Death was around. The atmosphere had become cheerless as the mortuary. Silence took preeminence like we do witness during daily mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church. The day wore a mournful look and the whole thing looked as clammy as death itself.
I was fifteen but Mma had always told me about this day. I got the grip from her proverbial tales of how the unseen ancestral spirits will come and slowly take her life. She had told me that her body would first become weakened and gradually she would take her last breath. I was so inquisitive, and I disturbed Mma with many questions which she gleefully answered.
She talked about death as though it’s nothing.
I remember when I was ten; Mma took me with her to the funeral service held for Mrs. Cecelia Akpan- at Uyo Catholic Dioceses. Late Mrs. Akpan was the only close friend I could identify with Mma and she told me her bosom friend had been suffering from a severe heart disease before she eventually died. But the mass service we had at St. Patrick before her funeral, Father Nathaniel had told the congregation that Mrs. Akpan died after a brief illness. So did the obituary posters pasted all around Uyo town. When I asked Mma how come, she told me yes, although the disease was a severe type, it was brief. Mrs. Akpan died two months after she was diagnosed.
During that funeral service, everybody was wailing in tears, but Mma seemed to be indifferent. I didn’t cry too because she didn’t. And while we were walking home, I raised my head at Mma and asked why everybody wept that much, yet a drop didn’t fall from her eyes. She smiled because she knew I was going to ask. Then, she patted my head and answered, that, whenever our loved ones die, we must always take solace in the fact that their life is eternal.
‘How?’ My tiny-stern voice queried. Then, she told me about the life after death. It is one that has no sorrow. And the departed spirits rest in everlasting peace. Therefore, there was no need not cry for her dear friend who had gone to enjoy an eternal peace. Those people were crying because they thought they would neither see nor hear her again. But when you pay a keen attention to your mind you’ll hear the voice of the dead. Mma assured me.
Mma stopped. She stooped and looked into my eyes, “will you cry when I die?” she asked in a serious tone.
“N-o” I shook my head, smiling. And she smiled back.
Now, Mma was actually dying. For almost five hours she had been lying motionless like a corpse on her wooden bed. Her eyes were opened but I doubt if they were in use. I sat on the stool by her bed, and I had her right palm in my hands- rubbing it compassionately.
I had called her name ‘Mma’ severally, no response. I had woken early to prepare a light-food so she could use to take her drugs- the ones Dr. Ofuyah told me to get when he came to check on her a day before. Still, Mma had neither opened her mouth to talk nor eat. Then, I noticed saliva foamy up at the corner of her mouth. And I sensed the sudden coldness of her palm in my hands. My heart began to palpitate and my body shivered.
“Mma!” Unsure of what to do, I almost let out a scream. But no I won’t cry. No I won’t.
The telephone rang from the sitting room. And slowly, I returned her hand, placing it by her side and rushed to answer the call.
It was Dr. Ofuyah. He had called to ask if Mma had taken her drugs. Then I told him how critical her case seemed to have become. He rang off and said he was going to be on his way immediately.
I returned the telephone inside its box and when I turned to return to Mma’s room, I saw my father and my mother again. They were still holding each other tightly and were smiling in the golden photo-frame hung near the wooden photo-frame of Holy-Mary-Mother-of-God. The caption was there too, ‘Lisa weds Effiong.’
Effiong, Mma’s son was a merchant banker in Kano who was returning home to witness the birthing of their first daughter after five years that his wife Lisa had been hoping for the fruit of the womb. He had telephoned home the day Lisa put to bed and over joyous Effiong joined the train going to Uyo the next day.
Five days after, that Mma had been waiting to see her son and her daughter-in-law longing to behold the face of the father of her child and the new baby crying to be hushed by a fatherly kiss- they brought them the news. Two men from the Town-Council office had come to report the death of a merchant banker identified as Mr. Effiong Ekanem. Their train went off rail along the Lokoja railway.
Lisa went into a shock and she never returned.
Mma had kept all moments alive in a way that I grew up with my late parents. Mma made me know them so well and of course I do speak with them- through the mind.
I have grown under the tutelage, love and care of my sexagenarian grandma. She had taught me how to cope with the toughest time of life even when she or anyone wouldn’t be there to assist. Mma was a seasoned educationist who retired a few months ago as the principal of Federal Girls College Uyo where I just completed my secondary education too. And since then, she had been feeling sick.
I maintained a gaze at my parent’s photo, then I also looked at Holy-Mary-Mother-of-God. I touched my forehead, and to my chest to make the sign of the cross and I opened my mind to speak to them.
‘Papa, mama, Holy-Mary please Mma is all I have. I still need her physical presence.’
I heard knocks at the door. I rushed at the doorknob and it was Dr. Ofuyah.
“Stella, what did you say is wrong?” Dr. Ofuyah closed the door and asked as I led him inside Mma’s room.
Hurriedly, he dropped his bag by Mma’s bed and leaned forward to place his right ear on Mma’s left breast. After a few seconds he took his head off her body and shook it. And while he brought out his stethoscope from his bag, he looked at me sympathetically. Then, he gently placed the chest-piece on her chest and he tucked the earpiece in his ears.
He removed the earpiece and sighed. Then, he used his hand to wipe Mma’s face and covered it with the bed cloth. He returned his stethoscope and picked up his bag. He looked at me again and he held my hand and walked me out of the room.
“Stella, I need you to be strong ok?” He said and I nodded with my lips tucked in. Then I asked “is Mma dead?”
He looked at me, unsure of how to respond. Then he patted my back and said “errm no, Mma is just resting. But you’ll give me a few minutes to rush to the clinic and call for the ambulance ok?”
I nodded yes and I walked him to the door.
I had closed the door but I stood there resting my head on the doorknob- thinking. I wasn’t crying but I saw tears dropping.
Suddenly…… the sneezing came twice. I heard it from Mma’s room.
Quickly I raised my head, turned and rushed inside.
“Stella where’s my food?….And why are you crying?”
I looked at Mma. She was still there lying the way I had left her. Then I wiped my face and I knew Mma had just spoken through her mind.