing loss. She had refused to eat or drink water for days, asking no one in particular that of what use was eating, with everything that had befallen her. Yet she survived.
She survived the funeral too. Even though she had sobbed through the event, refusing to be consoled, refusing to be sympathized with, even though she had insisted Daddy wasn’t dead, she survived.
She sat there on the sofa that evening when we returned from the graveyard, her hands on her head, lines of tears crawling down her face. In that moment, all I could see was a fossil. A grief-weathered fossil that would never be whole again. Yet, one that would still survive.
Hope was now a familiar stranger that we could no longer recognize, one whose face we combed our memories for but was not sure we had seen before. A luxury we could no longer afford. Once upon a time, it had stood like an unapologetic Leviathan in our threshold and made its way into our lives and that was when hoping was normal. Not anymore though. Daddy left with everything good and one of those things was hope.
Our lives were now riddled with once-upon-a-times and some-years-ago. A life that we were convinced that all the good things were in the yesteryears, and not only did the future smell bleak, it looked blank.
It hurt to hope when the person who taught us to do so was dead. It hurt that the last time you hoped, it was for that person yet hope itself failed. It hurt even more to know not only the luxury of hoping was gone but everything that made your life stable left with it as well.
Yet as hurting as it was, we had to hope. It was our only chance, the only pathway to better days and although it started off as a forced cheer, we had to soak our not-yet-done-grieving selves into it. So, we took the only path from the pain of loss that had enveloped us.
If we had lingered and chosen to sink deeper in our grief, then I’m sure we would’ve been damned.
But Chibundu was sceptical, pessimistic even. She had boxed herself in a cocoon of grief and she had convinced herself that she was alright living a nightmarish life. A life from which Sunday mornings of singing Cheta and leaving early for church had fallen out of. A life which she blamed God and everyone for what was happening to us. A life that she could never have imagined anyone could live. A life that drove her to listening to depressing artistes that spoke of suicide as if it were child’s play, as if it were as simple as cooking noodles. A life that obviously had no room for hope that something good might still happen to us; that all this was for a reason.
To my sister, hope was a grasshopper. That short-lived insect that you catch in the bush at dawn, bursting with life and colours and promise and yet at the peak of its glory it was there at dusk: ashen and dead.
And rather than cling to this euphoric hope, this epileptic thing called hope, she would rather wade in her abyss of nightmares and dead pauses.
Slowly, slowly Chibundu began to vanish. Like an apparition melting away in her fatal cocoon. She refused to talk to anyone. She refused to reply any questions. She refused to see the concerned, scarved women that clutched fat Bibles and worry for a promising believer, asking to see her. She refused to resume school when ASUU called off the strike. She refused to come out of the throes of grief that Daddy’s death plunged us into. She refused to bask in the sun of healing. She refused everything till there was nothing left to offer.
Those were devastating days. Each one wrapped in a wistful wave of déjà vu, as if I had seen this happen somewhere else. Yet the wave of déjà vu was always vague, it was locked away somewhere in my head but eluded me each time I tried to grasp it, to see where it would end.
Those were days when I knocked and knocked on Chibundu’s door till I thought my hand would melt away from all the knocking. Those were the days when I called and yelled and begged Chibundu to open the door for Daddy’s sake, yet it was as though my sister had gone deaf or dumb. Or both. She did not respond.
Those were the days I whispered at Chibundu’s door, desperate promises tumbling out of my mouth.
“I swear I’ll start going to church. I will believe in God till I die, like you’ve always wanted. I’ll do everything you want, nwanne m nwanyị. Just open the door, Chibundu. Just let me in. Biko, naanị hapụ m ka m bata n’ihi papa.”
Those were the days I convinced myself that this was a phase. One that Mummy had gone through, and Chibundu was still stuck in, and it was only a matter of time before she bounced back, radiant with Godfulness. Those were the days I started to tread unfamiliar paths. Assuming yet another overwhelming costume of being the man of the house. Experimenting with believing in God, if He could get us out of this.
Those were the days I consoled myself with memories of how stable our lives used to be, and forced myself to hope that this was not the end. We were like an exhausted phoenix, burnt out, the pile of ash littered on the ground like confetti, withstanding the winds that threatened to sweep it away and when the time was right, the ashes would rise, it would be reborn.
Yes, this was a hard time. It was a tough one, yet we wouldn’t be subdued by this harsh wind and like the phoenix that we are, we would turn out triumphant.
Yes we would. Yes we would.
Yet disappointments are taunting giants, Goliaths ever on the prowl, ever ready to wreck hope no matter how tiny, ever ready to wash away even a little wisp of hope.
It is ever ruthless, ever shocking. Probably because it catches you off guard and even the fear makes you dizzy with defeat. And unlike David, most of us can’t stone this bully to its death, to damnation.
I guess Chibundu is right after all, maybe there’s nothing good left for us. Maybe we should just stop hoping and wallow in defeat. Maybe we should refuse to heal, refuse to move on, refuse to collect back the pieces of our lives, refuse to fight back.
I am wrong about the whole phoenix bullshit. We are one damned phoenix, not the kind that gets redemption. One that burns into curlicues of ash and is scattered in space by the wind. Eternally damned. That’s what we are.
Just when we had waded through the grief of Daddy’s demise and had chosen to tread the path of hope and new beginnings, the Goliath that was a god of brutal disappointments wouldn’t let us be. He stood in the way and wrecked the path so much that walking on it would be suicidal, like running down a muddy road in the rain. He damaged all that was left in us. Every. Single. Thing. He took everything.
Mummy likes to say defiantly that it’s our village people, enemies of good things, the generational witches from our umunna, perpetual forces of darkness that would not let us be, that caused everything that was befalling us.
She likes to declare that the ravaging fire of God that burns evildoers will consume them all, that they will die the most miserable deaths there is, that they will burn and burn in the pits of hell. All of them. None of them will be spared.
Disappointments started to rear up their rough faces just last month. When we had to sell off Daddy’s car for a meagre price so we could pay the rent. When even Mummy’s feral prayers could not save Chibundu from herself. When I believed and believed that something good would soon happen, but nothing changed.
When Chibundu began to speak with invisible friends—sharing jokes with them and laughing loudly at intervals, ignoring Mummy’s pleas and cautions and threats.
But when disappointment struck the final blow was when Chibundu was bound by two hefty men to a psychiatric home, never to return. E
Akìgbógun Olúwatúnmiṣe Michael is a teenage short story writer. He dreams of bookstores and is working on ideas for a novel.