We have been experience very hot summer days. 100 degrees hot. We stayed indoors. Stayed closed together too. My boys love outdoors. Jumping on their blue trampoline is one of their favorite things to do. All of that came to a halt the past few days. Staying cool inside the house was all they could do. Until this afternoon. My daughter has the bright idea of using our sprinklers to stay cool. Against my better judgement, I agreed. The water was cool. Their peals of laughter, even soothing with our new found tool . I was pleasantly surprised. Even sprinklers on a hot day works. It’s kept the kids cool, kept them dancing too. Kept me cool, dancing too, as I watched the joy in their eyes and feet. Keep dancing with sprinkling water.
Yesterday I listened to a conversation with black youth that changed my life. I have lived but not with intent and purpose until this past year. Not even with an unwavering commitment to becoming anti-racist in my work until recently. Granted the pandemic and the George Floyd killing and protests played a role, but connecting with people, some new, some old, some unexpected has made me into a woman with vision, conviction too of what to do to bring radical healing to all black youth. I am prepared to work with anyone interested in creating a space for black youth to reimagine a better way for their health. I am prepared to support them so they can act on whatever vision they want for their health.
Prior to the start of the summer, I was part of a group that wrote a radical proposal to bring healing and transformation to a generation in desperate need for their voices to be heard. This call for radical healing is part of what Dr. Shawn Ginwright advocates in his book Black Youth Rising. He calls for the use of unconventional strategies that inspire youth to act towards personal restoration for their health and wellness and demands institutional change and justice for all black youths. Moreover when communities come together, when we do so with the sole objective to thrive and not merely survive, Dr Ginwright suggested that these new approaches will not only rebuild hope, but will also foster healing from years of oppressive social, economic, educational conditions. We were sold and wrote our proposal with his emancipatory vision in mind. The grant reviewers thought otherwise and didn’t even discuss our grant. To them what we proposed, that black youth may have the audacity to rise and act to resist social marginalization while confronting inequities with their health wasn’t transformational enough. We respectfully disagree. Yesterday proved we are on to something.
Though we were not successful, one thing we did not do ourselves was listen to black youth themselves beyond the articles we read and reviewed. We did so yesterday. I am forever in awe and totally grateful for the insight 6 black youth shared with us yesterday. They were open. Nothing out of the ordinary, but with their unique voices and perspectives with life often not represented in our public health field. They felt heard and seen. Felt loved too and protected. They dreamed of dreams they felt could be achieved and healing they desperately want to achieve. We listened under the guidance of Alexis, our extraordinary tour guide, as they shared parts of themselves they felt society fails to recognize exists. By the time our one hour meeting was over, I was ready to scream, shout too, with an eloquent rage. Enough is enough. Black youth, all youth need anti-racist response to their health. Not the response that is tokenism, or a space filler, or even top down and carried out by so-called experts, myself and those in my field included, but the one they control. They would do it for free too if we let them. We are prepared to do so. The details are still murky, but our vision is clear. There is a need for black youth to rise. A black youth rising movement too with health. We are ready to start the journey with them. Join us if you may. Or watch as we finally create a platform where all black youth, all youth can arise. Either way, we are prepared to ensure they arise.
He never stops spinning around. My son. He never stops. We were at music school waiting for his turn to begin his piano lessons. Rather than wait, he starts to spin around and around. With his cream-colored shirt and the label ‘full of sunshine’ across his chest, he spun around over again. The sun shines on him fully, like a ray that brightens up any dark day. He continues to spin and spin until he falls. Then slowly he got up and continued to spin. As if the fall meant nothing. As if his knees scrapped nothing too. So to is the story I want to tell. It’s full of sunshines, full of spins, full of falls, and full of rising up. When you raise four black children and work, when three are black boys and one a little black girl, when tears are your music and the floor your friend, life becomes a song that keeps spinning and spinning, sometimes our of track, sometimes with a fall, but most times with a rise. This is my story, this is my song. Welcome to a black mom in light. Welcome to light.
