You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change.
— Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
When my friend Chika Idam knocked on my door today, my late husband was speaking from his portrait hanging in the dining hall. In fact, he had just told me “I miss us” before Chika’s knock interrupted him. One might think I am crazy, this act of speaking with the dead, but it is true; I hear all the things my husband says from his portrait. I write them down in a hardcover notebook as I fear he might never visit again, just the way he left surprisingly, and without the notebook, these visits would become a collection of memories I failed to save.
My husband started speaking to me one Monday morning, just two months after he died from an armed robbery attack in the bank where he went to withdraw money. On that Monday morning, the Academic Staff Union of Universities had declared a salary strike at the state university where I teach pharmaceutical science. It seemed my husband had always been waiting for me, and the strike gave me the opportunity to go home early and meet him. When I got home, I felt an intense urge to air his stockings. I kept his stockings, just like I kept his shaving sticks and toothbrush, because I imagined he would walk in one day and strengthen my upended world.
So, as I was separating the old, grey socks from the new ones that still had their labels attached, I discovered a small white folder that contained his passport photographs. These were old pictures he took nine years ago when he was searching for a job, obeying all those things people did when preparing for interviews: shaving his head so he would look neat, wearing fake glasses so he would look smart.
The pictures almost made me cry as I gently cleaned off the powder he had put on them to prevent them from sticking together. I blinked severally so I could hold in my tears as his large eyes stared back at me from the framed glasses. That was when I heard him say in a gentle tone, “Dulling.”
Dulling was our teasing word. Dulling was the word we learnt one evening, in one of those hotels near Obudu Mountain Resort where we had stayed for our honeymoon. A girl with long eyelashes had walked past Okoloma on the stairs and said “dulling” on the phone.
I did not scream when I heard his voice. Rather, I felt within my body, my entire being vibrating. I enlarged one of the passport photographs in a photo studio, and the following day, I hung it on the wall facing the dining hall. I began sitting at the dining table at the time the kids in other flats were at school and my neighbors were at work, because Okoloma loves coming when the compound is quiet. He speaks from the portrait starting with, “Dulling.” He hardly speaks to me on weekends when the compound is heavy with the noise of neighbors.
Before Chika’s knock interrupted our conversation, my husband and I were talking about food. I told him I ate eba with vegetable soup for breakfast, but I had to drink two cups of coffee so I would not fall asleep. When I asked him how he managed to stay awake after eating such heavy food, he laughed. My husband loved having eba for breakfast.
“I hope Chinyere does not follow you to eat eba before she falls asleep in class?” he asked. I did not tell him I did the things he loved doing when he was alive, because I worried it would make him feel lonely. I did not tell him that I stood at the veranda every evening while neighbors came back from work, waiting to see his Toyota Camry drive into the compound. Or that I imagined our daughter shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!” from the veranda, the way she usually had, before running downstairs to meet him. Whenever our daughter asks about him, I usually say he has gone to heaven. “When are we going to meet him?” she responds in that tiny voice of hers. I keep quiet and watch her innocent face every time, wondering if children could ever understand the concept of death.
“I miss you,” I said to my husband. “Do you miss me?” Do you miss us?” How lonely he must be in that other world: new and without us.
“I love you,” he said in a trembling voice. “I miss us.”
It was then Chika knocked on my door. Three rasped knocks that interrupted our conversation. Then, I did not know it was Chika. I stared at the door for a few minutes, hoping the person would go. I thought it might be one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they were never allowed into any of the flats. They only stayed with the gateman, preaching and giving him their magazines he never read.
“Who is that?” I screamed. “Who?”
“It is me o, Chika.”
I stared at Okoloma’s portrait before I trotted to the living room to open the door. Okoloma never speaks to me whenever someone is around or whenever there is a noise outside the house. I have to wait for the house or compound to become quiet before I hear his voice.
