The Burden of Grief

One of the lingering effects of H’s passing is that four times a year, I go through a phase where I especially struggle for words to share with my father. Although triggered by four specific days – her birthday (the 8th of July), their wedding anniversary (the 11th of November), the day she passed (the 19th of July) and the day she was buried (the 8th of August) – these tend to be long drawn out affairs affecting the days leading up to and the days after these days. The struggle takes various forms primarily centred on whether to call my father or not, and on the days when I manage to call him, what to talk about – to keep things as normal as possible or broach the difficult subject of H. He and I have never been the best of conversationalists – we’re much too similar for that – but these days make that tenuous relationship an even more difficult one, so much so that on most of these days, I have opted for not calling him in the end.

H’s passing does still feel especially raw, even though her’s was not the first of which clear memories still remain. For that I have to go all the way back to 1988 and G, the ones the genes took. I distinctly remember the events which led to it; the battle with a crisis and the ensuing hospital admission, and then the knowing once I was called out of my class to Mrs A’s office where the neighbour’s orange Volkswagen beetle was waiting to whilst myself and T home. The others in between though covering a range of family members – paternal grandparents, my maternal grandmother and a couple of uncles – are comparative blurs in the landscape of my memory. Distinct memories of G’s passing notwithstanding, I do not remember the same sense of grieving with her that still lingers with H. It is difficult to define completely the interactions of time, space and connection which make both experiences of grief so markedly different, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would offer up the fact that I was much younger then and that there had been a sense of inevitability to it, given the situation with the genes. I imagine others across a broad spectrum of locations and contexts still feel the weight of the grief with H as keenly as I do, given she interacted with a lot of people across the various interests and causes she supported.

This, the intersection of ‘griefs’, complicates grieving in the context of ongoing relationships. With my father, these key dates trigger a remembrance – and a reinforcement even – of loss, driving the conundrum that I wrestle with around these dates. Outside these dates, I feel like we have reached a new normal of sorts, one that accepts the reality of loss but focuses on getting on with life as much as possible. These dates disrupt that new normal for me, and drives the sense of there being a disjunction between living normally and remembering. In my head, by refusing to speak to my father on the day – and hence removing the need to speak about H – I am removing an additional trigger of remembrance from him. That at first glance sounds like a good thing but somewhere in my head, I wonder if it is truly as altruistic as it sounds. Not having the difficult conversation is a good thing for me, whether it is for him, and if this stance adequately honours the memory is a different matter altogether. It is this, the balance between living in the new normal and respectfully remembering and honouring the one who has been lost, that is the primary burden of grief, at least in my opinion.

There are also other non-time based triggers which set off the same sort of feelings. The most recent example was in the middle of a conversation with S’s parents a few weeks ago. Being the incredibly perceptive people they are, they picked up on how I had studiously managed to bring up the subject of H in the over three hours we had spent catching up at the time, which prompted the question. The uneasy silence which followed my explanation suggested it was a topic they would not have brought up if they had known the context. Perhaps – in typical J fashion – I am overthinking the exchange, but this unease exhibited by others when the subject of H comes up is another one of the burdens of grief. Not only does one have to deal with loss, one also has to deal with the reaction of others to loss.

There are no right or wrong ways to carry these burdens. I suspect that time will continue to chip away at the intensity of the grieving of loss which in turn might lessen the burden it places on relationships. If the last few years are an indication of how the next few might pan out in this regards, it is fair to assume that it will not be as simple as that.

Currently listening to: Mandisa – Lifeline

Of Weddings, Cheesecake and Paper Planes

05 Wedding

The somewhat impromptu trip to Lagos was designed around three main objectives; making an appearance at a (self-proclaimed) protege’s wedding, dinner with the Lagos based elements of my old work crew and appeasing my father, who as early as New Year’s Day had begun to sound his dissatisfaction at my conspiring to avoid making what used to be an annual trip to Nigeria last year. For the wedding, the plan was to arrive at 10.00 am, 9.00 am invitation notwithstanding. That decision was one I rationalised away by assuming that as with all things Nigerian, a certain element of tardiness was expected. By the time I arrived at 10.30 am – sweating profusely following my ill thought out attempt to walk till I found a yellow cab – I was as undressed as I could be, my tie slackened to let what precious little fresh air there was get to my skin and my suit dispensed with. That meant I had to find somewhere to cool off for a few extra minutes and get my outfit put together again before popping into the venue. In the end I had to settle for the wing mirror on a parked car, studiously avoiding the gaze of the soldiers sat on the bench only a few feet away. Once in the building proper, I managed to find a seat next to a rotating fan to ease my pain.