For trees, storms are a matter of life and death. Peter Wohlleben, the New York Times author of the book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ briefly stated why in his beautiful book. Winds blowing 60 miles an hour can uproot a tree, pummeling mature trunks to nothingness with forces equivalent to 220 tons. Trees that are unprepared fall. The pressure is enormous. Forest floors sink to nothing too within minutes. But some trees, like deciduous trees, withstand the pressure. They do so as a community, helping each individual tree swing back and forth depending on the direction of the moving winds. While some trees are straightening themselves after the first gust of wind, others may have sprung back quickly, absorbing and distributing the strong gust of wind throughout the tree. The result is that each tree gets help, depending on the way the wind blows and despite the storms. So too is death of a loved one.
Some of us are still struggling, barely a week later. I am one of them. I can’t seem to think straight these days without wishing that this is a terrible dream and waking up is just around the corner. It isn’t and the idea of never speaking again to Angie just keeps me in awe of life. Others are still asking questions, revisiting how we got here, how we didn’t know, how she never let on about the pain she was in. And she was in pain. Imagine, everything, all your vital organs giving away, and you have no single pain medication to cope with the onslaught your body must be going through. She was rather a tough woman and a fighter till the end, always saying she felt better, thus making it seem we had time. It wasn’t until she saw her mother, that I knew we were really at the end. I will never forget how she called her and called her and she never answered or how Angie cried when she finally saw her mother by her bedside. For sure, I am in the struggling camp. I am also in the camp prevention and camp advocacy now. I never really paid attention to cervical cancer until now. I am ready for the battle. Like trees, I am prepared for the storm ahead too with prevention in a country where many people still have no idea that HPV vaccines exist or that you should be checking your cervix once you turn 30 years old. We have lots of work to do. And as a community, we will bend whatever way the wind blows as a community and individually so no other woman or girl gets cervical cancer. Until then, keep swinging back and forth like trees on a windy day, to end cervical cancer.
I started with these words ‘with total submission to the will of God.’ I realized immediately that I would prefer something else. We are still struggling with this will that saying we submit, seems false to me. So then how do you write the perfect obituary, the perfect last words to sum up a life you wish never ended? I have been tasked with this duty and words fail me. I want to say much. Not the will, but the sadness, the despair, the pain, the anger, but then love and feelings of loneliness and her lasts words to me. Suffice it to say, no words will do. Nothing. All I can surmise for sure is that hearts are broken and words won’t do. How do you write the perfect obituary? You don’t. Nothing can be perfect where an obituary is concerned. Finding the right words to use to convey feelings of brokenness, feelings of my heart in shatters is enormous. Living is going to be tough till we meet again. Until then, we are going to soar up to the skies to meet you in flight, to be with you, as you soar faraway. At least now, we have our own Angel looking down on us from heaven.
Love was in the walls and headboards. It triumphed beneath the floors where feet’s stomped and jumped to the sounds of Amen and Hallelujah. It was also in the faces of everyone who came to hold on to it longer. From as far as the US and her hometown Nimo, to as near as her brother’s Festac town, everyone who knew and loved Angie made an attempt to hold and pray for a divine miracle. It was all we had. Cancer’s power had revealed itself where her body had cracked and fallen to the depths of no return with its wide reach, impacting everything in sight. So love was all we had left, was in every face that met her eyes, every questioning gaze full of whys and how, every gentle squeeze and audacious pleas.
Love was in her mother’s eyes, her tears too were full of it. She was afterall her first born child, her first experience of creation, her first love personified, her first companion amongst men, her first every thing worthy of gist. Under the turmoil of Cancer’s reign, under moments of shared bliss, even in the middle of pain and despair, love continued to lean in deeply, gleam brightly too, as it tightened it’s grip around her. Through a storm of tears, that flowed for moments of slipping away, love continued to roar, continued to fight, continued to ravage the storms, refusing to turn and flee. Wherever love went we followed. We were prepared to go the distance, to do all we could, even to delirium, so long as love reigned eternal. Cancer’s grip was strong, but love was stronger, tougher too and ready to push any boulder up or down any steep hill. We were all held in captive and could not move for love’s grip kept our soul still.
Looking back to last week, we thought we had a day for love to stare into each other’s eyes, for mother and daughter to drown wildly in love once more. We got a week. Little miracles of what the gift of time can do. The gift of being together too in love. Something my hubby and I are forever grateful we gifted this to his mother. When we got the call that her daughter was unresponsive last week. We sprung into action. I have never purchased a ticket the day you travel. Surely not one for an international flight in the middle of a pandemic with its glaring requirements for Covid testing. We got the ticket at about 7am and kept moving. Lucky mama was up. She was even dressed for the day. We told her she was heading to the hospital and asked her to wear something comfortable. She did. We were initially preparing for her to travel later that week. Just the night before we were speaking about what she would travel with. She had been preparing to visit home last year for one of her son’s wedding. But the pandemic derailed all her plans. So I had an idea what she wanted to pack. I watched as she brought them out and arranged them in piles. She was also waiting for me to bring her suitcases from our storage room. We were supposed to pack her items together. I did it alone.
