They seem to have a queer sense of humour, the hospital authorities that is. “Person to visit…” is the first item on the form the mortuary secretary, who met us at the door of her office, handed me to fill. And I had a momentary flicker of hope that perhaps, just perhaps, I had been dreaming all the while, that she might not have died after all. Formalities completed and we were ushered into what appeared like an anteroom to an average executive office, bare, save for the chairs neatly arranged. The lady led the way to yet another room, looked back at us, perhaps to be sure we were ready, before opening the door.
And there she was, barely half her normal size, stretched out on a trolley bed, covered up from her feet to her chest, eyes closed, lips slightly open in a painful smile. I moved towards the still figure of my Helen, the lively and bubbling lady I had befriended for 30 years, 23 of which we had been married, placed my palm on her forehead with the intention of running my hand through her hair as I was wont to do through those hours of incessant pain and endless agony and sleepless nights and uncontrollable tears. I quickly removed my hand as the ice coldness of the forehead burnt through my palm to my shoulder and my head. After a second unsuccessful attempt, I stumbled out of the room, afraid my legs would give way under my weight, right in front of our children, whose cries I could hear behind me, particularly Bukola, our third child, who had mostly been attending to her mum in the last month of her life, and who had started crying long before we arrived the mortuary door. I sat in the anteroom, numb, confused, lost in thought, cutting off the tear flow and unable to muster the courage to rejoin our children and family members holding and comforting one another in that damned room.
A flurry of thoughts ran through my mind, particularly our last moment together. I remembered the Sunday morning I flew in from Lagos, she was not there at the airport to pick me up as was her practice; and arriving home, she was not at the door to welcome me with a hug and a kiss of longing and relief, that is whenever she could not make the airport. Entering her room, there she was on the bed … her feet cold, and her breathing labored. She had difficulty lifting herself up from the bed … As I helped her up, tears running down my eyes, she pleaded I stop if I didn’t want her to also break down in tears. I made her breakfast – bread and tea – so she could take her medication; I had to insert the bread inside the tea to feed her as chewing was even a problem. Even at that, she couldn’t finish a slice of bread. At bedtime, I left her in the bedroom and retired to the couch in the living room, both doors open so I could monitor her breathing. Between bouts of sleep and wakefulness, I would repeatedly sneak into the room to check on her and each time she would, wide awake, ask I go back to bed, that she wouldn’t want to see my eyes turn red for lack of sleep.
I remembered her restlessness the following day as I joined her in an ambulance to the hospital, where she found every position she was placed uncomfortable. Lying down on her back, she insisted I turn her on her side, then lift her up, then make her lie down again amid repeated cries of pain. A tablet of tramadol she had taken before the ambulance arrived could not ease her pain; the medics had to inject her with morphine. Yet she was rolling hither and thither, grunting, crying, restless. In the midst of her pains, she was still concerned about me, checking the time, reminding me I needed to leave for London so as not to miss my flight to Geneva. She wouldn’t countenance my missing a long scheduled conference.
I remembered the problem began following a routine invitation for breast screening, the detection of a tiny lump said to be cancerous, the ensuing surgery to remove the lump, the search for alternative treatment, the six-cycle chemotherapy, and the radiation therapy. Simultaneously ongoing were herbal medications, prayers and fasting. Then there were the complications – fluid retention in her lungs, swollen arm and legs, low blood pressure, shortness of breath, and partial stroke for a few days. Throughout, Helen fought with strength and courage and faith, crisscrossing the UK, her base, to USA, Ghana and Nigeria, looking for solution, undergoing various types of therapy, searching for healing, and all the time worried about how our children would cope without her.
My wife lived a life of total devotion to our kids. Shortly after our marriage, I made her resign her banking job partly because I believed that a nursing mother shouldn’t be saddled with some office work so as to have control of her time; and partly because the nature of my work made me an absentee father, mostly. And when the opportunity arose for the kids to live and study in the UK, it became inevitable that she would have to relocate to keep an eye on them. And she did a fantastic job of mothering, and partly fathering, the children. She brought the kids up in her own image – respectful, warm, friendly, homely, accommodating and independent. Her neighbours and colleagues at work who had been trooping to the house on condolence visit always had one or two things to say on how well behaved and disciplined the kids are.
