Grief makes one oblivious to the loops they long unknotted especially if the grief is theirs to own.
Circa 12:53 AM, the morning is asleep and the road is still, except for the swaying of the trees and me, in a car, driving. I do not know exactly where I am, or rather I do not care. I let the Google map guide me home, its new Nigerian accent feature echoing out of my speaker, and I irritably think of it as silly, as though it were making a mockery of my grief, perhaps the grief Mama transcribed into me like some sort of computer language when she called months back. “Imana, Papa anwugokwa?” she said calmly before bursting into a loud wail as though she just learnt of my father’s death. Later, I will sit like a figurine at the reception in my office and wonder why I had joined her to cry. I’ve long unknotted them like strands of hair even though Mama keeps lingering like Ogbanje.
Grief drags a body through life like a tired goat being dragged to slaughter.
I text my lover, Kene, to let him know that I have gotten to Abia Tower. Kene says it is the only thing that is worth showing off in the whole of Abia State. I want to look out for ‘WELCOME TO ABIA; GOD’S OWN STATE’ but I do not. Kene calls to ask how many hours left before I get to Uli.
“I don’t know, maybe two or three hours,” I say reluctantly. Although I am staring at my phone, and on the left down side of the Google map, two hours, seventeen minutes is displayed.
“Okay bae. Stay safe,” Kene says.
“But I de miss you dieee.”
I get tired of hearing his voice and I drop the call on him. Later in Calabar, he will ask why I hung up on him, and I will sit at the edge of the bed, my head propped up in my palms, wondering how the voice that drew me to him would be so tiny and irritable in moments like this. It was this same voice that made me choose him over my colleague, Ebube, whose singsong voice felt like a joke.
It is 3:2I AM. I am at home, and still in my car. I gaze out unto home—plastic rubber chairs are set under the Ube tree that offers shade to our facade, the walls of our bungalow are still not plastered, the zinc appear rusted under the moonlight and some have come undone. I remember before I left home, Papa used to say that my senior brother would finish the work he had started. Who would have thought that years later, even on his burial day, that nothing would be done, not even a simple painting? Everyone perched in corners like birds, mourning, fighting sleep, staring at my car, and I presume they are wondering what an exquisite property is doing in a house that has failure embedded in its genes. I look at the spot where Papa used to enjoy staying and I imagine him sitting on his favourite white plastic seat, sucking a chewing stick while weighing the sins of every passer-by. That spot is now filled with people who have come to keep watch over his corpse while the night rocks in the arms of the local music that seems to occupy the air.
It’s close to twenty years since I left home. I am in my car still gazing out towards home, and the distance between where my car is parked and where my trauma was nurtured freeze. I resist the urge of driving out to book a hotel or driving back to Calabar entirely.
I alight and everyone stares at me curiously. I greet them and walk inside the house. Nothing has changed. The environment smells of penury, the T.V is still the same—I presume it no longer works and it’s there so we could be able to tick the box of families that own a television—the pictures are still the same, the seats fray in an irritable manner, the leaking roof, which now has left brown dots that seem to spread everywhere on the white ceiling. Nothing new, everything got worse. I shut my eyes tight trying to fight off the tears. What more could be worse than feeling like a stranger in your house? Mama runs out of her room, adjusting her wrapper, perhaps someone must have told her that I have arrived. She hugs me, caresses my cheeks and temples, shouting, “Nekene nu nwa m nwoke! Nekene nu nwa m nwoke ooo!” See my son, really? What changed? Mama is good at performing, you’ll think she makes her living from theatre art. We hug again, tighter and even longer, and for a moment we’re both crying, because realisation tugs the eyeballs until your regret is smeared with tears. I regret coming home. Although I can’t tell why Mama is crying, perhaps she’s performing or crying as a means of asking for forgiveness—we never apologize here, we do not say sorry, we apologize through our acts, like doing the laundry, cleaning the house, and doing the house chores without being asked to.
People troop towards me, some shaking my hands, some hugging and some dropping comments like ‘our child has grown oo.’ Mama drags me away from them. In her room she tells me to be careful, that these people are evil people and they do not want the progress of our family. “Just see how worse we’ve become,” she says.