While my husband took her to the hospital to get her Covid requirements, I began to pack. One suitcase was not enough. Not even two. I didn’t care as I didn’t know whether we had a day or six months. I packed everything she brought out. Then I grabbed all 4 kids and rushed to the airport. We saw mama off at the airport. She never came back to the house. She never even said goodbye to the garden she had started to grow and love dearly. This was also the first time I saw her break down and cry. She asked why the rush. I started to cry which made her cry even more. I told her to stop crying that everything would be okay. She cried some more. I prayed to God for a day with mama and Angie.
The first day was unbearable. Mama cried and cried and asked whether we knew it was this bad. I cried too saying over and over that we tried everything. I kept apologizing that we couldn’t help enough. She said then let’s pray. We started to pray fervently. God gave us an additional week. It was plenty. We are still processing this experience. Still making sense of how we got here. Still asking questions. Still crying. Still even being angry with her but we know that it is out of our hands now. No mother should go through this. The only consolation we have is that they spent a week together. A day or even a week together with those you love is a lifetime. Treasure every moment together. That’s the keep I’m keeping. Being together. With love, we are granted this grace.
At the heart of our mystery as women is creativity. We literally give birth to new beings, new life. We finds ways to birth other things too, like writing for me lately or jewelry making, a reoccurring hobby of mine. To be able to make something, is to live life to the fullest, to live it also open, to new ways, new ideas, even new experiences. I have been learning to embrace each new cycle, every twist and turn, life throws my way, with words that are flowing faster than I even share on the blog. The ask for myself has always been at least one keep a day. I did so to keep myself in check. Writing more than one comes easy these days, though I still stick to the one keep a day principle.
Which brings me back to this idea of creativity. I am loving this process of using words to get through the most difficult experience I have experienced this year. I know and expect death. We all have to leave one day. The prayer I ask is that we leave surrounded by love, supported by love, secured in love. It’s the gift of a lifetime to see love manifested in this way. To feel it, even embrace it is truly magnificent. The purest forms of it, I am learning isn’t when you exchange vows in public. It isn’t when we have big celebrations or dance until our feet are weary. The purest form of love I am learning are during the birth of a child and during the experience of death. I have gone through birth 4 times to know that each process of bringing forth new life, is unapologetically profound and full of joy. Though we scream and shout and push, the gift of a baby in one’s arms evokes feelings that words cannot fully capture. I cry all the time. The tears keep flowing as I watch in awe of our gift of creation. It’s a gift I will forever treasure as long as I live. A gift that I remain grateful to have experienced 4 times.
Then there is the other extreme of life. The experience of death. I have also been here before with distinct experiences that ushered tears in my eyes. I remember my first experience with death. It was my grandma and I was 13 years old. The week prior to her death was eerily similar to my sister in law’s death. She too was surrounded by love, supported by loved and secured in love. We watched her as she slipped in and out of consciousness the Sunday before her death. We poured water on her face and she came back to herself. It happened so fast that she asked why were we crying and why was she all wet, oblivious to what she just put us through. For the rest of the week, it was as if she was in a celebratory mood. I remember receiving money from her that Tuesday evening following the Sunday incident, stating that I should purchase drinks for everyone in the house. Her request was strange as we had no cause for celebration. But I obliged and got the drinks for everyone. She kept insisting that we should be happy and celebrate life always. I nodded my teenage head and went on my way.
By Friday morning, around 7 am or so, she began to slip out of consciousness again. She was wearing a light blue flowery night dress with white buttons from the top to the bottom. The radio was playing ‘I surrender all.’ I remember this distinctively as I was in the room. She was waving her hands in the air as if she was praying. It was the last song she listened too. A befitting one, seeing as though she was slipping away from this world to the next. I pray to surrender, and freely give all to him when my time arrives. They rushed her to the hospital. I stayed behind expecting things to get better. I even shamefully picked up her Naira laying on her bed and got some butterscotch for myself as I waited. By the time, they returned from the hospital, the blue night dress was all they came home with. Mama has died was all I heard. I knew at that moment what death meant. There were no preparations, no warning, just tears that kept flowing. The presence of her absence was so unbearable.