Helen was the spark and glow and sunshine of our household. Her tireless energy, her selflessness, her natural humility, her playful friendliness, her easy laughter, her material and emotional generosity, and her motherly disposition to all made her central to anything concerning me. She threw herself into every activity, every venture, every ceremony, every plan body, soul and spirit. She was the mother hen warding off danger I’m too blind to see, preparing the ground ahead, and always protective of her family. In my larger family, she knew how to kneel for everybody irrespective of age, how not to call any of my relatives, however young, by name; she had different kinds of cognomen for my family members – Big Daddy, Big Mummy, Iya oko mi, Baba oko mi, Iyale mi, Auntie, Uncle, Kabiyesi, etc – depending on age, sex, status and closeness. She instinctively knew whom to call, who to send a gift, who to invite for holiday, how to apologise, on my behalf, for any real or imagined infraction. She greeted every of my friend and colleague with a courteous smile, ending every salutation with “Sir” or “Ma”. Obirin bi okunrin, Helen was someone I am incapable of becoming in several lifetimes. With her at home either in Wolverhampton, or Lagos or Ayetoro Gbede, ours was always a bubbling beehive of activities with visitors coming and going, eating, drinking and having some gift to take away. Where I’m reserved and enjoyed the privacy of my company; she was gregarious and reveled in having people around her. Where I’m carefree and couldn’t be bothered about some insults; she was boisterous and wouldn’t accept any indignity. Where I’m quietly uncommunicative; she was openly lively. Where I’m inhibited; she was spontaneous. Indeed, she seemed to have been specially created to fill the gaps in my life and make up for my weaknesses. She was my angel.
I remembered her dreams: her hopes of us growing together into very old age; her plans to finally return home to Nigeria when our baby of the house, 15-year-old Olaoluwa, begins his university education at age 18; her impatience to have our first child Wuraola complete her Master’s programme and marry so she could be a grandmother; and her expectations that she would soon begin to live her life after all the years of sacrifices for the children. I remembered the phone call that Tuesday morning from our second son Ololade, who having closed for summer vacation, I had summoned from Bournemouth to stay with his mum. I quickly checked out of the hotel and headed for Geneva Airport praying that by the time I arrived her bedside at Holy Cross Hospital Wolverhampton, I would be able to make the doctors’ prediction she wouldn’t survive 24 hours hang in the air. I was still trying to change my flight schedule when I received a second call that my wife had passed on. As I dawdled my way through check-in, immigration and boarding, I was in shock, confused, lost. Throughout the flight to London, tears intermittently rolled down my eyes. Why, darling wife, after all that suffering? How will I cope with the children without you? What happened…?
(Queen Mother Maro)
Osuwa maro maje, monogba
(Princess of the Royal Household)
Omo egungun irun
(Offspring of 300 masqueraders)
Asipe igba lat’Ape bo Modarosa
(Ape masqueraders armed with 200 canes at River Modarosa)
Egungun eje mi koja
(The masqueraders who denied me entry to Ape community)
Omo asugba ori mobere edidi
(The strange one who cooks 200 wraps of maize pudding without wrapping leaves)
Omo agbameji wole ikon ra
(The powerful one who vapourizes anybody that dares to wrestle her)
Omo wo bani aru abara e aru
(The princess who scares others, and scares herself)
Iye Maro monogba
(Queen Mother Maro of the Royal Household.)
A gentle touch on my arm broke my reverie. I looked up as Ololade wrapped one arm around me, the others filing out of the damned room. I stood up gingerly and led the way towards the exit. Well, Helen will now rest. No more medication. No more pains. No more agony. No more tears. No more sleepless nights.