“Thank God you made it to the wake. I’m sure it will soften his heart,” she adds as she beckons me to sit on her bed. She joins me on the bed and soon a young girl whom I think helps Mama out at home comes in with a bowl of Fufu and Okra Soup.
“You will eat before we have our family prayer,” Mama says.
Mama stares at me as I eat. She reaches out to pat my back and rub my cheeks. I look at her, and I see that she is blinking away her tears. Nostalgia becomes the air I breathe. I am drawn to my childhood and, again, I mourn and cry, not for Papa, but for her.
Soon, I find myself in her arms and we are both crying in the silent comfort of her room. Although I feel at home now that I am in her arms, I still want to bite into her neck and then ask her why or maybe push her away, screaming out all the things eating me up. But I do not. Instead I let my head rest on her shoulders while nostalgia fills me up.
* * *
When I was a boy, nothing made me happier than falling asleep beside Mama. Her body was the belly of a river, calm, cold, and peaceful. But there were also sad moments, like when I cried because Mama would not let me take her brightly coloured handbag to school. Papa and Mama both loved me dearly and I brought joy to them like sealed envelopes. They also looked forward to the end of the term—an opportunity to rub shoulders with parents who couldn’t afford to have a child that beats the rest of the class.
But love is such a morphing thing. I faded away from my parents’ eyes when they caught me behind the house knowing the arches of another boy’s body. I began to pray against the unnamed thing I felt for other boys, to hate how it clung to me, and once I stayed up late at night, tried hard to masturbate to pictures of well-clothed women I found in newspapers because Mama always censored the kind of newspapers I read, but eventually, nothing happened, and I gave up.
My brother drifted away from me, and Mama said God did too. And everything felt monotonous—pressing of the pocket money into my hands, handing over money to me for an errand. Just plain, without emotions.
I spent a greater part of growing up watching my brother become the perfect being in their eyes. Nothing he did felt bad, like staying out late, or refusing to do the house chores. The flaws all found their way back to me—why didn’t I make dinner for him to eat? Why didn’t I do the house chores for the sake of keeping things orderly?
My brother has not had a conversation with me since I arrived. We slip past each other like raindrops, we perform in public, rattling out only mono-syllabic words. It amazes me and pleases me that the boy who always bullied me, who treated me more like a house maid than a brother, would be shocked to silence. I imagine telling Kene about it and Kene shouting ‘money stops nonsense.’
Papa will be buried today and I’ve spent the few hours after the wake watching Mama as we receive more condolences. Memory hangs in the air, leaving its aftermath on my face. I am trying so hard to justify my actions but my conscience fails me. It is such a weak thing that mellows at the sight of Mama’s face.
We are sitting alone in the sitting room, and the side stool positioned in-between sofas is the only thing demarcating us as she talks about Papa; how he had promised to always be there for her, even on his sick bed. She begins to sob and I reach out to hold her hand, which now feels small and fragile.
“But what did we do to you?” she pulls her hand from my gentle grip. “Tell me! What?”
I try to speak but words fail me. I stand and Mama pulls the hem of my shirt. I reach out for her hand, caressing slowly the mole on her thumb, but she pulls my shirt tighter, probing for answers that I do not know where to begin answering.
“Aru! Abomination,” she spits on my face, and begins to wail again. My brother walks into the sitting room, he stares at me and I can see the blood pulsing through his face. I step aside as he pacifies Mama, and I am thrown back to the last time she called me an abomination: I was thirteen then, and Papa was taxed heavily at the Umunna meeting in order to undo the curse I brought to them.
We are sitting in the first pew of the church—my brother, Mama, and me, in that order. My brother and Mama are on shades, and they’re on matching white lace outfits, I on the other side, am wearing my old white senator. I have so harboured anger towards my family that I do not feel it is right to bother a tailor to make an outfit for Papa’s burial. I press Papa’s tribute to my chest. It is as thin as the weekly bulletins in church. I imagine someone flipping through it and nodding sadly, not for Papa but for the poverty dawned on his family. Papa’s body is in a casket placed in front of the altar, and I admire the gold spray embellishing its edges. As the priest anchors the mass, I do not pay attention to him. I am distracted by Papa’s casket and the state of the church—the three pews in the two rows of each side, the building only roofed with aluminium zinc, and the damp wood running below the zinc.
