I never had anyone close to me die before. When I was much younger and my mum used to travel to a market in another state, a journey that took the whole day, I’d sit outside and wait for her. I had a dread of her never coming back even though she made the same trip at least once every week. Each time though, I’d wait. And on days when she came back later than the usual 6 pm, my heart would take on a life of its own and beat really fast for the longest time.
Reading and hearing stories of people who died made me very conscious of death at a young age. The fact that deaths were always being announced in church did not help much or that my grandma who had come to live with us when she was sick had also died so my young self understood that death meant not coming back. As a child that scared me. And the most important person in my life at the time (and till now) was my mum. So sometimes I’d wake up at night to check whether her chest was still moving. Where other people would be upset that their mom snored for me it was proof of life and till today I have no problem sleeping in a room with someone who snores. I find it comforting.
By senior secondary school, I had gotten a handle on my fear. By then, there was a rash of parents’ deaths, two of my good friends were affected and I began to worry again. What if my mother died?
I have no idea how she realised what I was going through, maybe I said something or maybe it was my mum just being herself but she began to talk to us, my brother and I, about death. Till then I had never seen her cry over another’s death (and I still haven’t). I had seen her mad though, at needless deaths, at avoidable deaths. I had seen her sad as well. But tears, not once. (This is my mum who cried because my older brother was being difficult.)
Anyway, she began to talk about death. She would say things like she didn’t want an elaborate funeral and she wanted to be buried in her father’s house.
She would talk about how people abandoned their old for years only for them to die and throw a big flamboyant burial. She didn’t want that. Before she died, she wanted to have a big party, like a life ceremony where everyone she hadn’t seen in a while, family and friends, would come and they’d celebrate her while she was still alive. And when she died, no need for mortuary, just stick in her the ground, in her father’s house, of course.
And so little by little I began to come to terms with mortality. Over time, it became a fact: death was a part of life and was inevitable. So there was no need to agonise over it. Of course my over active imagination found new ways to compensate for this new switch. Now, instead of worrying about dying, I would think about ways to die. A constant one was falling off a moving okada and having my head squashed by a trailer. Macabre, I know. But as for being afraid of death? I wasn’t.
All this time, I didn’t have anyone really close to me die. I lost and uncle and an aunt, and it hurt in a ‘this is my blood relative way’ but I held up. Death was a part of life.
Then a year ago another aunt died. She was my second mother, a strong woman who had raised three kids and two grandkids. A rebel, like me. I loved her but I never told her in words. And I regret that. And for the first time in my life I knew grief. It took me by surprise, grief. Even a year later, thinking about her it’s like someone uprooting me from the floor and throwing me against a wall. Sometimes it’s like a sucker punch and I’ll physically suck in my guts and hold my breath.
Grief is a bitch.
My mother will die one day. I’m not afraid to think about it. But I am aware of what death does, the pain, the sorrow, the regrets, the what ifs. Just as death is a part of life, grief is a part of death and it never ends. It gets easier, it just never goes away.