Hi. My name is Ijeoma, and this is the story of my life. Or, I guess I should say, my death. But before I begin that story, I will start from the very beginning of everything—the outbreak of Covid-19, the deadly virus that separated my beloved husband Femi and me, forcing us into an unexpected goodbye. He had no underlying conditions; in fact, we had no awareness that the deadly disease had just arrived in Nigeria, in the form of a foreign man who wore no protection and whom the government let in. Femi had gone to the airport to make an inquiry for a June flight booking, for our anniversary. People our age did not want to do that online; actually, we did not know how, and it was safer to always plan ahead. That twelve-minute visit to the airport that yielded nothing profitable was what sealed his deal. Death is poetic. Cruel, most of the time, but very poetic.
Exactly one month to my birthday, two months to Femi’s, and three months to our 41st wedding anniversary, I was at the hospital, waiting. For what, I don’t know. I sat there, on the edge of one of the long brown benches, waiting. Perhaps, for a miracle? That the doctor would walk out again, but this time, to tell me it was all a joke, one of Femi’s sick pranks that he liked to play on me. And I swear, this time, I would’ve laughed before criticising or complaining. I would have paused to take in the joke, feeling fully relieved, and then I would have laughed in that way he liked—with my whole face, and up to my eyes. But staring into the too-white walls of the hospital, watching bodies being rolled out of the doors, everyone wearing two or three masks at once, watching the frenzy of the world, I knew it was real. It had happened. It was over. Femi would never pull another prank on me. He would never apologise for going too far. I would never hear him say he loved my laugh. I would never hear him tell me he loved me. So, I screamed. The hospital bench gave way, and I screamed some more. I screamed until I couldn’t breathe. I did not die then, but I wish I did.
The world was dying. The virus was claiming more lives. There was no cure for it. Somehow, it seemed everyone had moved on. But not me. I never stopped seeing Femi, and not just in my dreams. I still smelled his cologne—a mix of woody and Arabic scents. It lingered everywhere: on our sheets, on his favourite chair and in our wardrobe. His death was untimely, and I wasn’t ready to let him go. That was why I still went to see him, in a private mortuary off Engineer Kepele Street. The mortician had explained that Covid-19 dead patients’ bodies had to be cremated; in fact the oyibos advised it, to further prevent the spread. I told him I would kill myself if he did it. I threatened to die in front of someone who saw death every hour. His unmoved stature broke me; I had to find another way. I promised to pay handsomely if he could find me a solution. This was Lagos; anything was possible. Perhaps thinking about his family, or himself, he agreed but with warnings. He said I needed to stay away for 30 days first; the body had to be cleaned, cleansed and allowed time, to confirm that nobody else could catch the disease from it. He repeatedly grumbled about how he was risking his life, his licence, his oath. I got the message. I doubled my offer; one million naira a month if he let me come to visit my husband often. We did not define ‘often’, nor did we define how long for.
Femi’s attorney, who became the family’s attorney, Sisi Sunmi—as Femi and I fondly called her—arrived just as the deal was being settled. Defiantly, she reminded me of Femi’s will, which she wrote in 2017, that clearly stated he should be cremated 24 hours after his death. It was easier to sell to her what I threatened the mortician. She had not seen death first hand, and so the thought of me killing myself in front of her shut her up. Forgive me; I was not thinking. I wasn’t.
So, against the law, against medicine and against Femi’s wishes, I took hourly drives every week, from scorching sun to rainy clouds, to see my dead husband. Afraid? No, I wasn’t. Fear left me the moment we got separated at the hospital, further distancing itself from me with every visit. I watched him from a six-foot distance, through a sliding glass door that felt as wide as the gap between death and life. In his final days, I couldn’t touch my husband. And now in death, I still couldn’t touch him. It breaks my heart that I have forgotten the last time I touched Femi. On Tuesdays, when I visited, I would walk with a black scarf that covered my hair and forehead, ‘typical of an Igbo woman’, Femi would jokingly say. Our jokes and laughter were part of the things that brought me the most joy. Oh, how he loved to tell jokes! He would always say that pursuing an engineering degree made him forget to go into comedy. I would tell him that he would have sold out the two-seater couch in our living room. We would laugh at that, and then some. Ours was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of love, you see. The kind that romcoms try to create. The kind you only see on TV, and even then, it seems unreal to you. Our tribal differences made our marriage all the more adventurous. They made it worth fighting for, especially with all the negations from our families. Femi’s father would not hear of it.
