It was a shocker and a devastating blow. It left me stunned for days unending. That was after my tear glands refused me more than was my due. I cried and cried until my eyes were swollen, until every nerve on my face was sore. Never had I felt the kind of ache I felt at the passing of my beloved cousin.
Like a joke it was at first, but not long after, reality crept in like a monster. Akpan was the happy Archibong, who played to his heart’s content one minute and was downcast the next, and though he had withdrawn lately, acting strangely and all, he should never be lying stone-cold dead in some filthy mortuary!
It had started on the Friday Uncle Peter had travelled to Enugu with his boss to make some supplies. He left with the promise of returning in a week, the prospects of the new car still hanging unspoken in the air. I had stopped my sales as December crept in, and owing to the profligate manner with which my uncle handled his cheques, there was just enough money in the house to feed us till he got back from Enugu—my vex money had been well tucked away in granny Miriam’s empty house at Orok.
The rains had ceased, and with the harmattan came cold, catarrh and fever. People practically said there was something ominous about that year’s harmattan.
Akpan had complained of cold before he went to bed that night.
‘Don’t worry your little head.’ I told him. ‘Go get me your jacket and trousers.’
I had dressed him as best I could, making sure he was properly covered so the roving hamattan breeze would have little or no effects on him. I did the same for Etuk and Iniabasi. Ete was nestled safely in his mother’s bosom.
I had gone to bed, with scenes from the university, parading my dreams. The night was cold. I was cold.
Early the next morning, Etuk had come running to me in the kitchen.
‘Aunty Ima, aunty Ima . . .’ she was breathless. I could see stark naked fear in her eyes.
‘Etuk what is it?’ I asked already infected with her fear.
Without saying a word, she clamped clammy hands over my left wrist and half dragging me along, raced back to her room. I saw Iniabasi crying by the doorway. We ran in.
Nothing prepared me for what I saw; not the schooling, not the lessons I had learnt from the market women, not the reverends teachings in church, and not even common sense!
Because it made no sense!
It was unlike anything I had seen in all of my nineteen years on earth. It ripped my heart with fear and made my head a meeting place for madmen.
‘Jesus! Akpan! Akpan!! Jesus!’ My first reaction was a mad scream. Something in me loosened the instant I screamed my cousin’s name, and the next thing I did surprised even me.
Lying on the bed, the whites of his eyes bulged out like two white eggs, was my Akpan. His body was vibrating in an uncontrollable spasm, his fingers and toes gave violent, intervallic jerks. Without thinking, I rushed him into my arms and I ran.
There was just me and him, no one else, nothing else mattered. I did not see aunty Mmaete come into the room, neither did I hear her screams.
The world was quiet.
I ran like I had never ran, pushing past his mother, racing out the already open door. The ten year old was weightless before my determined steps. I took the stairs three at a time. No Okada would have been faster than I was.
I let my feet decide his fate.
I ran, with every muscle. I ran, with every tendon that was housed within my skin, and I prayed, like I had never. My gaze held the heavens as I flew by dirt roads and onto poorly tarred macadam’s. If there was anytime I needed a miracle most, it was then.
The world was eerily silent as I flew past the streets. Through Academy Street, past Chamberly I ran. Onwards through Goldie and Ndidem Usang and onto Bateba Street I ran. I ran until I stood breathless before the yellow buildings of the Calabar General Hospital. I felt a dizzy spell wash over me, but pushed it aside as I ran into the waiting area in search of a doctor.
If ever there was a time I hoped for anything, it was then, and I wasted no time in short changing myself. I prayed and hoped.
The noise came rushing back into my ears all at once; the temporary quiet gave way to the harsh noises of the hospital wards. I rushed on blindly with the boy still in my arms.
‘Please . . . doc—doctor.’ I panted.
Two idle nurses ran my way and lifted the boy from my tired arms. I let go of him, but only after they practically pried him off my grasp. I walked with them as they lay him on an empty bed. One of the nurses ran ahead to get a doctor. Akpan lay still, his seizures and frenzied jerks had seized. His eyes still stared wide open. Up ahead, a middle aged doctor hurried along with the same nurse following closely on his heels.
‘Doctor . . .’ I pointed frantically at the boy. My whole body was on fire, not from the race I had ran but from the fear of the obvious. I sat down on the floor by the bed until a nurse came and held me up. I paced back and forth the length of the hospital bed.
‘Doctor!’ I screamed, seeing the man had stopped on his way to give instructions to another nurse.