The ceremony was in full flow by then, the sight in front of me a mix of colours aplenty; of which green and white stood out being the colours worn by the family and selected guests. The signing of the marriage register and the thanksgiving shuffle by the bride, groom and friends followed in quick order, for which I had to overcome my long standing aversion to dancing. The upside was I managed to catch a good glimpse of my friend, all glammed up for her big day, as well as shake their hands as we passed them once we had divested ourselves of our tokens of appreciation. Being doused in holy water was an unexpected bonus of sorts.

Picture taking and then the reception soon followed, the highlights of which were the food, the long speeches and dancing, elevated to the heights of an extreme sport. Part of me wonders if there isn’t a sense of competition between in-laws at these shin-digs; both sides of the marrying families being keen to not be outdone by the number and quality of guests invited, as indicated by the number of suffixes they carry. The MC was perhaps the singular blot in my opinion, choosing to walk a tight rope more than a few times with his joking. A chance conversation with someone I had not seen in ages highlighted the fact that I could pay for Uber rides with cash which considerably eased my movements thereafter.

My time at the wedding over, the next pit stop was the Ice Cream factory. I was there to meet my friend D and his wife whose acquaintance I was yet to make. I ended up waiting for over two hours before they showed up – poetic justice I suppose given my decision making around the wedding. His Mrs was his excuse – having dragged him to a wedding in a different part of town she had insisted on divesting herself of her wedding clothes before heading out to our meet up. For my pain whilst waiting, I dug into some cheese cake, appropriately sized for killing time. Across from me, a gentleman typed away on his MacBook, dipping into a tub of ice cream now again. By the time D and Mrs arrived, they were dressed very comfortably in Saturday evening, heat-appropriate wear whilst I still had my suit and tie from the wedding. A third friend F joined us eventually, making for a four strong group with a lot of catching up to do. In a tongue in cheek way, my friend D moaned about just how little a life he has had since he got married in 2014 – being driver, cleaner, occasional cook and two or three time punch bag. We both laughed knowingly; truth is he is a much better person than he used to be – more focused, no longer scrawny and generally happier, Lagos traffic issues notwithstanding. Somehow we managed to fit a conversation about loss, lostness, identity and the travails of living Lagos in the two hours and some we spent catching up.

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A quick catch up with my friend A with whom my paths crossed for the grand total of five hours – a logistical nightmare on any day – was quickly followed by a dash across town to the airport for my flight to Benin the next day. The final leg of the journey was made a whole lot easier by a ride from the brother in-law, the added benefit being the opportunity to reacquaint myself with niece number 3. For all the stories her mother relates of how she continually sings my name, our reconnection was muted. I suppose we can blame her being sleepy for that, not my sloppy uncle skills.

Ekpoma – home – this city of red earth baked hard by the relentless beating of the sun which I have come back to time and again since I first left for good as a seventeen year old in the late nineties was the same as I remembered it. By the time I arrived, it had already been three days since the national grid last supplied power to the area my folk live in. Fairly typical, with a chuckle, is how my cousin relates their ongoing ordeal with NEPA – or whatever the disco in the area is. To ease my arrival, we had the generator run for a few hours to charge up phones, laptops and get the fans whirling and moving air for a bit. The days when I was waited on hand and foot out here are sadly long gone, the joys of a cold shower – the first time since I had one here – did help me get to sleep.

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The next few days passed in a blur – eating, sleeping and catching up with family the subject of my days. The third day was spent getting to see nieces #1 and 2. The day itself, as unremarkable and indistinguishable from the rest of them in being boiling hot and powerless was greatly improved by all the playing I managed to get in with the nieces. The Peppa pig books I managed to travel with helped a sight, as did being able to google up how to make paper planes and origami houses. The day enjoyable as it was had a bitter sweet after taste to it. For all the fun and games we got up to, it was only a few hours long. Doting Uncle or not, I am missing the opportunity to be a big part of their lives. Hopefully the iPhone their mother managed to blackmail me into giving her will mitigate that. The other days were more of a pain, filled with difficult conversations skirted around, and visits to old friends of the family to keep up appearances. Not the most exciting stuff, but I suspect getting to see my nieces more than made up for that.

