A creative nonfiction about grieving.
Episodes of You by Taofeek Ọlálékan Ògúnpérí
SOME days before you quietly but painfully left me and all your other loved ones behind in this troubled world, a Facebook friend posted a writing prompt. “Write a sad story using only 3 words,” the meme read. “It was 2020,” I wrote. My comment soon became the only one with the highest reactions – two sad reactions, they are.
And indeed, Queen, it was 2020. It was 2020 that you passed on. We will never forget. I will never forget.
It was 2020 that I realized again more painfully, more deeply, the fragility of life and the transient nature of everything that inhabits planet Earth. I realized again, too, the importance of the littlest of things – as Danusha Lameris’s Small Kindnesses tenderly exposes. We are ephemeral, yet we have a chance to live well enough; and living well enough may be as simple as wearing a smile or just making a space for someone to sit. I believe that you knew this, that that was why you loved others like you might lose them, why you believed and smiled and joked and played and maintained a gracious pose each time.
COVID-19 robbed the world of all of its opium. It was a quiet, sickly world in 2020. It’s quite ironic that Nigeria used to talk about Vision 2020 before the importunate year. We had big dreams for us but when 2020 came, as you knew, instead of big dreams redefining our lives, it was a set of limitations woven around the most mundane of things that reworked our lives: the friendlessness of handshakes, the abhorrence of hugs, the ‘romancelessness’ of kisses; the expediency of distancing, the suspicion of coughs and sneezes – the necessary phobia for coming in contact with people and things, the whole time being unsure if you were a threat or the threatened.
More excruciating, dear Esther, was the dispersal of lovers and friends; the interminable empty spaces between them; the prominence of the virtual cages through which people had to see (though we both never got to see or talked for long, even though we would have loved to). And it’s especially most painful that it was in these novel traps that our world was that you had to leave. Just like that.
THE day you died, Thursday, 20 August 2020, my family had an addition. It was a moment with a personal history for me. A newborn is not a joy of their father or their mother only – there is a communal thing that people, within and without the family, tend to gain from seeing a new entrant in the world. The same way, there is a communal response that materialises when someone dies. To those who accept life as naked as the hairs on their mortal skins, there is a basic agony that clutches their hearts long after the immediate party of cries we all learn to hold over the dead. When someone dies, it does not matter whether they are close to the person or not, they just grief, however brief.
My grief was, for one, because I saw you up close but it was also because it dampened me that another sun set at dawn. And it was in these layers of darkness that I found myself on Sunday, 23 August 2020, and the subsequent days.
On that Thursday, in the complex process that my thoughts often undergo, I was at it again – conceited, making cases and conclusions in my head between closely and remotely related items. I had been ill for days, and with the new baby around, I decided to feign the absence of my pains, emotionally distant from the rest of my family. In my head, I was connecting dots on how some events in life are beyond our control and how we can only make a difference with our reactions to them. It was not within my control to tell the baby to stay some days more so that I could be well enough to welcome her but it was within my control, in spite of my ailing self, to be a “good” uncle and flash a smile for her as I met her for the first time.
As I was leaving the clinic, I made a WhatsApp post, perfectly written so no one knew where my writing originated, as I had done many times before. The post was like a random thought and something that would look “Taofeek as usual” to someone who viewed my beady WhatsApp statuses habitually. What I did not know, at that instant, was that you were somewhere dead or dying and I was writing myself some pacification in advance.
IT is amazing how, whenever I am unwell, I think about my writings as children about to be orphaned. I found myself wondering what would be said of these “babies,” how they will live (if they will live), how they will represent me (if they are supposed to, if they are forced to) or how I will be represented through them. One of the most difficult things about death is the acceptance of the disquieting physical absence that replaces the bold mattering of someone or something beloved and their space in an emotional-spiritual condominium.
It was Saturday, 22 August 2020. From what my illness made me think about (the representation of a dead artist with their works), I found myself wondering why it is that, in our clime, a dead person easily becomes a hero, or a “good person,” to put it more accurately, than a living person. I wondered why some people would never declare how they truly feel about another person until the person is dead. I wondered why it is difficult for some people to acknowledge that someone is a good person or that they are good at anything, that they mean anything to them or to the world until they are dead. Until the person is dead and they are haunted by their own minds. Perhaps, Anne Frank said it better: “Dead people receive more flowers than the living ones because regret is stronger than gratitude”. Later, I would realise, reflecting on our spell of a time together, that if I hadn’t told you that I missed you the last time we chatted I would have failed to make you understand that you mattered because you were.
My “clairvoyance” was, I supposed, at work again. I had openly worried about it only days earlier on my WhatsApp status. And here it was again, supposedly telling me that you were gone, that we had not said enough and would never be able to. This I knew only less than 24 hours after. Only shortly after I had sent a BC, on Sunday, 23 August 2020, to check up on the over 300 of you who were members of my class – Class of Transcendence – unbeknownst to me and to us all that we were less by one and more with grief. I was checking on the dead, I would know from a distress DM I received shortly after the BC was delivered, from your Facebook wall, from calling you tens and tens of times without hearing even a faint “hello” from you.
