The week I turned eleven, my mother died. My cousin, who was a kid herself, and I, had spent a month with her in the hospital, looking after her right up to her point of death. I was a child, an only child, and I handled my grief in a way that no other family member around me could relate to. It seemed strange, and in retrospect, even I, could not understand why I reacted the way I did.
In the last week of June, 2004, mother fell sick and was moved to another town where they had the largest hospital in our Local Government Area. As kids, we were always in awe of this hospital because whenever anyone we knew was taken there, we would not get to visit them at will. Unlike the general hospital, it was far away, on the outskirts of town.
We nicknamed it “The Bush Hospital”, because it was located across farmlands and abandoned bushes.The day we left to join her in the hospital, we packed up clothing and shoes into a new Ghana Must Go bag. Father bought a tin of bournvita, milk and some toiletries for us to take along. He had cooked jollof rice and beans –one of my favorite meals –and packed it up in his big red and blue food flask.
The three of us left for the motor park and three hours later, we walked in to mother’s hospital ward. It was a large hall, housing ten orthopedic beds, lined up in two rows of five at opposite sides of the room, with a door at each end. Sick women in various degrees of physical pain lay on each bed and mother lay on the fourth bed on one row. She was asleep and an IV drip was hooked to her arm.
My aunt, mother’s younger sister, who lived with us was seated by the bedside, looking listless. At the sound of our excited voices raised up in greeting, mother opened her eyes and the ghost of a smile flashed across her face. Her face was sunken and we could see that it was an effort for her to turn. My aunt helped her up by touching something under the bed, which automatically raised the upper part of the bed, propping her into a sitting position. Annabel and I gently walked in to her open arm, the one without the drip.
At other times, we would have run into those open arms, but at that point, we gently walked in to them and she patted us. Suddenly, she burst in to tears and I stood there, stupefied. I had never seen mother like this. Sunken, helpless, withering away and in tears.
I had seen her cry uncountable times before. The day I turned five, at my birthday party, when she had discovered that father was married to someone else and they had two kids, the day she had packed up our bags and we left my step father, the day my younger sister died and she had spent two whole days, sitting on her cane chair, crying, and even the day I had a fight with another child in school, and while flogging me, she had burst in to tears too, asking me why she deserved a child like me.
I had seen mother cry countless times, but this time, it was different. It was very brief and heart wrenching, ending in less than two minutes. My aunt calmed her down and we could see how embarrassed she felt as her tears were wiped away. She let out a half hearted laugh and asked us what our positions in school were. The relief was palpable as we were all ushered un to familiar territory. As expected, I took the first position in class and mother expressed relief at the fact that I could sit down and read without her constant nagging. She asked us about our neighbors and other seemingly irrelevant things.
Father had to leave. He explained to Annabel and I that he was leaving to go and find more money for the hospital bill. He would always come to check up on us, at least, twice a week. My aunt left too. Apparently, she had fallen out with mother before our arrival. She said mother was difficult and unappreciative and mother countered that she was looking after her grudgingly, as if it was a tedious chore she would rather not perform.
It was agreed that Annabel and I would look after her until someone older was free to come and take over from us. I would turn eleven in four weeks and Annabel was just a bit older than me. I was not perturbed because naturally, most of the responsibility would fall on Annabel because she was older.
In the mornings, Annabel would go to the hospital kitchen to make breakfast while I get bathing water from the tap outside. She would then, carefully prop mother up, undress her, wipe her body with a small towel soaked in clean water, dress her up and feed her, while I watched from the sidelines. After this, she would take out mother’s dress and wash it, then, we would take our baths and proceed to eat, then, sit down and begin to count the hours until lunch time. We slept in shifts so that one person would always be awake to tend to mother’s needs. This became our daily routine.
A week into our stay, I was sitting by mother’s bedside while Annabel got some rest, when mother woke up from sleep and started hyperventilating. Panicking, I woke Annabel up and rushed to the nurses’ station to get help. No doctor was on duty and all the nurse could do was stand and watch with us, while holding mother’s hand. Mother muttered incomprehensible words. Annabel was already crying but I stood to one side, shut my eyes tight, praying and willing her to live. I promised God my life if only he spared mothers. After about twenty minutes, she was stabilized. An injection to induce sleep was given to her and she instantly dozed off. We kept a vigil over her until daybreak.
