I can remember vividly the first time Nneoma came to me to tell me about Chinedu. I remember because it was about 2 a.m and I was fast asleep in my room when the touch of a small, cold hand on my leg woke me up. I remember because Nneoma looked at me and the first words she spoke were
‘I saw Chinedu’
I remember because that day was exactly a month after my first child Chinedu and my husband Ukadike died in a car crash.
When Nneoma said those words, my first thought was to scold her and reprimand her for joking about such a painful issue. At that time, I was just beginning to think of Ukadike like a thousand times in a day which was a big improvement from the million times a day thinking of him. I looked at Nneoma and saw the pure honesty and innocence on her face, she did not look one bit scared instead she appeared a bit confused. I had told her after all that her daddy and her elder brother had gone to be with God and that she would never see them again. How else do you explain death to a six-year old? Deep down in me, I knew she would still ask about them with time. I just didn’t expect her to bring it up that soon. So, on seeing her looking serious and confused, I decided to explain it all over again to her.
‘Nne m,’ I called her by her pet name, lifted her gently onto the bed, and held her very close to me ‘where did you see Chinedu?’
‘In my room, just now. He woke me up.’ I could literally feel my heart wring in pain as tears came to my eyes.
‘Nne m, please….’, I started.
‘Mommy, I saw him. He’s still there. Come let me show you…’
She quickly jumped down from the bed dragging my arm. I followed her albeit reluctantly, and as we walked towards her room, part of me hoped and prayed desperately that he’ll be there, even though I knew that it was not possible. Fresh tears coursed down my face in thin rivulets as I watched the disappointment on Nneoma’s face when we got to the room and of course, Chinedu was not there.
‘But…but…’ she stammered unsure of what to say
‘Nne m…please…’ I begged desperately, trying as much as I could to speak but the pain was unbearable.
She looked at me, saw the tears on my face and her face fell. Her eyes still mirrored that confusion but this time around, there was a hint of sadness and helplessness there. Nneoma couldn’t bear seeing me cry especially when she thought that somehow, she was the cause of the tears.
‘Mommy, I’m sure I saw him…’ she started, now her voice didn’t sound so sure again. I slowly sat down on her bed and stretched my arms towards her. She walked into my arms and hugged me tightly.
‘Mommy, please don’t cry again. Ebezina oh?’
Sniffing noisily and trying as much as I could to hold back the tears for Nneoma’s sake, I started to explain all over again, the meaning of death, to my daughter.
‘Nne m, you know I told some time ago that Chinedu and daddy went on a long trip to a place called heaven.’
‘They’ve gone to be with God’, Nneoma murmured repeating exactly what I’d told her a few weeks back.
‘Yes. Heaven is such a nice place and they will be staying there for a very long time. We will never see them again’. I couldn’t help it as tears started flowing again.
Surprisingly, Nneoma did not ask me any questions. Maybe she was satisfied with the second explanation or maybe she just didn’t want to see me cry again. She kept quiet and only nodded when I asked her if she understood what I told her. I finally convinced myself that she was only hallucinating. Nneoma had been very close to Chinedu. In fact, they did virtually everything together. They’d never even been apart from each other until that fateful morning.
Ukadike and I had planned to travel to the village that weekend to see 62-year old mother who was just recovering from malaria. On that day, Nneoma started running temperature so she was rushed to the hospital. After tests and appropriate medication, I decided to stay back and look after her. Ukadike had the week off and he knew that if he cancelled the trip, he may not have the time to make it in a very long time so he decided to go with Chinedu. His mother had always complained that she never sees much of the children. I helped Ukadike to load the foodstuffs we’d bought for his mother into the car, kissed him goodbye and watched him drive out of our house and that was the last I saw or heard from him.
At first, I was not the least bit worried when he did not call me to inform me that he’d arrived and that all was well. Ukadike had always been somewhat on the forgetful side ever since I could tell. He’d forget things like locking up the doors at night or calling to say he’d be a bit late coming in, or even a date. Once he got engrossed in his work, he was apt to forget everything else. So after some time, I called his mobile phone and it was not reachable. Network issues I concluded for I knew that even if he was in the deepest part of the village, I could still speak with him, for his phone company had a wide network coverage.
I started getting worried when I tried his line at about 7pm and his phone was still not reachable, mind you, he was supposed to get to the village by 5pm. At about 8pm and still no news from him, I was almost at my wits end so I called his mother who informed me that Ukadike had not yet reached the village and that they were still waiting for him. That was when I really panicked. I was so confused that I started calling his brothers and friends, even those who were not aware of his plans for the weekend. At, about 11pm, my phone rang, I snatched the phone on the second ring
‘Hello, please am I speaking with Mrs. Okoye?, came the voice at the other end.
‘Yes? Who is this?’
I was speechless when I heard the news. The caller was a policeman who arrived at the scene of the accident when they got a call from one of the onlookers at the accident scene involving Ukadike’s car and a petrol tanker. At first, I thought it was a joke, though why I should think that, I had no idea. Then, I prayed it would be a mix up somehow. When I saw my husband’s mangled body lying on the cold slab at the hospital, I then prayed that I would wake up from the nightmare. His phone had been smashed but they were lucky enough to retrieve the SIM card.
The whole period had just drifted past like a hazy dream. All I could tell was that I cried till I thought I couldn’t cry anymore. I remember being surrounded all the time by friends, relations and of course, my mother. I also remember being so scared that my mother-in-law would not survive the ordeal but that one was a tough cookie. She was even the person who scolded me and ordered me to get myself together and look after Nneoma. The burial came and went and very soon, I was left alone in the house. That was when I started feeling the loss and the emptiness. That was also when Nneoma first saw Chinedu.
Weeks passed and I slowly forgot the whole incident with Nneoma. I even started picking up the pieces of my life slowly. I might have even overworked myself without knowing. It was three months after Ukadike’s death, that was when it happened again. I was asleep as usual when Nneoma’s voice woke me up again. This time around there was an urgency in her voice
‘Mommy teta! Wake up now!’, She shouted
‘What?’ I asked drowsily trying to shake sleep off of my eyes
‘Chinedu said you should call your doctor now before you lose the baby!!’
‘Chinedu?? I’ve told you….Wait! Which baby?’, I couldn’t help but ask.
‘Your baby!! Hurry mommy! Osiiso!’’She insisted
I sat up as soon as I saw the terrified look on Nneoma’s face and at the same time, I felt a sharp pain on my lower abdomen. I gripped my stomach in reflex and felt it before I saw it. The thick red blood.