Her son was dead.
Death had come like an unforeseen terror and had snatched him out of her arms. Only hours ago, he had been alive. This morning, she had held him in her arms. Now, he was gone—dead. This morning she had been a mother, now when the sun was retaking its hidden place behind the clouds, she was childless. Her only son was dead.
A bout of malaria had killed him. That was what the doctor had said. Something that minor and seemingly curable, that was the illness that had killed her son. He had only been sick five days. They had thought him to be recovering. He hadn’t vomited up his food when she had fed him and the doctor had proclaimed him on the path of recovery. Then he relapsed.
Now he was in a casket. A small one. Only big enough to hold his small frame. His father had had it built. Had insisted that it be built with the finest wood and finished in a gloss coat. Many had murmured that it was unnecessary. He was a little boy and should be buried quickly, and without much ado. But he was their son, their only son.
There was a hole in her heart. She could feel it, this gaping hole that will never again be filled. She felt like she had been thrown into an unfamiliar terrain; into a maze, she must stumble her way out of. It was like a bad dream, a nightmare she was supposed to snap awake from. But she wouldn’t snap out of it. This was the reality, her reality now. It would never change. It would never be the same. Life would never be the same. Not with her son gone.
“I did not do enough!”
The groan carried over from the other end of their sparsely furnished, now overcrowded living room. It was the anguished cry of her husband—his father. She looked at him. His face was marred with despair. Sorrow, like a burden, lay heavily on his features. His eyes have sunken deep into their sockets. This morning they hadn’t been, she remembered. This morning, he had carried a different look. Now, like her, he wore grief like a cloak.
“You did what any mortal man can do.” His brother, crouched beside him, younger by a few years and never had a child, consoled. “Life and death are in God’s hands and only he can decide which to bring upon anyone.”
So it was God who decided? She wondered, bent her head and snivelled to the anguish that burned like hot coals in her eyes. In her heart.
“Ndo.” Her sister comforted, her solace in the absence of their mother. Nkemjika, that was her name. And she repeated in English. “Sorry. Sorry.”
The one in my hands is greater, that was the meaning of her sister’s name. But she had nothing now in her hands. The only one she had—she had lost. That only child was gone; another will come, many have consoled her. Another will come, but another cannot replace him.
“It is time to lay him to rest.” Her oldest brother-in-law announced. “The Priest is here.”
“Let me help you to stand.” Nkem offered and crooked a hand under her arm to lift her to her feet. Then she robed the hand around her and walked her towards the door.
Her hand rubbed her back. But all she could think was that it felt like the biting of a heavy log instead of touch of consolation. There was no consolation for her, her son was dead.
NOW he has been buried, sunk into the earth and covered up. He was now at peace, the Priest had said. He had joined the Saints in heaven above and had become one of them. For him, this life was over, and for them, their lives must go on. The Christian mourned in faith, with the hope that there is another life—a much better life.
And she was a Christian, so she was expected to believe and trust in God.
The soft knock on the door pushed her up on the old couch. She waited a breath and then turned red-rimmed, sorrow-laden eyes to the door and managed to mumble. “Come in.”
The door opened and Nkem entered. It had to be her. She would not leave her sister alone. Not now when grief had squeezed its cold hands around her heart. She knelt beside her in the room bereft of proper lighting. “Chizu, let me bring you something to eat.”
“No, Nkem.” She shook her head, dropped her gaze and recoiled into herself. “Maybe later.”
“Please eat something. You cannot starve. It will not do you any good to.” Nkem pleaded. She understood her grief. She thought she understood it, though she’d never experienced the loss of a child. “You only ate once yesterday and have not even had water since today. You need to keep your strength. Starving will make you sick. Let me bring you some pepper-soup. I made some.”
She raised her head. But could not discern her sister’s features clearly in the obscurely lit room. But she heard the pain, and pleading, in her voice. “I will eat later, Nkem. Not eating today will not kill me. My son is dead, Nkem. Jamuike is dead. He is gone forever.”
The low piteous cry broke Nkem’s heart. If only it could have been any other… she could not bear to see her sister so aggrieved. “I know he is gone, Chizu, and I do not understand why that has to be. I want to cry and question God but—but he is God. He knows best.”
“So it is best for my son to die?”
“It is the will of God. That at least we must believe.”
“The will of God.” She repeated, her voice was hollow. Tears broke, in an unaligned trail, down her cheeks. “He was my only son. My only child.” She sobbed the words, choked on them as they ripped at her like murder. “I am childless now, Nkem. I am now a childless woman.”
“You will have another. Shush, stop calling yourself childless.” Nkem chided and rubbed her back to lessen the weight of her scolding. “God who gave you Jamuike will give you another child. You will be a mother of children. You will birth another child.”
“But I will never again have Jamuike. We will never again see Jamuike.”
The cry of desolation wrenched out of her and tore at both of their hearts. Nkem bowed her head and she wished, as she had wished since this had happened, that it didn’t have to happen.