‘How can the son of Otunba be with an omoyibo?’ He bellowed.
My mother said it was alu.
‘Do not think that I will give my blessings to this abomination,’ she often reminded me.
While our families gave us reasons why we could not be together, we only grew closer. The heart wanted what it wanted. Femi accepted and embraced my tag as an Igbo woman: wicked, in love with money and sharing beauty with my forehead. I also acknowledged his tag as a Yoruba man: dangerously attractive, in love with women and constantly celebrating. I wish I had followed him to the airport; by now we would have been together. I remember being so ecstatic that I was going to join the University of Suithin as a senior professor of English in July 2020. Femi and I were having a quiet day when the mail came in. It was a beautiful way to start our day, and a bright piece of news in the new year.
‘Baby, aren’t we lucky? We have things to celebrate and look forward to from April until July!’ I exclaimed to Femi. He nodded, smiled at me.
‘I think we should travel in June for our anniversary, you know. Just get away together, and then you can come back refreshed and ready to start your new job, and I can probably start my wine club.’ He laughed at himself; I laughed at my excitement of this genius whom I loved. He got up as soon as we finished the conversation and headed to the airport. He asked me to join him, but I said no, not for any reason, just that I wanted to celebrate the good news dancing at home. When I visited him weekly, the thing I regretted the most was that I said no.
The story of my death began when I could not adapt to the daily visual reminders of the life Femi left behind. During my weekly visits, I spent three hours, six feet away from him, staring at his face and body, hoping that something would look different. I hoped his nose would flare a bit or his eyes would move, so I could call the doctor and ask him to check for a pulse, any sign of life. It never happened. I would knock on the glass and call his name. I waited for him to respond, perhaps take my hand and pull me in his warm embrace. It didn’t happen. He just lay there in the same way he spent his last days, eyes closed and silent. Even those times, I feared he had died, so I would taunt him. ‘You’re having one of those meditation sessions, aren’t you? How’s that working out for you?’ He would open his eyes slowly and squint at me with a small pout on his lips. I would laugh a little, absolutely relieved that he hadn’t died. I would wink at him, and he would wink back; his wink was now a permanent blink, our sign of peace. You would think I should have made peace with his death then, that I should have been prepared for this. I wasn’t; sue me.
Months later, and days before our 41st wedding anniversary, my visits became longer. I began to speak to him now. I didn’t care anymore if the attendant was listening. When he lost the love of his life, he would also lose every ability to care. Nothing would make sense to him anymore. I once begged the stand-by attendant to let me touch my Femi, to let me feel his black jacket which he wore on our 40th anniversary. I begged the attendant to let me change him because the jacket haunted me. I had chosen it because I thought it would bring forth fond memories whenever I looked at him. Yet, it reminded me of an anniversary that would never happen again. It was supposed to be the two of us. We had no children, not a lot of family in Lagos, a handful of friends and us. You see what I mean? It was always supposed to be the two of us; our desire was to stay together, connected, forever.
On my beloved’s death anniversary, I woke up feeling different. I could not bring myself to open my eyes that had already cried tears of constant pain every day. Had it really been exactly one year since the virus had, quite rudely, snatched my Femi from me? Over 300 long days of talking to the ghost of my husband, the love of my life. One year of bottomless, unbearable pain. I had gone through the past year, hoping that time would teach me to manage it better. It had not. I cried every day. I felt like dying. Breathing was particularly difficult that morning; I suspected the angel of death had come to take me, like she had my husband. Lord knows I would not have put up a fight at all; I had long embraced death, eagerly waiting now. It was 4.15am when I looked at the clock by Femi’s side of the bed. Feeling cold, I shut the windows and sat in the warmth of the room. I felt hot again and put on the air conditioner before soaking in the cold. When I felt cold again, I didn’t move. I laid there with my eyes shut. Femi had endured the cold for a year; a few hours wouldn’t kill me. Or maybe they would; I didn’t care. I also didn’t want to open my eyes. Opening them meant accepting that the day had come. March 23, 2021. That was the last day they’d let me see Femi according to the new contract Sisi Sunmi drafted. The mortician signed in agreement; he could not sell his soul another day longer, he said; neither could Sisi Sunmi. What did they know?