Chika walked past me, smelling of sweat. She looked shabby with her dense and tangled hair and tired face. I was surprised to see her. We last saw each other on the day our husbands died. Perhaps the art of performing mourning, this act of telling and retelling our husbands’ death to friends and relatives had forged our minds and made us forget to call each other.
“Idam’s family would not let me rest,” she said as she sat on the rug and rested her back on the sofa. Her voice sounded hoarse. I was bewildered by how she started the conversation. She spoke as if we were continuing from where we stopped the last time we spoke to each other. That was two months ago, on the Saturday our husbands died.
“Do you know?” she said, clapping her hands in that way people do whenever they want to say something unbelievable. She told the story of how Idam’s mother came to her house with her town’s women. They were dressed in white wrappers, holding fresh green leaves, and chanting war songs as they banged on her gate. “It was so funny,” she said, laughing. Her laughter sounded like a cough. She crossed her stretched out legs. They almost touched the center table.
“They even came with a witch doctor,” she added, “those useless people. The witch doctor was making incantations, shaking a white cock. I’m sure it will be on the Internet now. People were videoing the whole thing. Ima, he slaughtered the cock and sprinkled the blood on my locked gate. He poured curses on me: that thunder would strike me dead and maggots would eat my body if I didn’t give them what belonged to their son. I just watched the whole thing from my veranda.” She paused and chewed her lower lip, then shook her head.
“Tell me,” she continued, “did we not buy the car together? Was it not from our joint account we were able to buy the car and build our house? And after Idam lost his job at the bank, was it not from my salary we were sending money to his relatives who were always asking, ‘give me this. We want this.’” She slapped her thighs and hummed.
I stood up to open the curtain and let in air. Dust motes trailed the beam of sunlight that filtered through the window. I like keeping the house dark whenever I speak with my husband.
When I sat back, I wondered if people told Chika the same thing they told me when they heard of my husband’s death: hide his important documents, even the car documents. Take his ATM card and withdraw all his money before his family comes for it. The ATM is important, very important. They had meant well, my friends who cared, friends who knew what hungry relatives did to widows: taking what they believed their son or brother owned. They knew what lay ahead after the burial was more important than the mourning. But there was no need for me to do that. Okoloma’s family members are comfortable: his immediate brother and sister stay abroad, his retired parents live in his hometown and wrote articles for the local newspaper. In the early weeks of my husband’s death, his parents took my daughter away because I scared her with my screams whenever she asked why daddy stopped coming home.
Looking back now, I realize that death, too, comes with privilege. Chika had married into a family where they depended on their only son who had gone to school. Now they had come to claim what they thought he owned. But it is Chika’s strength that surprised me. Chika had been timid and socially awkward in school. I would not have befriended her in the university if it weren’t that we came from the same secondary school, were then in the same department. It is as though the death of her husband had unmasked her inner power. Gentle was what Okoloma used to call Chika when we were undergraduates. “That gentle friend of yours does not want to accept my friend’s proposal,” he would say. We had married the two men we met at the general studies center in our first year when we had gone late for the Use of English lecture after our practical class.
I watched Chika splay her hands on the rug, massaging and pulling at its hair.
“Do you know it was on a Saturday they left us?” I did not intend to say that. It was as though remembering our past lives had shocked my reality, made me realize how short our happy lives had been.
Grief, I have come to learn, is a time travel of immersing ourselves in the memory of loved ones; a painful memory that drains us and makes breathing hard. In the early weeks of Okoloma’s death, grief became a huge mirror that played past memories: memories of those holidays my husband and I played cards and watched cartoons with our daughter in the living room. Memories of those weekends I was so busy grading students’ papers or working on research that I never bothered joining Okoloma to play with our daughter because I thought there was enough time. But there was never enough time.
Grief in those early weeks of my husband’s death tormented me with guilt. I would scream at relatives who had come to console me. I would lock myself in my room for hours, inhaling Okoloma’s pajamas that held the scent of lemon fragrance and his sweat. “You will heal after the burial,” a relative would bang on the door. “Did you hear me? You will heal after the burial. Now open this door and come and eat.”