I still see her bed, all the pictures of her children and grand children on the wall. I still see her staring at the window or from the balcony whenever anyone came to our house. It’s been close to 25 years since her death. This November 8th, would make it 25. Yet, I remember this day as if it was today. Death has the power to let memories of those you love and lost linger for years to come. It’s creative power is unmatched as it has the final word on how the story ends, how the music lasts or how the picture of our lives are illustrated. I am learning that once more now that I find myself surrounded by it again. To witness it’s last stroke is to witness the creativity inherent in all of us. We all come into this world with unmatched creativity that continues to baffle humanity. When our time is up, we will leave as well with this same creativity that no expert can vividly illustrate. Yet we cannot mourn or live as people with no hope, rather their is a gift even as we try to cope. No father or mother would gift the life they created stone when they ask for things. But rather, they would gift us all we ask. In times of despair, his plans are always good.
I am leaning on these words knowing that the ultimate creator would not give me more than I cannot handle even as I create or make sense of this experiences with words that flow these days with ease. This is the second of 2 essays I wrote just this morning alone. It’s the ultimate consolation. To still be able to create even in the middle of a loss so painful. I choose to keep this one because creativity is the ultimate gift. Keep it for yourself always.
The end of life always comes with a unique aesthetic stamp. It’s almost always alien to the natural parts of living. Almost always strange to experience this presence of a finite absence. To mourn this sense of loss for someone I loved dearly. To even expect this end giving the outcome is so debilitating. Woven into our being is this absence we will never be able to erase. This voice, we will never hear. Even though I can still hear her. It’s like the end of a music note, that lingers long after the song ends. It just lingers in the air, playing away on its own, refusing to end, though the sound itself has died down, as though the note was talking and sounding itself to oblivion. Such is the experience of living so close to death. Like a drum that pulse, I wish the beat never ends. So too were the last 2 weeks of Angie’s life. I wish the end never came.
We tried desperately to not prepare for this moment, for this absence. We finally received news of her cancer staging 2 Friday’s ago. We have been unsure since the first staging was a 2B from a small hospital, yet a massive lump obstructed her stomach. All of this too was happening in a country where common oxygen or even blood is a scare commodity. Listening to how her brothers went to buy blood for her always made me angry. Health should never come at a cost. But in a country where even the President is a medical tourist in another country, even blood is precious commodity.
So we sought another opinion. This time from a teaching hospital. They really tried all their best for her. Staged her at 3B as the cancer has spread to her pelvis. They didn’t have a CT scan and so again we were unsure of their staging. This was back in June. We knew this was a complex case back then as nothing made sense with how she was rapidly deteriorating from the moment we understood what was going on. We found out in May. To think she spent the last years of her life battling this cancer without saying a word is one of my greatest anger with her. I really wish I had time to even let her know how I felt. The sense of betrayal of our friendship, even our love. I thought we shared everything to each other. Both the good and bad. Even some of the most difficult issues I have ever encountered in my home was reserved for her ears only. She was my comfort, my blessed assurance, my grace, my counselor, my everything, that allowed my soul to sing. To think I won’t have her listening ears anymore just makes me so angry and numb. I want to believe that we could have prevented all of this if only she shared her own deepest fears in the way I did my own with her.
But then again this is Angie at her best. She was everything to everyone. Always took the time to put others and their needs before her own. Never wanted anything. As in nothing. She always wondered why I always gave her gifts as the last one she had was already more than enough. It’s the same way I feel about her gifts as well. We had this same spirit of gifting each other things and then complaining about why we gifted each other gifts. I loved her for it. I know she did as well.
By the time we finally got a brand new hospital in Lagos to do a proper staging, she was at a 4B. The cancer was everywhere. I was numb and cried my heart out. This was also the last weekend we spoke to her before she started to slip in and out of consciousness. The end of mama 90 day prayer fest where she left everything to God. Everything we did, seemed to lead to nowhere that the only thing left was to surround her with love, especially the love and bond between herself and her mother. Mama said Angie cried when she finally saw her for the first time. The tears make more sense now looking back. No daughter should leave her mother behind. Even in death, Angie was still putting others and their needs before her. I wake up crying, then calling mama and telling her not to cry, just for me to start crying and for her to then start telling me not to cry. It’s acycle that I would give anything to end if only it meant we would get Angie back. I desperately want this absence to linger on forever still. Like a drum beat that pulse, I pray it never ends.
