I have lost many things in my life. My response to grief, as for most people, tends to mirror the severity of the loss, but what happened that fateful day last year cracked the very core of my soul. And it happened on one of the happiest days of my life, too.

I had just returned from classes that day. School was as gruelling as it was necessary, up until the moment I received a text message congratulating me on the award of a yearly 250k scholarship I had applied for and all but given up on after months of radio silence. How did it feel? I felt like I was being tickled to death!

Happy as a clam, I rushed home with the music in my headphones at full blast. Maami hated when I did this but I had reason to celebrate, and what’s a celebration without a little bit of naughtiness? In the spirit of making myself happy, and thanks to the exhaustion of practically running a mile to get here, I also grabbed and drank a bottle of water straight from the fridge, -another thing Maami hated- the icy chill of H20 tumbling down the cliff of my throat, sending a welcome thrill down my spine.

I would compensate by giving her a long hug while she squirmed and protested in my arms, especially now that the aroma of my favourite food- Amala ati Abula -tickled my nostrils. The praises of Maami’s culinary skills hung comfortably in the atmosphere. My stomach could tell that the day was going to end as smoothly as it had started.

Mo ti de o,” I called out, wondering where she’d wandered off to this time. She must have gone to Iya Bisi’s place again, I thought, as she occasionally did when there was neighbourhood gist to be heard. Ah, Iya Bisi and gist! They were like five and six. She had a peculiar skill for sucking you into a story and sometimes Maami couldn’t resist. I didn’t fault her, after all, who no like gist?

Still, I sauntered into Maami’s room, just in case she was in and sleeping perhaps, but was greeted with the overwhelming and familiar odour of decay at the door. Gagging with disgust, I made a mental note to finally root out the dead rat in the room today, even if I had to turn the room upside down.

I found Maami lying on her side on the big foam, asleep. I would have shaken her awake to share the good news, but the call of the abula was becoming overwhelming and I wasn’t one to deny my stomach. So instead I hurried to the bathroom. There was a rule in my house: I could not come from outside and enter the kitchen unless I had had a bath. All my years as a child that had always been tradition; hence, even now that she was asleep and would be none the wiser if I simply satisfied my cravings, I trotted happily towards the bathroom.

Hurriedly, I stripped off my uniform and headphones and allowed the coolness of the water pouring on my head from the bailer win the war over the heat rising from my skin. I felt my muscles loosen and my mind clear. Lonely streams of water rolled down my head and back as I lazily dried off with my pale yellow towel, threw on a purple Lakers T-shirt, slipped into a pair of yellow shorts and headed straight to the kitchen.

Maami was still asleep. She must be really tired, I thought. Maami hated being woken from her communion with sleep, she always complained whenever I woke her up that I could have spoilt a potential life-changing dream about winning the lottery.
Yes, Maami dreamt of money every time she closed her eyes… it was all she thought about. She was hellbent on giving me the best education she could afford and swore she wouldn’t allow me to suffer like she had without a complete education especially after my father died and life threw us a heavy punch. At least now she wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore. How much was my school fees that a quarter million couldn’t cover several times over? There would be money to spare and finally, she would be able to quit her second job at the primary school where she cleaned every day!

Perhaps it was the excitement, perhaps it was the fact that it was my favourite food. Either way, I portioned my meal like one who had not seen food for days. I dished out my giant amala from the cooler and my abula, eja kika and tinu eran from the pots. With the quality of the meal it almost seemed as though Maami had anticipated today’s victory. Typical Maami, always on point.

Armed with my food, I marched to the parlour and lowered myself and my prize onto the cold, bare floor.

“Omooo!” I muttered as I sat beside my soon-to-be-devoured prey. Honestly, the way my stomach grumbled loudly in anticipation was enough to inspire a diss track mocking Western food. Nothing else was quite like hot amala. I reflexively whispered a short prayer and launched into moulding the swallow in my hands and soaking it in my soup.

I was so carried away by the food that I didn’t even look towards Maami’s room. My gaze was fully occupied by the dark brown mountain, the green and yellow lakes surrounding it and my favourite Manga that I was happily reading on my small, mobile companion.

By the time I had finished eating and washing my hands, Maami was still sleeping. I wondered for how long. I checked her room; she had neither turned nor so much as made a sound. She usually snored when she was this tired.

“Maami,” I said tapping her shoulder, “Wake up, I have good news.” Too bad for the lottery. She would win next time. Only she didn’t budge. Not even a grunt. “Maami, wake up nauuu.”

Failing to get a response, I finally resorted to shaking her. Her wrapper fell off and panic washed over me. Her breasts were…they were engorged, as if about to burst like a short Lagos Danfo conductor’s temper. There was a wide and shallow wound over the right one that was oozing a foul-smelling liquid. That rotting smell…so this was its source?

My eyes darted towards the corner of her mattress where a bottle of white pills lay half emptied of its contents. The label read: morphine sulfate; only use as prescribed by a physician.

Fear held me like I belonged to it until every hair on my body was standing on end.

Maami had been complaining of chest pain for the past month and she had been losing weight rapidly, but she had gone to see the doctor and had gotten medicine right? What was this? What was going on?

With trembling hands, I touched my fingers to her wrist where her pulse should have been. It was still.

It took my brain several moments to catch up with what my senses were telling me until a deafening scream filled the room. It was only when my vocal cords began to ache that I realized it was from me.

Our neighbours rushed in and found her on the bed, and me on the floor, paralyzed. They carried her limp body inside our landlord’s car to the hospital and managed to unpry me from the ground and make my rigid muscles move.

When we arrived, the doctor said only three words that shattered whatever was left of my hope. Brought in dead. He said other words too that didn’t make sense, like overdose and advanced metastatic breast cancer and six months ago and if only she’d come sooner.

I struggled to compute what he was saying when he placed a gentle hand on my shoulder, talking directly to me. “This disease is hereditary. You should undergo screening for breast cancer before you leave, to prevent this from happening again. I’m really sorry for your loss but early detection is key.”

Grief had carried me beyond this world. I was sinking away into a realm I didn’t previously know existed, a place I wouldn’t wish my worst enemies to visit, a place beyond consolation, beyond help, beyond hope. Too far gone to feel anything but a crippling despair, I nodded and let the doctor lead the way.

Okei Faith

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