But it was a lie. Days after my husband’s burial, grief would come to mock me in the middle of my eating or reading, and I would burst out in tears. But I waved grief a long goodbye when Okoloma started speaking to me. These days, I no longer feel body pains or the heaviness on my chest or the hopelessness of life. I speak to people with excitement and I do not care about their surprised faces.
When Chika said, “My sister, it was on a Saturday o,” she shut her eyes immediately. I felt she might cry. Or, perhaps, she had gone back to that Saturday afternoon she and her husband arrived at our house. Minutes later, after our husbands left the house for a friend’s wedding, someone called me using Okoloma’s phone. He shouted: “Come to First Bank at Waterworks Road! Your husband has died in an operation! Come now!”
“How funny,” Chika had said that afternoon, “that people who are well fed would suddenly be operated on.” We laughed, confused by the call, but still deciding to go to the bank to retrieve the phone. After I had given my daughter Ribena juice at a neighbor’s flat where she was braiding her hair, we left in Chika’s car. I remember clearly now, seeing my husband’s car parked in front of the bank, its silvery color glinting in the scorching sun. The opened doors had surprised us. Chika screamed when she saw her husband’s body lying still on the ground, beside Okoloma’s car, his hands stretched out, one of his legs in the gutter. The red blood on his back had spread all over the white senator suit he was wearing, the dress that would have been the uniform for the groom’s friends. My heart slammed against my chest when I saw Okoloma’s body inside the compound of the bank with other bodies littering the floor. He looked asleep in that calm way his face was, blood running from his forehead where he was shot.
Everything had happened so fast that day: the ambulance staff forcefully wrenching Okoloma’s body from my tight hug, Chika chasing after the ambulance when it drove out of the compound, her hands flailing in the air, people shouting as they chased after Chika, to stop her from running into the busy road.
“We rushed in to help after the robbers left,” the man who called with my husband’s phone said to me. “We had to search the dead ones for their phones to trace their relatives. I saw ‘my wife’ on his phone and called it.” I stared at him, this man with a pimple-ridden face. I nodded as he spoke, trying to understand what he was saying, what was going on. My body was cold.
“You should know that Nigerians call an armed robbery ‘operation’! You should know it is not one of your medical terms!” An angry aunt had once shouted at me, her voice full of annoyance, as though she was tired of me repeating the same story and questions to people on why that man called a robbery attack an operation. Perhaps, I still think, if he had said armed robbery, we would have rushed down and saved them from bleeding. Okoloma would still be alive.
“You know,” I said to Chika as I adjusted on the sofa, “Okoloma still speaks to me.” I had expected her to laugh or say I had gone mad thinking too much of Okoloma. To be honest, if she had said that, I would have ended our friendship right there. But she smiled. A mischievous smile that said she believed. I was grateful she understood, unlike my relatives who spoke about my husband in past tense instead of present tense. These relatives whisper my husband’s name as though he is consecrated. I never understood why people choose to speak of dead people in whispers. They never fade away. They do speak to us if we listen to their voices that hover around, waiting for us to open our ears to them.
“Idam comes to visit me whenever I close my eyes to sleep,” Chika said, leaning forward to tell me her secret. “Ima, he stills moans with Igbo words. We had sex early this morning.” She curled her fingers into a tight fist. “His penis is still strong,” she said, raising her fist up and making it look tight.
“That man,” she added, “he still knows how to do it.”
“Okoloma is still speaking English with his American accent,” I said. “We are taking everything slow. You know, the foreign style.”
Chika rolled her eyes. I laughed.
Later, as Chika lay on the rug, sleeping, a smile lingered on her face. I knew Idam had come to her. How lucky we were that we could find a way to escape that cruel thing called grief. I left Chika in the living room and went to the dining table with the hope that Okoloma would say dulling again, and we would continue our conversation. He loves being formal with things. That man.
© Chibuike Ogbonnaya
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Chibuike’s interview]