She comes slowly from the bowels of the building, like one emerging from a trance. Her limbs are laden, so she stops, leaving her sister to walk on alone. She takes in a lungful of air, marveling at its wondrous smell – the smell of freedom, and of rain. She wraps her arms around herself, sorely aware of the strange lightness of her chest. She knows she will never get used to it. She is also aware of the hulking structure behind her, and of the menacing shadow it has cast permanently over her life. She knows she never wants to see that building again.
“Honey, I don’t know how long I can continue with this.”
She looked into his brown eyes, willing him to feel the desperation she felt.
“They cannot see me like this,” she cried.
“How can I keep lying to them? It gets harder with each day that passes, and I know they don’t believe me anymore. They’re six years old, but they’re not stupid. They keep asking…”
“Terry, I will not let them see me this way. And if they never see me again, at least their last memories of me would be as the Mummy they knew and loved. Not…not this.”
He lowered his eyes then, and for some bizarre reason she wanted him to look at her. With her hair gone, her eyes sunken deep in the black holes in her face, and her body emaciated, she wondered if he could still look at her and call her beautiful. She realized immediately how unfair that thought was to him. She couldn’t call herself beautiful.
What now seemed like ages ago, the firm where she’d worked as a PR executive had taken on a pharmaceutical company as a client. To promote a new line of women’s healthcare products, the firm had organized a breast cancer awareness campaign, complete with free mammograms for the participants. In the spirit of the campaign, she had, along with several of her female colleagues, taken the mammograms on a whim. She’d lost little sleep over the tests. Breast cancer was just one of those unfortunate things that only happened to other people.
She had either fallen into a vivid nightmare or had suddenly become ‘other people’ because she’d found herself at the Crichton Centre for Breast Cancer shortly after, clutching her mammogram results, sick with fear and with the hope that the results would be wrong. She had always admired Alade Crichton, the oncologist who had set up, and now ran the internationally acclaimed Crichton Centre, the first of its kind in Nigeria. She just never thought she’d become one of his patients. Sitting alone in the cold waiting room, she’d wanted to be anywhere else, but she’d forced herself to sit tight. She’d wanted indisputable results, and she’d known she would get them there.
The Crichton Centre’s biopsy had confirmed the mammogram results. Only then had she broken the news of her breast cancer to her husband. He’d taken her gently in his arms, and she’d drawn comfort from his strength and silence. No words could have comforted her. She’d lain staring at the ceiling all through that night, wondering why the tears would not come. She’d checked into the Crichton Centre soon after. It would come to be her home for a long time.
“So what do you think I should tell them?” He still wouldn’t look at her. She was tired.
“I don’t know. Just try and keep them distracted. I need you to handle them, while I do my best to handle this.”
He inhaled and started to say something, then thought better of it. The silence soon became stifling. He cleared his throat and finally looked at her, his eyes brooding.
“Are you…comfortable? Do you want me to get you anything?”
“You can get me out of here.”
He smiled a small smile. Even as she smiled back, she felt the ugliness she exuded. She stopped smiling.
“You’re the bravest person I know.” His voice was soft.
“Well, I feel like a coward.”
“You’re not,” he said simply.
She took his warm hand in her cold one and squeezed, anticipating the answering pressure from his hand that could always soothe her. It didn’t come.
“I’ll be…leaving for Rome on Thursday…. Business,” he said haltingly.
She nodded. They had long agreed that their lives would remain as normal as possible under the circumstances. She was suffering enough. There was no reason for his business to suffer too.
“I won’t be there long. I’ll come see you as soon as I get back.”
“Hey, do you think you could take the girls with you. It would help take their minds off my…absence.”
“Good idea. Sarah will come stay with you, right?”
He stood from the chair and bent to kiss her lightly on one cheek. Then he walked to the door and opened it. He turned to give her one last, lingering look. She wanted to call out to him and tell him how scared she was, and that the strength he thought he saw was merely a façade that was now wearing thin. She wanted him to take her in his arms and tell her that she was beautiful, and that everything would be fine, even though she’d know he’d be lying. She let him walk out. Lying there in her hospital bed, she felt an odd, wrenching sense of loss. But that was silly, she chided herself. He would return from Rome, and then he would come visit her.
He never did. She got a call from him three weeks later.
“I can’t take this anymore. It’s…it’s just so hard on me…on the girls….”
She’d been at the centre over five months now, and nobody had said it would get easier. She could hear the strain in his voice.
“It’s been hard on me too, Terry.”
“I know. And please, don’t get me wrong, I know you’ve suffered the most in all of this. But I just can’t handle it anymore. I need to leave…for my own sanity, for our girls.”
“You want a divorce.” She was surprised at how calm her voice sounded when all that was inside her was slowly disintegrating.
“Maybe just a…separation…for now. God, I don’t know, okay! I just need to…”
“To shed the dead weight that I’ve become.”
The silence dragged on.
“You don’t understand. This is killing me.” His voice sounded choked with tears. She steeled herself.
“Well, if it’s killing you, God only knows what it’s doing to me since I’m the one with the cancer.”
“Look, don’t try to explain or justify anything to me. I know well what this has turned me into, so I don’t completely blame you for wanting to get away. You have the right to be with a woman who’s not likely to lose her breasts anytime soon, if not die.”
She could hear the bitterness in her voice. He said nothing.
“As for the girls, you can tell them I’m dead. That way, you won’t have to do it again if I eventually die.”
She could hear him breathe, and she pictured him pacing like he did when he was nervous or uncomfortable.
“I think you should let them see you, Kelechi. What if the treatment fails? You may never see them again.”
“That is no longer your concern.”
“Well…um…okay. I just want to…assure you that I’ll keep taking care of the bills, so don’t worry…”
“That’s big of you, Terry.”
She was too tired to successfully pull off sarcasm. She heard him sigh.
“Kelechi, I love you. I still do. But I just cannot deal with this anymore. I’m sorry.”
“No, Terry. I’m the one who’s sorry – sorry I ever believed you were the man you pretended to be.”
There was only silence on the other end, and then a soft, clicking sound as he ended the call. Her hand trembled as she lowered the phone to the bedside table. Her insides hurt and her eyes burned. But her tears, they had a will of their own. They still would not come.
Kelechi looks up and sees that the sky is overcast. Her chest heaves and she is reminded of the weight she would never again feel there. The doctors had told her about the option of reconstructive surgery, but after ten painful months at the Crichton Centre, all she wants is to get out. She wonders how big her girls are now, and her arms ache with the longing to hold them again. Or maybe it is just the lingering pain from her surgeries.
They would be ecstatic to see her, she knows, and for a moment they would forget she was ever gone. When that moment passed, she would find a way to explain her absence, and the fact that she and Daddy are no longer one. But for now, it is the thought of that first moment that keeps her sane. She may have lost her husband – and gone from c-cup to no-cup – but she knows she has that moment to look forward to still. That, and a new life. She hears the crack of thunder above, and as if from miles away the voice of her sister, Sarah, warns her of the rain.
She raises her face to the sky, letting the first raindrops drown her tears.