Esther, it felt like a dream but it was not a dream; I was only mired in what it meant to feel in me the heavy gathering of disbelief, of suddenness, of alarm, of a tint of dizziness, of a gush of tumbling thoughts and of a fantastic desperation to draw back and peg time to a safe past where you were hale and hearty. There was my silence, my heavy silence. And then, with that heaviness shattering my heart, my tablet almost slipping from my hands, I broke the one piece of sad news that I had always dreaded to the rest of the class. That instant, Olúwadámilọ́lá, had encomiums and lamentations meant to wake the dead, you would not have spent another minute in your grave after our course mates started speaking of and because of you.
TO mourn you, the class would have no birthday celebration in our groups. There would be no adverts; there would be nothing to break the sombreness. And so it was that Class of Transcendence, that class peopled by smart minds that could be very discursive, was ghostly quiet. The unease hung over the virtual social space where we had built our own peculiar things. Days before, we were joking, making small talks, some of us habitually talkative, the rest observing or not observing as usual. And you could have been part of “the rest,” like you used to; anyone would have thought you were. But you were not, and we did not know. You were somewhere living your last moments in pains.
Esther, I wanted to say that I AM SORRY. Yet, even at the thought of it, I felt guiltier. Guiltier that I at least missed a chance to be there in those hours that you might have needed to hear what you often told me. Guiltier that I was not there to say to you “we go dey alright” like you had repeatedly told me whenever I shared with you the struggles that I am faced with, the pains that tell on me and my worries for our world. If I had known, I would have tried to be as confident as you always were or even feigned, in speech and countenance, such rare confidence while returning some of the hope you had given me with your “we go dey alright”.
The week of mourning you flung itself before us, interminably wide and surreal. It felt like we were waiting for you impatiently at the dead end of an empty street, all of us looking forlorn but still peering down the lonely road as if you would emerge running back to us. Sunday hurried away, Monday scurried past, Tuesday rambled away, Wednesday whittled down, Thursday trailed off, Friday tumbled through, and then Saturday seeped out. Everything came to an end. Truly you were gone. It must be so, I thought, but I still had this part of me that still disbelieved, this part of me that said we were wrong. It was a small, stubborn, collected, and somewhat livid silence. It was so conservative, as if I had that sort of power to undo death through denial. I was in a rare trance the whole time.
SEPTEMBER began without your phone number on the WhatsApp group of the class. While the long silence ebbed, it left. It was poetic that it did, officially marking your exit. If the exit had not happened, I might not be brave enough to remove it (maybe another person might be). But maybe bravery is not always enough in life; perhaps, there are things that we can do only if we are cowards – things like refusing a show of strength where it amounts to nothing but a misnomer for temerity garbed with religiosity.
Either through bravery or cowardice, we had to move on. It was not because you were no more loved, it was because that was the way it was, and the way it is (and will always be) with this lapsing, stiffening world of ours. People die, people live, and memories remain. So in honour of the memories of you, episodes of you made with us, our class swiftly organised a condolence visit to your family. We went and we sympathised with the members of your family that we met. We wanted to stay some more time and meet your mother but she would not meet us; indeed, seeing us would remind her of you in ways that would prick her already deeply broken heart. So, we left. We left, not after having seen you go to your marital home, singing the Great Ife anthem for you, but after knowing without any iota of doubt that you were truly no more and buried some six feet below.
Esther, I know the face you made when something saddened you. It was this mix of expressions hemmed with worry that yet tilted towards hope for the better. So, dear Queen, as I end this, I return to the manifestations of “We go dey alright,” this expression that was never far from you. I return to the possibilities available to the breathing human, the explorations subsisted in the legacy of the deceased. I come off the promissory notes of this quip convinced that being “alright” is a momentous-momentary thing and the best moment to be “alright” is now because life is not a smooth sail and the next moment is not promised. In this journey of life, there are too many hills and few vales; travellers, such as you, seldom get to the destination they want to. More saddening, like you again, too many are even denied their “goodbyes”.
And what a word, Esther, that “goodbye” is. We may ask, what is “good” in a “bye”? There is hardly a “good” bye and, really, nothing good should be told “bye”. The world agrees, Esther. Only shortly after your death did it lose Chadwick Boseman to death too. Tributes came in from all corners of the world but no one has successfully talked or written mercy into the heart of death to undo its horror. You know, that is how death is; it will always have its day. But, in spite of it, we can have ours too. We just must know and live one thing: Every breath is a miraculous gift arriving just in time and whoever has some breath left in their chest should make the best of it because death is only a split second far away.
Taofeek Ọlálékan Ògúnpérí is a multiple award-winning student and writer. Taofeek studies Literature-in-English at the Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He is the author of a published collection of poems, Twisted Tongues and other forthcoming ones, including “Fourteen” and “Songs of the Tryst”. He can be contacted via email@example.com, and 08169896317 on WhatsApp.
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