There was time to get back to Lagos, catch up with old friends, make a pit stop at chicken republic and tuck into some cake and ice cream at Hans and Rene – before I had to pack it all in and head to the airport to catch my flight back. All told, it was a largely enjoyable trip, one that put into perspective all the things I miss about Nigeria – family and friends mainly. Whether that lure is strong enough to save this lost son, only time will tell.

On Loss..

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[Image Source]

It has been a deeply emotive week for me, bookended as it were by Sunday’s Remembrance Service – a year exactly to the day since we lost H– and the quiet, deathly stillness of my office today as I stand here, cup of coffee in hand looking out at the lunch time crowd milling about. As the week has gone along, the flurry of phone calls, emails and messages of commiseration I have had to field from people has eased off, allowing me some time to begin to reflect on where I am, and how things have evolved over the past year. Not much has changed by all accounts, I still haven’t brought myself to delete H’s details from my phone or my FB page for that matter – deceased 19th July 2014 is the only addition I have made on my phone – which led to a birthday reminder from FB in my feed the other day, as raw a reminder as there could be of the keenness of the loss we still feel.

By some coincidence, the Poets.Org Poem-A-Day feed on the 21st of July featured a poem about death (The Sadness of Clothes), specifically the emptiness it leaves in its wake from the perspective of the clothes which thenceforth lie unused, but also metaphorically in the lives of those who are left.

Inspired – and I use that loosely – by that Emily Fragos poem, I trawled through my Pocket archive, eventually stumbling on a number of articles related to loss and grieving – where there hasn’t been the chance to say a proper goodbye, where a child feels like their proper duty hasn’t been done, and where a writer deals with the blankness by crafting a story around his recollections of it.

There is a sense in which for me, loss and lostness is every one of these – craving (and not yet finding) a new normal, some regret for not making the most of the time we had and the lingering sadness that a few thousand miles meant there were never any proper goodbyes. Loss in its suddenness does that, snatching what comforts the opportunity to say proper goodbyes might have offered one.

Grief is difficult to talk about, particularly given the sort of deeply introspective personalities A and I, which is how I guess we have somehow managed to skirt the issues, focusing more on all the doing and changing we have had to do rather than the reality of loss. I still don’t know how he felt as he stood there helplessly watching life ebb out of someone he’d spent the better part of 40 years knowing and doing life with. With my sisters – far more connected to their emotional selves as they are – those conversations have occurred, and still occur. Maybe with time A and I will be able to transcend the inherent difficulties in grieving. For now we persist in flitting in the shadows of a less distressing re-memory.

Of life and playthings

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For today’s Daily Prompt, Toy Story

– – –

There is a real sense in which play was a concept alien to the world in which I grew up. Being the son of two high achieving, austere academicians did that to me; that they adopted a rigorous, all encompasing asceticism merely underlined the near total absence in our lives of anything that didn’t fulfil a function of some sort. The Black & White National television set was the communal alter around which we sacrificed our evenings to learning and current affairs, the gramophone, the vehicle by which nostalgic memories where wheeled out and shared with us younglings.

Kids will be kids though. With time we discovered the joys of table soccer – coca cola tops dressed up in fine livery with the names of global superstars painted on, St Louis Sugar boxes repurposed as goal posts and specialty tops providing super star appeal. With a properly shaped front end, a pastic Berec top could very easily evolve into a 20-goal a season striker, even though smarties tops ruled the roost.

An entire industry grew around the game, wheelers and dealers who trawled the dumps in the posh end of town for smarties tops to trade, administrators who created tournaments the rest of us subscribed to. Having a kid brother proved useful – regular battles or not – for the opportunities it provided for us to revel in the joys of our playthings without risking the wrath of our parents by being caught outside the confines of the mother lode.