“Go forth, the mass is ended,” the priest says and we respond: “thanks be to God.” The choir of five women starts the dismissal hymn and we wait for the mass servers, the lay readers, the priest, and the undertakers to lead before we join the queue dancing down to our house where Papa would be buried. Mama is not dancing, she is sluggishly dragging her feet. Old women from the queue who have also stayed awake last night notice Mama. Some hold her hands and try to cheer her up telling her that Papa is in a good place. I help Mama carry her bag, so she can hold Papa’s picture firmly. She occasionally looks at it and then up to Papa’s casket propped on the shoulders of the undertakers dancing with it. I look at her and I know she is crying behind the shades masking her eyes. I walk up to the undertakers and tell them not to dance or throw Papa’s casket again and when I return to Mama, she presses my hand and says: “Well done.”
We arrive home and we are made to walk round Papa’s corpse in a room as a final homage to him. Mama and my brother are still on shades to mask their tears, even though Mama wailed later and my brother held her in his arms telling her that it was okay and that Papa was in heaven, a good place. I stare at Papa. It’s been years since I saw him last and his face still has the same rigidity as his mind, only that his body became thinner and paler. I do not touch his casket. I look away trying to fix my eyes on the flowers and decorations that adorn the room, but my eyes fail me and I look again, holding the edge of the casket, crying. My brother walks towards me, he places his hand above mine and for a moment I do not know what to make of it. I shut my eyes to hold the tears from flowing.
Papa’s body is being lowered into the ground. The choir is singing a hymn about rising and returning to God the Father. The priest calls my brother to give a final tribute to Papa and I watch him say all the things Papa wasn’t to me. He pours a heap of sand into his grave, Mama follows, and I do the same. Mama wails loudly and I reach out to hug her, whispering that I am here for her and would not leave again.
The day is fading into the night and people are trooping out of our compounds with smuggled drinks and food tied in black nylons. A man with dirty dreadlocks and torn clothes looses the canopies and packs the chairs. I am outside with Mama and I tell her that I need to get back to work and that I have an urgent business meeting the next day. She starts to cry again, both hands on her head. Then she says, “What do I have left in this world?” I reassure her again with a hug that I would visit often, drops wads of naira notes for her and my brother who for a while has been standing at the entrance of the house, pretending to be busy with his phone. I stand and give Mama a hug, later I would hug him as I walk into the house. Mama follows me to my car. She prays for me and then asks if I am still a homosexual. I tell her no, forcefully close the door of my car and drive out.
I’m driving out of Uli, distracting myself from crying by singing along to the music jamming out of my car stereo. The man on dirty dreadlocks runs after my car and I stop. He speaks something incoherent while raising his hands at me. I think he is dumb and I roll down my screen and press a thousand naira note into his palm. He waves at me as I drive off.
My playlist is on shuffle and soon Monsters by James Blunt comes on. It gets to the chorus and I find myself weeping again. I’m thinking now that James Blunt captures my emotions well in the chorus—I’m not your son, you’re not my father / We’re just two grown men saying goodbye / No need to forgive, no need to forget…
The chorus makes me feel better. It whispers to my soul to keep the people I’ve unknotted from my life away, no need to forgive, no need to buy pity, no need to knot them back into it. I’m singing along now, smiling and speeding on the highway.
I put the song on repeat and let it get the best part of me.
Ugochukwu Damian Okpara, Nigerian writer & Poet, is the author of the poetry chapbook, I Know the Origin of My Tremor (Sundress Publications, 2021). He is an alumnus of the SprinNG Fellowship, and Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop held annually by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. His works appear in African writer, Barren Magazine, The Penn Review, 20.35 Africa, and elsewhere. In 2019, Ugochukwu was the 1st Runner Up in the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize. He was also a Contributory Interviewer for Poetry at Africa in Dialogue.