By Chika Abanobi
Elif Batuman, an American journalist and author of the novel, The Idiot, said: “I had often flipped through a calendar wondering on which of the 366 days (counting February 29) I would die.”
Neither my mum, Madam Faith Onyejisike Abanobi nor I had such privilege of flipping through the calendar before death came calling on Monday, October 9, 2023. And, if she ever had the opportunity of wondering like Batuman did, when such shall be, during her brief illness, I wouldn’t know. But on that day the news of her death hit me like a thunderbolt.
Though old at 85, to be frank with you that was not the news I was expecting to hear. It was a journey that started on Saturday, August 12, when news reached us that she was struck with a stroke.
Each day has a colour and a smell, says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the US-based Indian author of the novel, The Mistress of Spices. It is now, after weeks of wondering what hit me, after recovering from the shock that I am beginning to realise the colour and smell of both August 12 and October 9. My mother, it seems to me, must have wondered too, at their colour and smell.
But I am not here to flip through the calendar anymore for that is no longer necessary. Nor wonder at the colour and smell of these memorable dates but to capture the essence of my mother’s life and the lessons her death has taught me about life. Like it was said of Abel in Hebrews 11: 4, though dead, my mother’s life still speaks even as you read this
#1: Each of us will need to flip through the calendar
Though soundly born again, the stroke obviously took her by surprise. She never expected that she would pass on through that way, never expected that she would never talk to us or with us again. This is because it made her lose the power of speech.
In her mind, she must have built a scenario in which on her sick bed, with us gathered around her, she would be able to tell us one or two things like Jacob did to his children in Genesis chapter 49 before he passed on. But not every one of us would be able to have that luxury. This is why my mother became frustrated and took to constant crying when she discovered that she couldn’t pass on to us the message she had in mind.
So? Each of us will need to flip through the calendar while we are alive, especially if we have not made peace with God. Death can come calling at any time, in fact, at a time we least expect it. This is the fact that Macbeth, in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, tried to underscore when he spoke those famous lines:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Even long before Shakespeare said so in Macbeth, the Bible had counseled in James 4:13,14: “Look here, you people who say, Today or tomorrow, we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit. How do you know what will happen tomorrow? For your life is like the morning fog – it’s here a little while, then it’s gone” (The New Living Translation, NLT).
In the morgue where the cold body of my mother is kept the truth about how ephemeral life is came back to me with a renewed vigour. when I went to view her body. In October 1986, Funmi, then a young widow of the late Dele Giwa, murdered through a letter bomb, had in an exclusive interview with Dele Olojede, then of Newswatch magazine made a similar observation. She said that each time she looked at the dead body of her late husband, it was more like “it” rather than “he” she was used to. Gone were the ebullience and effervescence that used to characterize his presence.
To be honest with you, I had the same feeling as I stood looking at the lifeless body of my mother lying down on a surface in the mortuary, some days after her demise: It was like “it” rather than “she.” Gone forever was the lively voice I used to hear every Saturday expressing thanks to God for making us see a new day, week or month. It greatly pained me that I would never hear that voice again. I then realised that what Batuman described as flipping through the calendar, Moses the Lawgiver had, aeons of years before she made that statement asked God in Psalm 90:12 to “teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Kings James Version, KJV).
As we go through these hard times, this period of hyper-inflation in our nation’s history, suffering, especially intense suffering has a way of making us look away from the calendar, of not allowing us to take time to do some introspection of our lives and our ends. The same thing applies to pleasures for those who can afford them, despite the sufferings we all have around us. This is why King Solomon said: “It is better to spend your time at funerals than at festivals. For you are going to die, and you should think about it while there’s still time”(Ecclesiastes 7:2, NLT).
Unfortunately, today, things seem to have changed on this score too. People now go to funerals, not to have time to think about the end of their lives as Solomon advised but to fight over food, meat and drinks.
#2: Train a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it
Though this verse of the Bible (Proverbs 22:6) from which this statement was taken is often used to encourage parents to take their children through spiritual/moral upbringing, in my mother’s case, the call of duty went beyond that.