“A father should not bury his son.” Ifee drank the strong brew of schnapps. Anguish ripped at him like gnawing sharp blades and rendered him powerless—empty. “Parents are not meant to bury their children, it is unnatural. I failed my own son. Nduka, can you imagine that it is common malaria that killed my son. Common malaria and all because I could not afford to take him to the hospital on time. Chei!”
His son was dead. His son. The one who carried his name and bore his resemblance was gone. Turmoil raged inside of him, restless, uncontainable. Ifee slammed the shot-glass on the small stool, strung his hands around his body and shook his head even as his teeth chattered along with his jiggling feet.
“There was nothing wrong in starting his treatment at home. We all do it all the time.” Nduka soothed, as men would, by joining in the display of sorrow. “It is just that when death comes calling, nothing can defy it.”
“So death came calling for my son. Why my son? Why me, Nduka?”
Was death meant for a specific people? Nduka wondered to himself. “It is God’s will, Ifee. None of us can question God and ask him why he does a thing with what belongs to him. Jamuike belonged to God and God who owned him had taken him back.”
“God has taken him back. He would be resting with the Lord now, right, Nduka?” Surely that was some consolation?
“Yes, he is. He is with God.” It sounded right to reassure him, so Nduka did.
IN a Parallel Universe, another realm far beyond the reality that was terrestrial and beneath the realm of light that transcended above it, in forms likened to the humans and yet clad in one that did not recognise the laws of nature and age in all their facets, two entities peered, as through a looking glass, at the setting wrought by grief.
“They must have loved you.” The form, feminine in its outline, said, the traces of the deep emotions she had witnessed etched in her voice. “They grieve much for you.”
“Their grief is a lie!” The voice, neither childlike, nor can be described by any human depth, roared. “It is false. A façade.”
The force of denial shocked her. She cast another glance down. “Whose?” They were plenty who have mourned—and who yet mourned.
“They took what was most precious to me.” Whelmed with misery, a misery so poignant, it hung on him like a thing engraved, he lowered to the rocky bed of clouds, crossed his legs as he sat, one foot tucked underneath the other. “They did this to me. Condemned me to this place.”
“How?” She glided forward, the robe that covered her form tinting the white clouds with its flake of blue. “How do you know they did this to you?”
“I heard them… in my last moments.”
His memory opened like a vision set on a screen and her eyes took in the mental picture.
HE was lying on the hospital bed, naked to his chest, a needle taped to his elbow and medicated liquid gliding through it into him. His mouth was open and he drew in breath slowly from it. His eyes too were open, they could see, but they were lifeless. As lifeless as he looked.
“He is dying.” Nkem blurted in a sob.
“Do not say that!” The one beside her, a family friend, reproached. “Do not speak of death, lest you awaken it!”
“The process has started.” Nkem trembled as she stared down at his tiny frame strapped on the bed. “It cannot be stopped anymore. Even if I will… I cannot stop it.”
“You’re overwrought. This is not how your sister must find you.” The friend took her hand and urged her towards the door. “You need to pull yourself together. Be strong for her.”
Minutes passed. His breath became heavier, more laboured as it gasped out of his mouth. Then he entered, his father. He came over to his bedside.
“This should not be happening to you. Not you. I have failed… as a father. I have failed you.” Ifee raised his hand, then dropped it before it touched him. “My own son…” He hitched the strangled sob, turned and staggered out of the room.
Then she came in. She knelt beside his bed and took his small, feeble hand in hers.
“Jamuike!” Her moan was a hot breath upon his feverish forehead. Her hand tenderly scrubbed the sweat that coated over it, trembling as it did so. “I can feel you slipping through my hands. I can feel your life slipping away. And I…” Her voice broke, cracked in a ragged sob. “And I stand helpless. I am helpless. I am so helpless.”
He tried to move his mouth and call to her: ‘mummy, save me!’ But he could not speak. He was too feeble to. She stayed a moment longer. Then she too stumbled out, weeping into her hands. As soon as she was gone, he entered.
Nduka stood at the end of his bed, somewhat detached from him even when his gaze roamed over him.
“Death is always a burden. No one can pick its victim.” His voice was toneless, as detached as his stand away from the sick bed. “That is what you are, Jamuike, a victim.”
That was the last thing he heard. People would come and go, but he could no longer register the course of events. And just when he felt himself slipping beneath a heavy shadow, a form loomed over him from above. He blinked his eyes open and in the hovering shadow, a familiar face surfaced and a hand, one that has held him and nurtured him, floated down and pushed his eyelids close.
“THEY knew my life was about to be cut short. They snuffed it out of me.”
“No! This cannot be!” Shock forced the denial and shook her.
“They made me a victim of death. I want to know why. I want to know their reason for sacrificing me to death. And then, I will make them pay.” His eyes, staring head into the atmosphere, burned like flames.
He was dead. But his death would not go un-avenged.