The next morning after her breakfast, she asked me what I would have done if she had died the previous night. I looked in to her eyes for any trace of humor, but could find none. I could not find my voice for a response. That was when I began to consider the fact that mother might die. Over the weeks, she gave us two more death scares. We became used to these type of situations and stopped panicking. We always expected her to survive, and that is perhaps, why her death never dawned on me even while I stood by, watching her die.
It was 9:30am on a Saturday morning. I had just turned eleven on Monday. An older cousin had come to join us a week earlier and while we were sitting around mother, talking and having breakfast, she started hyperventilating again. The doctor was called for and he came with two nurses. At that point, an aunt came visiting too. My cousins and aunt were all crying and mother kept trying to talk but her words were incoherent.
An oxygen mask was placed on mother and that was when I realized that this was more serious than the previous times. For almost thirty minutes, we milled around while the doctor and nurses tried to save her life, but by a few minutes past 10am, she died. Even when she was covered up and rolled away, I still did not cry. This immediately raised questions from my cousins and even before we left the hospital, one came up to me and questioned my reaction.
I handled my grief in such a way that no other family member could relate to. I could only breakdown when her body was brought back home to familiar surroundings. Even then, I still got questions on why I had to wait until that moment.
In my childish mind, I began to think that perhaps, crying out was seen as hypocrisy since I could not explain why I could not cry when she passed away right before me. At some point during her burial, I would start wailing, then become startled when I turned around to see people staring at me and I wondered if they silently questioned the validity of my grief too. I was not given the space to grieve properly.
I spent the next year falling ill at regular intervals. My aunt who I moved to Cameroon to live with had the misfortune of taking trips to the hospital with me. Each time, no cogent ailment was diagnosed. Looking back now, I realize how lonely I was, even in the midst of family. I spent more days crying than I care to remember, believing I could talk to no one.
Here, therapy would have lent a hand, but it was not something we even thought of. Therapy was a foreign concept we only got to see in movies. It was alien to our lifestyle.
In this part of the world, it is typically expected that people would wail, cry, and at least, express any type of painful emotion, immediately a loved one passes away. We do not realise that we can let others grieve without necessarily imposing our sentiments to police this process.
A time and age limit is placed on grief. It sometimes seems odd for an adult to breakdown and grieve over someone they lost many years back. The belief in the cliche that time heals all wound is evident in how we are preconditioned to conceive an acceptable grieving period, then, we either bottle it up and move on, or hide it in between our sheets.
The public is not the place to spread grief, unless it is a recent loss. Dealing with the demise of a loved one is something we should strip bear of expectations and let others grieve in their own time, their own way and their own pace. It is perhaps, the only way some of us can move on and retain our sanity.
It’s been fourteen years since I lost my mother and I have not been able to bring myself to visit her graveside. I turned my back on it the moment her coffin was lowered in to the earth. In 2016, I took a road trip for two days down to Gembu, Taraba State, the town where she was buried in an unmarked grave, in a public cemetery, to pay her a visit and mark her resting place, but I ended up spending four weeks there and could not bring myself to visit it.
My aunt and cousins each offered to go there with me if I did not have the courage to do it alone, but even years later, I could not face that reality. They all seemed perplexed at my perceived nonchalance to pay tribute to the one who bore me. It was an odd reality for them, but for me, it somehow didn’t come as a shock. I am still processing my grief. Someday, I might have that handshake with grief and be able to let go and visit her grave site to say a proper goodbye.
Over the years, I have picked a weird interest in studying how people grieve around me. Most of the time, genuine, free grieving is only condoned in our privacies. While in public, the society and culture dictates how.
Maybe someday, we all can understand the need to demystify grief and let others mourn in their own way, at their own time, and at their own pace. Grief has no map. It is an individual route and for healing, it is acceptable in all it’s dimensions.