‘Doctor!’ I called to him again. He ignored me, taking his time. Another nurse ran to him and said something to him. He turned abruptly and ran back the way he had come. I ran after him but soon lost him in the maze of offices housed in the huge hospital structure. I started knocking, and rushing into different offices looking for the doctor. Any doctor. But the offices were for either account clerks or senior nurses, matrons. They politely asked me out. Depressed, my head hanging on my chest I made my way back to the ward were Akpan lay. I resumed pacing, pleading with the nurses to give him first aid, anything to make him move or shake a limb. They came to calm me instead and said to be patient, the doctor was on his way. The Governor’s son had just been rushed in and he had to be attended to ASAP—an order from above.
The governor’s son my foot!
While my brother breathed his last! Weren’t they any more doctors in the premises? I asked. They all had been detailed to attend to the Governor’s son.
The Governor’s son.
I wanted to hit my head against the wall. I wanted to scream unfair.
I sat by Akpan’s bedside and bit hard into my nails, hurting them until they bled. I stood up again and paced.
I stopped, stooped over him and felt his neck.
He was cold.
‘Where is the doctor for god’s sake!’ I screamed at the top of my voice, startling the agitated nurses. A bloated charcoal-skinned nurse, whom I guessed was matron in the emergency ward turned to me and threatened to throw me out of the ward if I didn’t behave.
Just when I was about giving up hope, I sighted the squat doctor with his lab coat flying behind him in a rage of white fabric. After what must have been hours of waiting, he approached and pretended to be in great hurry as he attempted to save my cousin’s life.
‘Doctor he is cold . . . He is so cold,’ I said amid sobs and a bated breath. My vision blurred as the he began his preliminary checks, so I sat down and rested my back on the metal cart beside the bed. He un-slung his stethoscope and hurriedly tore off the buttons on Akpan’s shirt. He placed the gleaming head of the device on the left part of the boy’s chest while the he fixed the ear tips into his rabbit ears.
There was surreal quiet or maybe it was I who thought it so.
He moved the chest piece a little more to the left, and back again to the center. He moved it upward and his hands hovered in mid air as if deciding where else the cold metal should land.
I looked on.
Putting both his pudgy hands on the boy’s chest, he pumped, applying immense pressure on Akpan’s chest.
These were not the best of signs.
I felt a sudden rush of blood in my brain as I gaped at the doctor in disbelief.
He raised the palm of his right hand and gently, closed the boy’s eyelids which had been staring emptily into space since I saw him that morning.
‘Doctor, what is happening? How is he? Will he be okay? Why are you looking so gloomy?’ I stood up.
The doctor shook his head sadly.
‘He’s gone,’ he said.
‘Gone where doctor?’ his words made no sense. I could see Akpan lying there, what did he mean by ‘he’s gone.’?
Two nurses came to stand by me. Someone ran into the ward and made straight for us. It was aunty Mmaete, looking dishevelled in the faded blue wrapper she usually wore to bed and a torn dress, one I guessed she had hurriedly put on. Her feet were bare. She was sweating.
‘Ima, how is Akpan?’ she asked anxious for news. ‘I have been to several hospitals not knowing the one you had taken him to, if not I should have been here earlier, kpe.’
When she heard nothing from me, she turned to the doctor who was about moving away.
‘Doctor, how is my baby?’ she asked rushing to the boys side.
‘Why are you not treating him, eh?’ She asked tearfully. ‘Why are you walking away from him? Have you given him injections? Why is there no drip in his veins? Hei Abasi!’ she clapped her hands into the air with theatrical zeal.
Then she turned to face her son, running two fingers over his cheeks. ‘Akpan . . . Akpanusong! Mummy is here.’ When no reply was forthcoming, she called again.
‘Akpanusong! Akpan! Hei!’
She turned to me, ‘Imabong, what is happening to my son, enh Imabong? What have they done to your brother? Imabong answer me, I am talking to you.’
I stared, as blank as a clean slate. My vision was swimming in and out of focus. Slowly, the doctors words had sank in. The doctor looked at me then at my aunty and he uttered the words that galloped my sanity into the threshold of insanity.
It was as I feared.
‘He is dead,’ he said.
‘No, no, you’re lying.’ Aunty Mmaete’s voice rose to the sky.
Then slowly, it hit her too.
‘Noooooooo!! No! No! Nooooooo! Akpan! Akpan get up! Tell the doctor you are not dead. You are only sleeping my baby. Please wake up. Wake up!!!’
I could hear Aunty Mmeate’s screams, but I heard them from far away. I have no memories of the minutes that followed as I slumped to the cold floor.