Did it change my life? Probably not, except for the friendships it helped forge all those many years ago – O perhaps being the closest example. Apparently though, my love for it was not an abberation. So loved across the country was the game that some smart kid has turned it into a game for mobile. That, just might count as life changing afterall.

Bait and Switch…

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My father, very much like me, is not a great talker- the sum of our conversation over the course of the year is little more than fifteen minutes. In the main these – 3 minutes here, 2 there, and 5 there have mainly come about as intermissions, snuck in between typically lengthy conversations with my mother – if her constant probing and interrogating can count as conversations. When I wake up to find a couple of missed calls from him on my phone , a whatsapp message from my kid sister, and a BBM message from my brother – all relating to the fact that my father has been trying to get hold of me- it sets the alarm bells in my head off. After arriving from my weekend trip to the middle of nowhere (link) I ordered the largest, most decadent pizza I could from PapaJohns – with a barbecue chicken side- devoured it and promptly fell into my bed for sleep, which was how I ended up oblivious to the clamour for my attention.

Resigning myself to whatever it might be, I call him, bracing myself for whatever it might be. It turns out, it has to do with a conference down south he wants to attend- he wants guidance on visa applications, money transfers and all the associated arrangements required to smoothen his first trip out of Nigeria in a while. it was from my. Not quite any of the urgent, life threatening things my mind had invented then. we chit chat, a bit after that, work at mine, failed driving test and all get a mention, and then an uncomfortable silence. My unease increases exponentially.

So…. He begins, have you called K yet? I haven’t and really don’t intend to. She is the doctor daughter of a friend of a friend of Mum’s whose folk perhaps as agitated by the lack of visible progress towards marrying as mine are have somehow dreamed up this match.

I explain, I’ve had a lot on my plate- offshore, work, eyeing a job change and the like. I assure him I have it on the front burner though..

My father disagrees, by his estimation, if I had even a hint of seriousness, I would have placed the phone call to K, and or being on a flight to nigeria already. He thinks I’m overly focused on progressional development .

You know, people are worried too, they ask me what’s happening all the time.

By now my irritation has built up a head- the people who are worried won’t be in a marriage with me I interject. I may have overdone my curt ness as he falls silent, our little attempt at detente dying as quickly as it rose…

The resignation in his voice is palpable. It’s alright, just call her, OK?

I mumble a response back, just before I terminate the call… Bait and switch, classic…. My folks are getting better at this!!!

In pictures.. Bits and Bobs…

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I woke up to five missed calls on my phone. I had felt, rather than heard its insistent buzz deep within lalaland but sheer tiredness had kept me from waking up. Instead, the phone’s chirpy ringtone somehow ended up blending itself in with the background to some weird dream I promptly forgot on waking.

Of the five missed calls, three were from my mother, one from my father’s phone and one from a private number. This has more or less become her standard M.O. – when she feels I am intentionally refusing to answer her phone calls that is. That she’d called five times suggested it was important, so I groaned inwardly, punched in the numbers for my calling card and made the phone call to Nigeria.

The full repertoire of grunted, fairly redundant greetings done, she proceeded to the core of the reason why she’d called.

“So ‘Seni, I hear you young people now find wives on facebook”

“Mummy”, I reply in best son voice, “where did you hear that from? Facebook is just a website for staying in touch with old friends”

“That’s not what I heard” she replies before she launches into a ten minute tale. Some distant friend of the family, who I had met two or three times at most, who is now retired had scrapped his savings together and sent his son abroad to study at one of my former Universities. Post graduation, he’d found a job in London and was doing quite well by all accounts until he found a wife “off Facebook” my mother insists and got married to her.

A year later, he’d lost his job, it turned out she had been a fraud of sorts (she’d lied about where she worked amongst all other things), and he was back in Nigeria trying to find a job. Somewhere in between talk of having visited some medicine man in an attempt to suss out the cause of his misfortune and all the other ‘spiritual’ sleuthing a traditional Nigerian does..

My mother’s point – important enough for her to try to call me five times in quick succession – was that one wrong move such as finding a wife off face was dangerous. And I needed to be warned/ have my ear pulled to remind me… When it had all wrapped up and the telephone conversation had ended. I sighed and returned to whatever remnants of sleep I could eke out.

It was only 8.30am