For me, it was the last day I’d ever see my husband again, call his name or speak to him. I would need to rely on his possessions to remind me of his presence. The mortician asked me to be grateful, insisting that I still had his pictures, clothes, perfumes, devices and favourite things. If I had the choice, I would never let them cremate him. I wondered if Femi knew how cruel his decision was. In the law, his wishes weighed more than mine. Me, his living, grieving widow. Him, my dead, heavenly husband. That morning, I cried more than I had ever cried in one year.
I had tried therapy to ease the pain, you see. I tried it, so I could have some sort of anchor to prepare me for this day. I want to say therapy helped, but I didn’t let it. I couldn’t. My therapist thought I should not be visiting Femi every day. She didn’t think it helped that I saw him as frequently as I did, and I responded the only way I knew. I justified myself. I told her my grief could never be measured. Not by her; not by anyone. She had no right placing a boundary on how I mourned. She booked two more sessions that I left unattended.
By 7.30am, the alarm clock rang. Until last year, Femi had been my alarm clock. He had a routine that woke him up an hour before me. That way, once it was 7.30, he would tap me on the heel, with a glass of water in his other hand. Forty years of that did wonders for my skin. I felt a tingling sensation on my left heel, and my heart stopped for a second. I missed him. I missed meeting his eyes first thing when I awoke. For a year, my eyes only met our flat screen television and a picture of our wedding day. That day, he danced to an Oliver de Coque song, and my mother cheered for him. She said if a man danced to Igbo highlife, he was the one. Then, she gave her blessings. Less begrudgingly than before. We travelled the world on our honeymoon. Those were the slowest, happiest moments of my life. I thought it would never end. I thought we would never end. At 7.40am, after swallowing the last phlegm of cough brought by screaming tears, I walked to the bathroom and let the warm water hit me and take away the chill of the AC. I took a deep breath and held it in. It was easier to feel close to Femi this way, lifeless for 10 seconds. A little dead.
I dreaded the process of such a hard day. It was two days after my weekly visit to see Femi. Sisi Sunmi had laid out the discharge and cremation plan and made it hard for me to follow my usual morning routine of waking up and looking out the balcony for hours, looking at nothing in particular. Today, I treated it like a Tuesday, like every other Tuesday since last year. After my shower, I said my prayers while I dressed up. The prayers weren’t conversations about the validity of the doctrine of resurrection, the possibilities of reincarnations and the desires for a creative miracle. Instead, I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed that God would look upon me with pity and judge me with compassion. I walked to the kitchen, dressed in blue and orange—different from the black I had become accustomed to—and filled a tumbler with cold water from the water dispenser. My teeth shuddered as I gulped. Maybe leaving the AC on full blast at 4am in the morning wasn’t a smart choice. I walked past our cook, Grace, muttering a brief hi and headed to my study. If she thought anything about my dress, she didn’t say anything. My greetings to the domestic staff and everyone else since Femi’s death had become monosyllabic and clipped. Dry throat didn’t let me cough up any more words. Soon, Grace came to the door of my study with herbal tea and a hot towel for my face. She told me it would work wonders for me, half pointing to my swollen face. I appreciated the unsolicited honesty, and I appreciated Grace. She has been kinder to me since my beloved’s death. If anything happened today, she could keep living in her quarters, behind my home, where she has been the past fifteen years.