As a toddler, it was from her that I first learnt about Maazi Mbonu Ojike, alias “boycott the boycottables” long before I met him in history class in secondary school. Born in Arondizuogu, Imo State, he was a Deputy Mayor in Lagos State in 1951. Though trained in the United States to a Master’s degree level, he was an irredentist cultural enthusiast who hated everything Western – clothes, cars, food, language, etc. And, when he died on November 29, 1956, at Parklane Hospital, Enugu, he was buried the next day.
Also read: Deeper Life @50: 50 great lessons from my 44 years membership:https://churchtimesnigeria.net/story-of-my-44-years-in-deeper-life-as-church-celebrates-50-years/
It was from my mum that I heard about Okonkwo Adigwe. A Nigerian foremost high-life music maestro from Asaba, Delta State, his music ruled the airwaves in the late 50s/early 60s. She also told me about the murder of the late Israel Nwoba, out of envy. Even though I was too young to know about these personalities that existed during her time as a young lady, by telling and retelling their stories I came to know about them long before I encountered them in formal settings later in life. To that extent, you can say, she passed on a great legacy.
But much later in life, as she surrendered her life to Christ, in repentance and faith in the gospel, some years after the Nigerian Civil War, her worldview began to change. She then took me to most of the Christian gatherings/meetings. Like the young Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:5,6, that was how her strong faith in God came to be reproduced in me. And, to date, the impact still remains.
#3: A woman’s world revolves around her children
The worst thing you can do to a woman is to take her children away from her. They are not just part of her, they are her reproduced in another form. This is why some women would simply go or run mad if you took their children away from them: they are all they have, all they live for. They are their past, present and future hope. A woman would rather die, than have you take away her child from her by whatever means, violent or non-violent.
In Things Fall Apart, we see Ekwefi, running after Chielo the priestess, in pitch darkness of the night, not minding the dangers involved. This happened when Chielo came to take away Ezinma, Ekwefi’s only surviving daughter. She noted that Agbala, the god of the hills and the caves, desired to see her.
The same truth is replicated in the film, Sometimes in April that is focused on the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that took place between the Hutus and Tutsis. In one of the scenes at a military checkpoint, a woman’s four children were shot dead before her very eyes, by Hutu soldiers. She simply became deranged and began to hallucinate. The same thing happened in the Bible when the children of a woman called Rachael were wiped out before her eyes in one day. She was simply inconsolable (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:17, 18) This explains why a woman who does not have a child she could call her own does not rest until she gets one, no matter what you do for her (1 Samuel 1:1-5,8).
So? Between a child and his/her mum, there exists a special bond which nothing can take away. But sometimes this bond is further strengthened or cemented by incidents or happenings. This fact is illustrated by what happened to Obi Okonkwo in No Longer At Ease. As a primary school pupil, he had carelessly left a razor blade in the pocket of his school uniform. And, this had cut deep into his mother’s finger and drew blood while she was busy washing the uniform. The blood that Obi saw rushing from her mother’s finger on that ill-fated day ended up strengthening the bond that exists between him and his mother.
In my own case, it was during the Nigerian Civil War. Then there was the scarcity of food items. Even common salt was not common because it was taken off the table. But no matter how bad a situation is, a woman must find a way of making her children eat even if it means her not eating anything at the end of the day. Despite the artificial starvation caused by food shortage caused by blockage from the Federal government, I was choosy about the kinds of food I ate. Not every food went well with my system. And, so when one night my mother prepared a soup she thought I would like I refused to eat. This is because the soup was not as palatable as I thought. She decided to boil some yams for me so that I could see something to eat. But halfway through her cooking, she suddenly discovered that there was no palm or red oil anywhere.
With me mounted on her back because I simply refused to let her go alone, she went over to a neighbour living some houses away from ours to see whether she could get some oil from her. But to reach there, she needed to go through a narrow bush path. As she walked through the bush path in pitch darkness, with me still reclining on her back, she was struck by a snake which buried its fangs in her right leg, making my mother let out a painful cry. Her cry attracted neighbours who came running with bush lamps in vogue in those days. That was how she was taken to a local medicine man and he administered some anti-snake vaccine on her. That incident about little, insignificant me being the cause of why a snake bit my mother has continued to remain indelible in my memory to this day.