One of the earliest gifts I received from my sister-in law was a purple scarf with a light pink intricate embroidery. I caught sight of it this morning while looking for clothes from an old pile for my baby. It glistened in the clear plastic bag full of clothes we dry cleaned following our water accident in the spring. I picked it up and thanked her for this gift. She always knew ways to make me feel special. Our shared experience will forever be a knowing so deep. Everytime I see the scarf, I will forever see her smiling as she called me by the name she gave to me, Osodieme.
To be named again, this time in my marital home is a precious treasure, a special gift that I am only now fully embracing. She knew how to use words to draw out of what is there in my life. Things I never really knew I had or was capable of possessing. Things I didn’t even expect to serve as a guide, to lead and help me as I lived side to side by her brother. Osodieme. It means, one who works alongside her hubby. I always found it strange as I am my own person. I don’t need my husband to tell me what to do. Our relationship was never built that way. Professionally for example, I still bare my maiden name, a taboo in most Igbo households, yet a function of the understanding I have with him. So I never really gravitated to the name, never really accepted it’s significance and only smiled when she used it, though never really thanked her for naming me this way. I am finally coming to terms with the name. Being in this strange place with her has a way of making me want to cling to everything I did with her, including the name she gave to me. It’s a special gift, this extraordinary perception, this profound intimacy I find in this name. One that I long for now to hear her say one more time.
We woke up this morning to the news of her death. It’s truly a knowing so deep when it arrives at your doorstep. To see it close a chapter. To feel the loss. To know the end has finally arrived is just as tough as it is painful. Tears kept flowing. I cried because I wanted to hear her say Osodieme one more time in that voice of hers. I cried because I wanted her to say that I didn’t have to get that thing or do yet another thing in the way my husband does. I cried because I wanted to listen to the joy she reserved for me. Our knowing was so deep. I truly took it all for granted. I cried because I wanted to let her know one more time that yes, I am what she says I am. Osodieme. It’s a name that I intend to live out the rest of my life, knowing you used it to pull this out of me. This thing that I am only now fully making sense of about humanity. Osodieme, is a name I will listen out now for you, the gentleness of your voice, your whisper as gentle as a breeze. The last thing you said was thank you as we prayed for you. The last time we spoke, all the children told you to get better and you said thank you. You asked after all of them and they spoke to you one by one. It was also the day mama said she had handed everything to God. I didn’t know what she meant, but knew how bad the cancer has spread, I knew this was then Gods plan. So we spoke words of encouragement to you. Even made you a bird-like card to wish you well. And God had this still in his plans. That you will soar to the skies and sit right next to him, even though we stay behind to imagine what next to do.
I wish we had more time. I wish I could hear you one more time. We need collective strength to get through this time in our lives. If we achieve it, it means you are forever our angel, our Angie as your name implies. We are already united. You had a way of making us all come together. This moment is holy. You left surrounded by love. You left surrounded by everyone who hold you dear. Osodieme is what you would want that I hold on to. And like the purple scarf you gifted to me in the beginning, I intend to do so till we meet again. God be with you. Rest In Peace Angie.
He spoke bluntly. Not because he didn’t want to spend a lifetime with his sister. But so we can all start preparing for the inevitable. It’s the last thing we want. We have been clinging to hope for too long but the prognosis won’t change, he said. It’s metastatic cancer after all. If we have a day, a week, a month, we are lucky. Every single minute with her is all we want. Yet to be unresponsive once more is heartbreaking, almost like a fresh cut every time especially for her mother. It doesn’t mean things are getting better or they ever will. It just means we need to accept the end. Though it’s the last thing we want. I listened, knowing he was being objective, but still clinging to hope. It’s the only thing we have. If she was here with us, he would send her over to hospice. It’s the last thing we truly want. Though he can’t talk about it with those that love her, including her mother, he knows that it’s the only way. Losing hope too is the last thing we need. The end is near. We know. But we will keep fighting. It is a fight after all. And doing so together is all we have.