Sisi Sunmi asked me to arrive at the mortuary by 1.30pm. The six-kilometre journey would take me one hour, so I had to leave home by 12.30pm. Lagos. I had an omelette meal with spinach, potatoes, tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Femi’s favourite meal. It felt right to honour him. Sisi Sunmi called me midway through breakfast. She wanted to be sure I remembered our agreement. I did. Femi was going to be cremated, whether I was there or not. That was the agreement. I wanted to be there, even if it was the last thing I did.
At noon, I called for Niyi from the living room. In his usual position, he would hear me and come inside the house. He had to get the car ready, so we could leave and beat traffic. Grace answered instead. Niyi never came to work this morning. He didn’t like my vibe, I heard. What vibe? I wanted to ask. A grieving woman? I held my tongue. I knew they talked about me. They wondered why a 62-year-old woman carried the weight of her husband’s death the way I did. Shocked, yet determined not to miss the appointment, I took a key from the key hanger by the door and went out to the garage. I had not sat behind the wheel of a car in almost 20 years. I didn’t have a valid driver’s licence or the faintest idea how to work these newer automatic cars. But like my husband would always say, you could never go wrong with asking passersby.
I spent the next 20 minutes face down in the driver’s seat, trying to figure it all out. The Range Rover felt too high for my 5’4” build. A death trap, might I add. When I looked up to adjust the rear-view mirror, Femi stared back at me. This reminded me of my graduation day, over a decade ago, when I graduated summa cum laude in Educational Leadership (PhD). He was where I sat now. A smile plastered on his lips as he watched me lie down to take a brief nap. I looked to the back seat, taking a moment to reminisce. When I looked back at the mirror, it was just me. A new determination set my jaw in a deep resolve. I wanted to meet Femi again. I needed him to look at me again; I needed to be with him, to hear his jokes and laugh with him. I wasn’t so sure when I woke this morning, but now, it was set in stone. I was going to see my husband. For real, this time. The engine greeted me, and I slowly pedalled the accelerator pad, causing the car to jerk forward a bit. I tried to relax, putting a shaky hand over my chest. When I accelerated again, more gently this time, the car moved smoothly. With every successful turn and manoeuvre, my confidence climbed.
At 2pm, I approached a traffic stop on the Lekki Epe expressway. This was it. If I wouldn’t be able to see Femi before his body was burned, I would meet him after. I was going to see him again. I would be reunited with my love, and we would die happily ever after. One word echoed. Happily. When the cars began to move again, I stepped on the accelerator pad with more force than when I began. My legs were working like crazy, shifting between moving fast and slowing down. My hands were doing pretty much the same thing; the left one was firmly on the steering wheel while the right one honked at other road users, warning them to move out of my way. I was Lewis Hamilton in Formula One. I was those reckless Danfo drivers Niyi used to cuss out. My phone rang. It was Sisi Sunmi. She probably wanted to know if I was still coming; it was an hour later than planned. I picked it up.
‘Sisi, it’s fine,’ I started, not giving her a chance to speak. ‘I’ll make it. I’ll make it to Femi in time. We’ll be released from our bodies together.’ I was laughing now, and tears were falling from my eyes. I heard panic in her voice. She was worried.
‘Madam Ijeoma, what are you talking about? I don’t understand what you are saying o. Where are you now?’
‘Don’t you get it, Sisi? If we’re released at the same time, we’ll meet in the afterlife,’ I chuckled. ‘I can’t believe I waited this long to do this.’ I shouldn’t have. The answer to ending my grief had been staring at me all along. Without indicating I was making a turn, I switched lanes. A trailer was coming toward me at full speed. I don’t know what the driver of that trailer was running from, but I believe he was the answer to my prayers that morning. The honking was loud, and so was Sisi Sunmi’s voice through the phone that I had now abandoned on the passenger seat. The driver swerved as much as he could. I unbuckled my belt, watching as the tail of the trailer collided with my bonnet. The impact sent my car and me over the road, scattered to chunky pieces. The death toll remained 1. You see, I thought that in death I would remember that I once loved—so fully and so deeply—a perfectly wonderful man. But I would never remember the hurt and pain of losing him. That I would be reunited with him and finally be at peace, poetically, as I imagined death would have wanted. I take back what I said. Death is only profoundly cruel.
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