#4: Tears are a language that God understands
As earlier noted, I was worried and somewhat discomfited when, during her brief illness from stroke my mother would break into tears and weep and weep for no just cause. But my spirit tells me that her doing so had something to do with her inability to communicate with us. I could be mistaken but it seemed there was something that she wanted to say or pass across, But she couldn’t do so because the falcon could not hear the falconer as a result of her loss of speech,
How frustrating and distressing it is to die intestate, to use a legal language. And, to make matters worse, she could not write because she was paralysed on the hand with which she could have done so, no matter how illegible and incomprehensive her handwriting was.
She was evidently not happy she could not talk. She was always angry with herself for not telling us things before she passed on. I could sense that in her refusal to eat, in her fight with everybody. Her being given drugs or food was of little comfort to her. The fact that she was not allowed by the sickness to tell us things we ought to know before she passed on was her greatest regret. She never expected that death could come so stealthily and in such a way she could not communicate her desires and wishes.
If there’s anything I have learnt from this experience, it is to communicate with the living because you never know when death could come. You never know what form or nature it will take. You don’t have to be a mum or dad to know this. Even if you are a bachelor or spinster, you owe it a duty to do so.
But then tears are a language that God understands. That’s why He said in Jeremiah 31:16, 17 for parents who are still wondering whether their children would be there to say goodbye to them when it is their time to go: “But now the LORD says, “Do not weep any longer for I will reward you. Your children will come back from the distant land….There’s hope for your future, says the LORD” (NLT)
#5: Don’t be too far from your parents, enjoy their company while they live
A corollary to the truth expressed in the above point is as children, we must try as much as possible to be close to our parents and to find out things from them while they are still alive. We must not hesitate to ask or seek clarifications from them on some issues while they are still here with us. This is necessary because you can’t be sure of tomorrow. Situations and circumstances can suddenly change overnight and become abnormal. So? Postponing till tomorrow what should be done today between you and your parents might not be the best decision. As the Igbo would say to a man climbing the iroko tree: “Please, do all you need to do while up there because you might not have the opportunity to climb it the second time.”
#6: Life is simple; don’t complicate it
If there’s anything my mother hates, it is the razzmatazz, the pomp that people bring to bear on funerals. It takes away solemnity and self-contemplation from a grim process and makes it look chimerical. It makes people not think of themselves or of where they would go when they die. The idea of mourners carrying a corpse on their shoulders and dancing around the circle with it in the name of giving it a ‘befitting’ burial doesn’t appeal to her. But she is also wise enough to know that there are things in life you don’t have control over. You are only responsible for your own actions, and not for others because “each of us will have to give a personal account to God” (Romans 14:12, NLT).
#7: We’ll be remembered by what we’ve done
The famous Christian hymn, Only Remembered By What We’ve Done, written by Horatius Bornar (1808-1889) in 1872 rings true of my mother. Since after her death, a lot of people have come up to say what she did for them while she was alive. A prayer warrior of the first order, you would often wake up and hear her praying for others over the phone. It was even rumoured that on that fateful day when she was struck with a stroke, she fell down while praying.
Testimonies and tributes that people from different walks of life have been coming up to give concerning her life makes me know that we will be remembered by what we have done. Just like the words of that famous hymn read:
Shall we be missed though by others succeeded,
Reaping the fields we in springtime have sown?
No, for the sowers may pass from their labours,
Only remembered by what they have done.
Only the truth that in life we have spoken,
Only the seed that on earth we have sown;
These shall pass onward when we are forgotten,
Fruits of the harvest and what we have done.
Only remembered, only remembered,
Only remembered by what we have done;
Thus would we pass from the earth and its toiling,
Only remembered by what we have done.
Elisabeth Kubler Ross (1928-2004), best-selling author of Death and Dying was quoted to have said in an interview while alive: “I’ve told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to celebrate that I graduated…death is a graduation.”
Unlike Kubler Ross, my mum didn’t ask us to release balloons in the sky to indicate her transition from this life to the next. But on February 29, 2024, the day of her internment, we will be doing so metaphorically speaking, with songs, hymns and prayers. This is because she has graduated.
Abanobi, pioneer Staff Writer, Weekend Concord, and former Associate Editor, The Sun, wrote from Lagos.