He died twenty-three days ago and today was his funeral.
So many people have come. He had been that popular and that well-loved.
His mother was wailing. I could hear the loud, piteous cries from outside the window of the room where I was kept. He had been her only son, her most priced jewel.
She wasn’t the only one crying; his sisters too were; his uncles and aunts, with his innumerable cousins, they too were crying. Crying, not wailing like Mama. Somehow their grief had a measure of self-restraint. No one consoled the other. No one from the teeming number of family members. They were all the chief-mourners; none was more aggrieved than the other. They had all lost a priceless, irreplaceable gem.
I wasn’t wailing. Not in Mama’s way.
I wasn’t crying, not in the restrained relatives’ way.
But the glistening of tears covered my eyes and blurred my vision as I stared straight ahead in that small mourning room that was provided me in his parents’ home. It was just his mother’s home now as his father had passed over a decade ago. I sniffed, intermittently, and blew my nose into the ragged, green face-towel I held crumpled in my hand. It had belonged to him. It is odd how now it dried my tears and bore the burden of the phlegm that came from my nostrils.
I heard the sound of a snuffle close to me and I added my own, dragging mine out as I blew my nose noisily. One must not mourn more than the bereaved—that was the saying of our people. The one bereft must cry loudest, sniff more and moan more miserably at the loss of their loved one. But some wanted to compete with the true mourners. They would cry longer than you and sniffle repeatedly as if the loss was personally their own.
The term I have recently coined for their gratuitous display of grief. I did not consider sane thought something a bereft person was capable of until I became a widow and the long days and quiet nights provided the hours I seemed to have lacked for reflection. He was gone and suddenly I could think, and for myself. He was gone and for the first time in years, my thoughts were not prompted by another person and they were not rebuffed even before they were fully formed. I spent hours in thought; there was little else I could do sitting on the mat laid out for my mourning.
My thoughts journeyed from the past to the present and then travelled far into the future. What was will be no more. What is will change as each new day dawned. What will become swirled with its waves of uncertainty and possibilities.
My life has changed. He was dead, and without warning, my life was changed. The change still stunned and bewildered me. The change still shook and overwhelmed me. The change was still yet indefinable. It was not yet clear what it will be, but it has come and it will never go away. Not to the past, at least.
The rustle of a rising body pulled me from my pondering. I blinked and a tear dropped as I raised my head to focus on my mourning partner. She wasn’t really a partner; we were not co-wives, or even co-widows. She was only assigned to keep watch over me and console me when I grieved too hard. Tradition, no one can escape it. I did not need her and something told me, she did not wish to be constantly imprisoned and punished just because I had lost my husband. But it was tradition and duty, so neither she nor I could violate it.
“Time to pay your last respect to him.” She said.
Her voice was raspy from her crying. She too was a cousin; three times removed, I think.
I said nothing. A response wasn’t expected as talking lessened the depth of one’s grief. The only kind of speech expected of me was the wailing words that accompanied the loud, rather dramatic, howls of grief. Any other kind should be low-toned mutters of request to do the natural and inevitable.
She led me out to a white decorated room that had until the night before been the living room where visitors were welcomed and entertained. There were people there now but they were not visitors, not today. Today, at his funeral, everyone was a mourner, none was a guest.
“Honour him for the last time.” My mourning partner instructed, nudging me forward towards the casket that was set on a white lace decorated table and left open.
His coffin was black, I noted even as I stepped forward with heavy, grief-laden steps. I thought it apt. Black was his favourite colour. And even more apt, he was dressed in a black suit. I knew the suit. It was one he’d worn on our wedding day two years and three months ago. They hadn’t asked my opinion on what he should be worn for his interment and they hadn’t asked where they could find the suit. They hadn’t needed to; they now kept the keys to our flat in the city. Everything that was his was now theirs. A wife had nothing acceded to her when she lost her husband, except the change in title. And for that change in title, she was expected to mourn a full year, at the very least.
I looked at him. Through the blur of my tears, I could see him. He did not look like himself. Once he was tall and big and vibrant. Today, on the silky white bed of the black coffin, he looked shrunken, small and lifeless. He was indeed dead. The realisation hit me, afresh, and it brought a wail, high-pitched and drawn, through my lips.
A single cry that earned many grunted sounds of consolation, some even of approval, at the reverent show of grief.
He was indeed gone. My husband was gone. My marriage has ended. My lips trembled and shuddered against each other as my wails dropped to groans and soundless cries. I looked at him. I did not touch him. That was not expected and would probably be rebuffed.
I looked at his face. It was blank, without expression. But I saw, in fast-moving succession, the different expressions his face had worn in the two years and three months of our marriage. I saw myself seeing those expressions and cringing visibly before them. I would never again have to cringe, not before those dreaded expressions.
I moved my gaze to his mouth and remembered his kisses. Passionless and brutal. I bit my lips and sniffled because the future before me would spare me those silently-endured kisses.
My reverential gaze of grief swept over to his hands. These were the hands that struck me, each in turn, against the cheek and when clenched into fists, dealt me blows for having unwittingly erred. These hands, constricted around my neck, had nearly snuffed the life out of me one Sunday morning exactly a year after our wedding day and all because I had allowed his cousin, a younger male, to hug me in church that day. After today, when they would be swallowed up by the already six feet deep dug earth with the rest of his body, they would never again return to chastise me with physical pain.
No part of him—not the mouth that viciously kissed and hatefully cursed me, not the hands that brutally and repeatedly struck me, not the feet that rammed into my sides or back when his hands were not enough to do the job and not his manhood which he plunged into me, without affection or passion, to satisfy his God-given husband right—none of them would ever again possess the power and the right to bring me pain.
I was free.
Two years of sorrow, anguish and regret, and finally, I was free. The future before me was uncertain but in its uncertainty, there lay too many possibilities. I placed my hand against the child that was warm and unseeingly present in my womb, and allowed the last of my reverential tears to fall.
Then I turned and walked, with my child, into that future.